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I went and saw the documentary, American Teacher, on Friday night. The movie profiles several teachers across the country in their quest to survive in their chosen career. Every teacher faces the challenges of long hours, minimal supplies, low pay and building stress. How they each responded is what makes the story.
Jonathan Dearman is an African-American teacher from a school in San Francisco, California. His former students and principal praise his abilities to connect. The birth of his daughter and the rising cost of supporting his expanded family push him out of teaching and into the family real estate business.
Eric Benner, is a social studies teacher and athletic director for a middle school in Keller, Texas. He took on a second job to support his family and pay the mortgage for his $135,000 house. The time away from home put a strain on his marriage and he divorced in 2008. He continues to stay in teaching and work an additional job.
Rhena Jasey is a Harvard and Columbia University educated teacher who is questioned by friends when she decides to 'waste' her smarts by making a career in teaching. She lives at home for two years to pay her loans and live on a $40,000 salary in New Jersey. After several years she leaves her community school to make $125,000 as a teacher at the Equity Project Charter School in the Washington Heights section of New York City.
Although the prolific narration of Matt Damon quickly told us the top reasons why teachers leave the profession, the documentary focuses in on pay. It spends time on the Equity Project concept and the large number of teacher applicants the school has received in its young existence. As a viewer, I come to believe that if only teachers were paid more then we would have more graduates wanting to be teachers and more teachers staying in the profession.
After the film was over to our surprise, the producer and three of the teachers profiled walked to the front of the room. The movie theater gave us 15 minutes to ask questions.
My friend asked the first question. She wanted to know from Rhena, if the fact that she is now making $125,000 will make her stay in teaching. Rhena honestly replied that she currently does a lot more for her salary. She has been the testing coordinator, done lunch and bus duty and this is all beyond her regular 7am-4pm work day. The extra pay is great (she can now order take-out) but it comes with added responsibility and accountability.
So did the movie miss its purpose?
Vanessa Ross, the producer and director of the film explained to the crowded movie theater that she hopes the movie spurs a dialogue about the need to raise the status of teachers in the United States. She hopes that college graduates will seek teaching as a career because the job is as professional and well-paid as the job of a lawyer or doctor.
American Teacher has fallen into the trap of the silver bullet. Just as Waiting for Superman zeroed in on charter schools as the answer, this documentary says higher salaries is the answer...it's not that simple.
Towards the end of the film, you hear from a series of teachers about why they left the profession. It made me think of why I left the profession. I loved my students and the work within the classroom but it was what was happening outside that frustrated me. In the absence of an active principal, my colleagues and I did after-school, student programming, hiring of staff and the list continues. I felt like since I was doing the work of an administrator, I might as well be one. At the time I was single so my salary wasn't the issue. The additional monies from the out-of-classroom work was sufficient. It was the desire for more voice and autonomy that pushed me out.
I thank Vanessa Roth for giving teachers a voice in this highly politicized education reform debate but don't simplify the American Teacher. We are much more complex.
This post is part of the Those Who Can series.