Arts & Events

American Teacher Has a Lesson: Superman Is a Myth; Teachers Are the Real Heroes

Review by Gar Smith
Tuesday October 04, 2011 - 10:30:00 PM

The film opens October 7 at San Francisco's Roxie Theater

Last year, filmmaker David Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman created a mega-buzz by pushing the idea that the problem with US education was: lazy, overpaid, unionized, tenure-protected teachers. Guggenheim's solution: "privatizing" education by promoting charter schools (which, in many cases, were publicly supported).

Well, hold onto your cape, corporate crusaders, because a new documentary is set to hit the screen like a load of kryptonite and is guaranteed to blow holes in that argument. American Teacher, a documentary directed by Academy Award-winner Vanessa Roth and narrated by Oscar-winner Matt Damon, puts the superhero cape where it belongs — on the shoulders of the country's dedicated and self-sacrificing teachers.

Instead of looking at the problem through the eyes of desperate parents, anxious children or an über-administrator like Michelle Rhee, American Teacher offers the missing perspective — education as it's seen and lived by the women and men who dedicate their lives to the classroom. 

We've all seen the stats. Among the world's industrialized countries, the US now ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Bill Gates spent millions to figure out the best way improve America's educational system. It turns out the answer wasn't to be found in charter schools, test standards, class size, curricula or technology. As Gates admits in the film, "The more we looked at it, the more we realized that having good teachers was the key thing." 

It should be a no-brainer. "Without good teachers, we don't have a democracy," US Education Secretary Arne Duncan tells the filmmakers. And Barack Obama has made it equally clear that "the single most important ingredient inside the classroom is the quality of the teacher." Still, fusillades of anti-teacher vitriol continues to vent from the opinionaires at Fox News where teachers are routinely scapegoated as overpaid public servants who "seem like they are just serving themselves." 

In ten years, more than half of the country's 3.2 million public school teachers will be retiring. That is, if they can last that long. The fact is that today's teachers are quitting the profession in droves and college grads are no longer considering teaching as a profession. 

American Teacher was co-produced by local author Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari (both of San Francisco's 826 Valencia project). Eggers' mom was a teacher and Calegari is a former SF teacher with a master's degree in education from Harvard. Both teamed with Daniel Moulthrop to write the 2003 New York Times best-seller, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers

In typical doc fashion, the film makes its argument by focusing on the lives of a few iconic individuals. There's Jaime Fidler, a first-grade teacher in New York who heads to school at 7AM and gets home at 6:30PM. In her first year of teaching, Jamie spent more than $3,000 out of her own pocket for classroom supplies. "No pencils, crayons, nothing." She came back from her first day in tears, wondering whether she really wanted to continue. Fidler's case is the norm: More than 90% of US teachers have to spend their own money on classroom supplies. 

Even with 40 chairs in her classroom, Amanda Lueck, a 27-year-old Colorado middle school English teacher, has to seat some of her students on countertops along the windows. There's always too much to do, Lueck sighs. "Maybe if I had three of me, I might be able to get it done." Lueck's candid video diaries powerfully capture the stress of working long hours with little to no support. 

Most of his students know that Erik Benner, a Texas middle-school history teacher, grew up poor in a trailer. Benner's success provides inspiration to many of his students who are living in trailer homes today. "He pushes you really hard," one student says, "but he's also like your friend, too." 

Rhena Jasey, a New Jersey elementary school teacher, recalls how her friends were flabbergasted to hear she wanted to work in the classroom. "Why do you want to teach?" they asked. "You went to Harvard! You should be a doctor or a lawyer. You should make money." 

At San Francisco's Leadership High School, Jonathan Dearman explains his devotion to teaching. He loves challenging his students to rise to meet expectations. His reward is seeing that miracle happen when his students discover that they are capable of more than they would have believed. Dearman is African-American in a school system where 35% of all students are either African-American or Latino but only 15% of the teachers are members of a racial minority. 

Marguerite Izzo, New York State's 2007 Teacher of the Year, disputes the notion that "teachers work short hours and only part of the year." The truth is, the hours are long and the role requires not only a love for teaching, but the ability to make "thousands of decisions each day, tailored to the individual needs of hundreds of students with differing needs. It's an extremely difficult environment." 

