American Teacher: Pay Teachers More

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American Teacher is a documentary that chronicles the trials and tribulations of different teachers in different schools in America. The documentary covers topics such as race and teaching, gender and teaching, teaching wages and teacher turnover. I think that the filmmakers wished to show that teaching in American elementary and middle schools is much harder than some policy makers and journalists give them credit for. The emphasis of the documentary’s focus on the long hours of teaching really shows the filmmaker’s stance on the importance of dedicated teachers. The documentary urges that teachers need to receive higher salaries in order to keep good, hardworking teachers in schools and not in other jobs.

This film tackles the problems associated with school budgeting.  In the early portion of the film we are shown a young New York teacher Jamie Fidler. She describes her normal day which lasts for over 10 hours. She is a pregnant woman who is still working in the schools during her pregnancy. Jamie recalls her first year of teaching and some of the poor conditions, “I had no idea how much I was going to have to spend of my own pocket because I really didn’t get anything” (5:57). The lack of good budgeting becomes a focal point of the movie. The film follows this quote with a still shot that says “In her first year of teaching, Jamie spent over $3,000 on essential supplies for her classroom” (6:07). If teachers are expected to do such a great amount of work on such little salaries than they shouldn’t be expected to pay for the necessary tools to educate.

The documentary continues and shifts its focus onto a Middle School History teacher named Erik Benner. This teacher talks about his desire to inspire kids but how it’s also so hard to balance this with his family and financial obligations. He talks about how when he first got into the profession he was really ecstatic because it was his first real job and he thought that the $27,000 that he was earning yearly was going to really be a boost. Overtime he found out that with a family and a child and student loans that it was going to be a lot harder than he expected to survive. With his story the documentary goes on to introduce statistics about the decline of male teachers in the teaching profession from 1970 to today. In 1970 there were 34% male teachers, in 2002 there were 22% male teachers and now there are only 16% of male teachers (13:45). The film cites reasons such as very low pay as a reason why more men aren’t getting involved. Male teachers are very important in schools because they make the schools more diverse and provide positive role models for male and female students who might not necessarily relate to female teachers.

American Teacher 4:35

I think one of the most important scenes in this film is when a young law school student stresses the importance of his former high school teacher. This young student stresses the importance of his teacher who had to leave teaching for financial reasons. “He was like a pillar of leadership at the high school. (45:35).” Another student follows this with some of the same sentiments for this teacher.

This film asks its viewers to support American teachers in a better way than they have been. The film calls to action for higher wages and more respect for the teaching profession. In its conclusion we see some of the most inspiring teachers having to leave the profession in order to get more money. Testimonies from the students draw on the viewers heart strings and really causes an emotional reaction for the viewers. I think that the film also is geared towards women’s rights as well. One of the saddest factors is when the pregnant teacher, Jamie Fidler was forced to come back to work after only 6 weeks after having her child.

I think that this movie makes a great case that teachers should be given higher salaries. At 1:04 an important graph shows that some states with higher wages for teachers also see positive effects in areas of achievement. For example teacher compensation and higher accountability leads to higher test scores and lower dropout rates. Towards the movies conclusion we are provided a testimonial from a man who describes the lack of respect for the teaching profession. He starts, “My son just graduated from college this year and he’s making way more selling cellphones for Verizon than he ever could as a teacher” (1:12:09). The documentary makes a clear effort in trying to convince people that teachers should be paid a lot more money.

6 thoughts on “American Teacher: Pay Teachers More”

  1. Booker,

    I enjoyed reading your analysis of American Teacher as it follows up on an important message that was elucidated upon in the film I watched, The Cartel. Where money went in education was a topic covered for about the first 45 minutes of Bob Bowdon’s film. Through street interviews he found that people think teachers should make more money, similar to the message in your film. Yet, most Americans were shocked when they heard the statistics on the amount of money spent per classroom (in some cases over $300,000) while teacher’s salaries were a measly $50,000. At one point he discussed how only about ten cents of the dollar goes to the teacher, while the primary goal of school is to educate children, and teachers are the ones who supposedly are doing the “educating”.

