It is a truth universally accepted that teachers -- most, if not all -- commit to the classroom because they love what they do. But shouldn't they be paid well, too, and prized for their contributions to society? That's the question posed by American Teacher, an absorbing, insightful and ultimately depressing documentary that joins the national fray over teacher compensation and turnover. Produced by writer Dave Eggers and advocate Ninive Calegari, both of whom co-founded the nonprofit literacy foundation, 826 Valencia, and narrated by Matt Damon, whose mother is an educator, the film unveils a sobering landscape of once-hopeful teachers fatigued and, in a few occasions, driven from the profession by long hours, lack of respect and limited pay.
There's Erik Benner, a Texas history teacher and coach who has to work another job at a big-box store to pay his bills, even if it means he barely sees his wife and imperils their marriage; Jonathan Dearman, who decides to join his family's real estate business even if teaching is what truly fulfills him; Brooklynite Jamie Fidler, who's juggling many roles, too, the biggest of which is new motherhood; and Rhena Jansey, a Harvard University graduate who faces skepticism about her chosen vocation from former classmates who've picked more lucrative, high-profile jobs. Seeing them grapple with the challenges of their profession grounds the public policy issue in affecting, visual reality. Their profiles are juxtaposed against sobering statistics and research, among them, this shocking reality: There are 3.2 million public school teachers in the United States; 1.8 million of them will soon retire, and there aren't many candidates yearning to take their place. And the ones we have now -- like the four profiled here -- are barely hanging on.
All great fodder for sparking questions, but the documentary doesn't offer many answers. Perhaps this speaks to the problem the film's trying to explore than its actual cinematic structure, but a little bit more information would've helped. One of the teachers is hired to work at New York City school experimenting with a model that allows it to pay low-six-figure salaries, but the approach is inexplicably left unclarified. (How was the budget structured? What other departments saw their allocations cut? If it were this easy, it would've been implemented already, no?) And what role do the unions play in all of this? If the best we can do for our kids is to make sure they have great teachers, what to do about the ones who aren't? Despite these quibbles, American Teacher succeeds in doing what precisely a top-notch educator is supposed to do: making us think.
For more information, visit The Teacher Salary Project, which includes additional resources, including a list of schools implementing various teacher salary reforms.
Editor's note: Nínive Clements Calegari is a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Council.