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American Teacher is an earnest argument for the value of teachers and the need to pay them more. It a conscious reaction to the recent anti-teacher rhetoric that rose to fever pitch in 2011 in politics, and it will be directly compared with Waiting for Superman, which was critical of the teaching profession. It follows three teachers in their day to day life, and also interviews a wide variety of experts and former teachers. We see how hard they work, with long demanding days. There is a Texas teacher Erik Benner who is a coach, but he is having to give up his extracurricular work coaching so that he can spend more time at his second job so that he can afford to look after his family. We see statistics about how men are being pushed out of the teaching profession because it does not pay enough, and so increasingly women work as teachers, supplementing the income of their husbands. The other two teachers shown are women, one, Jamie Fidler, who is pregnant, and later gives birth. Apparently, after the birth, her husband stayed home and looks after the baby, but at the end of the film we learn she is taking a year of unpaid leave to do the baby care. The other, Rhena Jasey, graduated from Harvard and then amazed her friends by declaring she was going into teaching rather than going into a higher prestige, better paid career. The main point of the documentary is that teachers serve a crucial role in our society, and that we should value teachers more. If they got paid more, then there would be more competition among college graduates to become teachers.
A central challenge the film faces is to argue both that teachers are doing an excellent job and that they would do better if the profession was more competitive. The data show that the USA is doing a mediocre job at best in educating students, according to international league tables of student performance. Is that because not enough money is going into education? Maybe so, but it is a hard case to make since the USA is among the top spenders per student in K-12 education. This money is not getting to the teachers, at the same rates, however, raising the question where the money is going. It is hard not to come to the conclusion after watching education politics for years that much of the problem is with wasteful bureaucracy and expensive programs mandated by law.
What this movie does well is dispel the myth that all teachers are lazy good-for-nothings who have an easy life. It uses both emotional footage of harried teachers, upsetting stories of teachers who loved their jobs but could not afford to stay in the profession, and hard data to show that teachers work hard, or at least, that the excellent ones do. What the movie does not address is what proportion of teachers are excellent, and where does the tax-payer money go if it does not go to the teachers. But the documentary does not address these more complicated issues. While not a distortion, it presents a simpler more focused case. Unfortunately, without going into the bigger picture, it leaves questions unanswered. Watching it, one soon feels that the message is clear and they could have cut down on the length of the film and left more clips on the DVD extras. The extras on the DVD as they are give a bit more detail with interviews, but not much more significant information.
So this movie is a good antidote to the terrible anti-teacher tirades that permeate certain parts of the media and the news, but it does not give us a very rounded picture of the whole situation.
Link: American Teacher website
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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