We've all heard the harsh criticism leveled against American teachers: They work only part of the year. Many of them are incompetent but there is no way of getting rid of them thanks to their unions. They are lazy and inefficient and must be judged as failures given the low test scores of American children compared to students from other countries. For all of these reasons, critics argue that teachers should not be paid more.
American Teacher offers convincing arguments against these pernicious myths. This documentary is directed by Vanessa Roth and is based on Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers by Dave Eggers, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Daniel Moulthrop. Roth skillfully weaves important research figures into the compelling stories of teachers who have suffered on account of the personal and financial sacrifices they have made in order to follow their passion of interacting with children in a classroom.
The film focuses on four dedicated teachers in urban and rural areas of the country and amplifies their importance with commentary from their students, colleagues, and families. Studies prove that a great teacher can impart a year and a half's worth of learning to a student in one year.
Jamie is an elementary teacher in New York whose skills and dedication are noteworthy. Like 92.4 percent of teachers, she has spent some of her own money on students and the classroom. Jamie's career is humming along until she gets pregnant, gives birth, and then struggles with the additional demands on her time.
Jonathan Dearman was a popular teacher with his students at a charter school in San Francisco but had to leave the profession because he couldn't support his family on his pay. Statistics show that 14 percent of teachers leave the profession each year and this large turnover costs the country over $7 billion every year.
Erik, a history teacher in Texas, also coaches three sports teams at his school. Unable to support his family on his meager salary, he is forced to take a night job selling stereos just to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Statistics are presented which show that teachers make 14 percent less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education. And there are more and more teachers like Erik: 62 percent of teachers have second jobs outside of the classroom.
The one bright story revolves around Rhena, a Harvard graduate, who after several years of teaching and being commended for her fine work, takes an offer to teach at the Equity Project Charter School where she will be paid a salary of $125,000.
Pay teachers more is the loud and clear message of this documentary. We are willing to pay a fortune for wars overseas but during the same period of time have been unwilling to give teachers the money they need to flourish in the classroom. What is more important to the future of the country?