On average, a teacher spends 50 hours at school and a minimum of 15 hours a week at home grading papers, preparing tests and lesson plans. Many US teachers routinely work more than 65 hours a week. 

Today's poor teaching salaries are due, in part, to institutionalize sexism. In the early 20th century, the film explains, women were recruited as teachers "in part, to reduce salary levels." Thousands of talented women (who were smart enough to be lawyers, engineers or astrophysicists) could only find work as secretaries, nurses or teachers. As women began to gain access to other professions in the 1980s, teaching became less attractive and some of the best and the brightest went off to pursue careers in professions that offered better salaries. 

For most of the film, these teachers come across as committed heroes, dedicated and preserving. But before the film ends, there will be bodies on the battlefield, some broken and bleeding. 

When Benner's $27,000 school salary is no longer enough to support his growing family, he has to take a second job driving a forklift in the evenings to pay his bills. With no time off to spend with his wife and two daughters, his marriage suffers. 

Nearly a third of US teachers are forced to work second jobs to pay their bills. If you add coaches, advisors and tutors, two-thirds of the teaching population are holding down second jobs. 

So it's not surprising that US teachers suffer from the greatest burn-out rate of any US profession — 20% quit every year and 46% of US teachers quit within five years, citing long hours, low salary, lack of support and lack of prestige. This attrition is estimated to cost the country more than $7 billion annually. 

In San Francisco, Dearman is forced to give up his "teaching habit" to earn a living in real estate. It is an especially sad moment, having seen earlier footage of Dearman surrounded by his laughing, adoring students. As one student tells the filmmakers: "He was a pillar and you always assume that pillar is going to be there." And then, one day, when a teacher has to leave a classroom that she or he loves to work in a Target store, drive a forklift, become a waitress or sell real estate, "it's traumatic." Kids are left crying in the hallways: "Mr. Dearman is leaving!" And what kind of lesson does that leave behind for the abandoned students? 

The film includes wrenching interviews with a half-dozen award-winning teachers who were forced to quit teaching to find financial security in other professions. They give different reasons — "I burned out," "I couldn't take it," "It was the lack of respect," "The financial realities of the situation" — but they all repeat the same common regret: "I think about going back every single day." 

This shouldn't happen. Our country should not force teachers to live in poverty. Teaching is one of society's most important jobs and teachers should be supported, honored and paid accordingly. While salaries for doctors and lawyers has nearly tripled over the past 20 years, the average teacher's salary has only risen by about one-third (and that's not adjusting for inflation). Because the profession fails to offer comparable rewards, it has become increasingly difficult for America's teachers to pay their bills. 

Rhena Jasey is lucky. She is one of eight applicants (out of a field of 600) selected to teach at a new charter school run by The Equity Project. TEP offers a starting salary of $120,000 (financed by public funds). The benefits of a professional-level salary benefit the schools as well. In Greensboro, North Carolina, increased salaries were accompanied by a decline in attrition rates from 20% to 14%; at the same time, student gradation rates improved nearly 12%. In Denver, Colorado, after teachers' salaries were increased, drop-outs subsequently plummeted 42%. 

The film places the US in an uncomfortable context by comparing America's schools with the world's top three leaders in educational performance — Finland, Singapore and South Korea. Unlike the US, all three actively recruit top college students; all three pay for teacher training (in the US would-be teachers pay for their own training, incurring debt to do so); all three pay teachers top professional salaries (at least 2.5 times greater than US salaries); all three treat teachers with respect (and do not require them to purchase pencils and paper out of their own pockets). There is no burn-out and almost no teacher attrition in Finland, Singapore or South Korea 

Meanwhile, back in the US, Erik Benner, after 15 years as an award-winning teacher and football coach, still has to drive a forklift every night after he leaves his day job. 

In the press packet, Nínive Calegari reflects on her own experience as a teacher and she sums it up nicely: "Teaching wasn't ever just a job for me: it was a way of life and it shaped the way I still think about the magnificence and fragility of our democracy, an honest day's work, creating community, and being responsible for other people." 

If you have friends who were swayed by Waiting for Superman, invite them along to a screening of American Teacher. And don't be surprised if Occupy Wall Street demonstrations start popping up on America's schoolyards.