Teachers can’t get no respect. This film tries to rectify that, just a little.
Dir. Vanessa Roth, 2011, 82 min
Teaching is the most noble, important profession in the world. I really believe that. And many others pay lip service to that idea, but the fact is that our society just doesn’t back it up. Funding hemorrhages from our public schools, because making sure every child gets an education is socialism or something. Teachers do not get the esteem they deserve in our culture, not by a long shot.
The express goal of American Teacher is to counteract voices like those of Fox News, who propagate the idea that teachers have it easy. It’s a love letter to teachers and teaching, focused around the experiences of four teachers from various parts of the country. Their stories illustrate with personal detail the problems many public school instructors face today, most of which have to do with abysmal pay. One works multiple jobs to pay the rent. Another has to buy her own supplies. Another isn’t actually a teacher anymore, having burned out after five years and gone on to a much more lucrative field: real estate.
The average realtor gets paid more than the average teacher. There’s something very wrong about that. While most of the film runs on emotion, occasionally it pulls out a few sobering statistics, like in examining how America treats its teachers in comparison with the countries that outperform us academically. In short, there’s a proven correlation between a teacher’s and how much a student learns, and between the respect and pay afforded to a teacher and their performance.
This is a very pleasant little film. It’s full of nice, well-observed moments that get across all the little joys and frustrations alike that come with being an educator. The filmmakers struck a rarity by finding four main subjects who are not just diverse but equally interesting. At its best, this film will make you reminisce about the teachers who have had the greatest impact on you throughout your life. In its mission to act as cheerleader for the American teacher, the doc completely succeeds.
In other areas, though, it stumbles. The movie was produced by The Teacher Salary Project, a nonprofit organization seeking to, as you might guess, increase teacher salaries across the board. The film’s emotional content is strong enough on its own, and it really doesn’t need to play so hard with the advocacy angle. In some ways, stopping to lecture about pay scales can make the movie feel less genuine. I didn’t mind it much, because I’m fully on the doc’s side. In fact, I’ll cop that I enjoyed this much more than many others might. Much like These Amazing Shadows stoked my love of cinema, this film appeals to my deep admiration for teachers.
That was enough for me to really enjoy American Teacher. In many ways, it feels like a “response” to Waiting for “Superman” which made some good inroads about education in America but placed a bizarre amount of blame for our institutional problems on the teachers themselves. This movie is far less overtly political, and is an admittedly light and breezy affair. There’s still a great film waiting to be made about everything good and bad in the American educational system. This isn’t that film, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s something much more quiet and sweet, and I appreciated it for that.