    While The Cartel doesn’t approve of teachers unions and does spend a lot of time discussing how tenure protects bad teachers, it does acknowledge that there are good teachers and those teachers should be rewarded through merit pay for doing their job well. In your analysis you say “teacher compensation and higher accountability leads to higher test scores and lower dropout rates” and I believe this would be something Bob Bowdon would sign-on for. Bowdon approves of accountability and would agree that concentrating more money in the classroom, rather than on administrative costs would be of benefit to our schools.

    Thanks Booker,


  2. Hey Booker,

    After reading your analysis as a prospective educator, I am very interested in seeing this film. I grew up in a small town, and actually lived next door to one of my teachers. Ever since I was young I remember making note of the material things around his house, and thinking that he really must love teaching. I admire people like that. It seems the documentary interviewed people of this makeup, and I always enjoy hearing from them.

    Similarly, in the film Race to Nowhere that I watched, the director also makes it a point to interview teachers and the financial struggles that seemingly come, as if the two are a package. It is inspiring that these people still teach, despite the fact that people who sell cell phones can make more money than someone who is educating children for our future as a whole.

    One thing that American Teacher seemed to include was a continuing message of persistence. You sum it up greatly in your last line when you describe how the father of a phone salesman supports his son’s decision to not teach. This needs to stop. Teachers need to be better compensated if we want to see changes. It is hard to do something you love, and not make enough money to live comfortable, and even harder to continue doing it.


  3. Hey Book,

    I appreciated your perspective on this film. I agree with the premise of the film that says that teachers should not have to pay for their own classroom supplies. In Hartford, there was a big strike at my middle school for a reason similar to that. I believe that the struggle to get teachers higher wages is an ongoing fight, that runs parallel to the struggle to have others respect the teaching profession. In the film that I watched, Race to Nowhere, several private SAT and Math tutors who started off as teachers were discontent with the wages and the lack of respect that teachers are subject to. You provide good perspective on the main points of the film and If I interpreted correctly, this is something of genuine interest to you. I would be interested to know if the filmmakers had any association with teacher’s unions since the films’ stance supports an increase teacher wages.


  4. Booker,

    I enjoyed reading your analysis – I also agree that teacher definitely deserve a higher salary. In middle school a few of my teachers had a similar issue where the school didn’t want to buy chalk and the teachers had to come out of their own pockets. Teachers work very hard and barely ever complain about a salary because they enjoy helping children but sometimes they need to be rewarded. In The Cartel average classroom cost was $300,000 including the $50,000 teacher salary. That’s leaving nearly $250,000 to go elsewhere. The question was where does all the extra money go if its not going toward classroom supplies or raises in salaries. Sometimes the board makes it tough on teachers.


  5. Booker,
    I enjoyed reading your analysis of the documentary, Waiting for “Superman”, It was interesting to learn more about the injustices of the education system from the position of the teachers. As you stated, school teachers are crucial in an education system and definitely deserve to be compensated in a way that recognizes their commitment and hard work. The movie I watched, The Lottery, offers an interesting perspective on the compensation and firing of tenured teachers in the New York City school system. According to a charter school supporter in Harlem, firing 10 incompetent tenured teachers in 2008 cost the NYC tax payers $250,000 (20:50). While I agree with you that teachers are extremely valuable and we should make sure they are comfortable financially to ensure their necessary participation in schooling, The Lottery makes a very good point as well that at times, strict teachers union contracts regarding compensation can be harmful to tax payers.


  6. This video analysis offers several insights on the filmmakers’ reform agenda and key scenes in the film, in particular their decision to focus on Jamie Fidler’s rapid return to work from childbirth as a way to connect teachers’ working conditions and women’s rights. A richer analysis would have drawn more claims and supported them with persuasive evidence from additional textual sources (such as movie reviews or external analyses) as required in the assignment guidelines.

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