American Teacher Film Analysis

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“American Teacher” timestamp 00:17:15

“American Teacher” is a documentary funded by The Teacher Salary Project, a non-profit organization committed to the investment of the teacher profession (The Teacher Salary Project).  The 2011 documentary emphasizes the importance of great teachers by following the careers of four educators as well as interviews with education policy specialists. Narrated by renowned actor Matt Damon the film is enhanced by statistics in support of the power of a strong educator. The Teacher Salary Project through “American Teacher” strongly advocates that the underlying problem in America’s educational system is how little we respect truly effective teachers and hence how that affects our students. The film is produced by Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers and produced and directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth. As seen on The Teacher Salary Project website the organization urges people to set up screenings of the film to spread awareness. Through the interviews with experts, teachers, students, facts presented and family the struggles of the difficult yet rewarding teacher occupation is portrayed in the heart-wrenching documentary.

“American Teacher” supports their claim by explaining how after Bill and Melinda Gates have spent tens of millions of dollars on educational research while pondering how we can make education better he concludes, “ …the more we realized that having great teachers was the very key thing” (“American Teacher” 00:1:23). Although having a great teacher is essential in attaining an effective education there are many other factors that contribute to the success. The film continues on with the claim that teachers deserve to be more valued for their work and in return be awarded with a higher salary, an indication of prominence in America’s work force.

One of the teaching careers followed was of Erik Benner, a Texas history teacher. His success is shown through interviews with co-workers and students as well as his failures with his family. Erik not only produces high-test scores but his students claim he makes history fun and a class they look forward to attending (“American Teacher” 00:13:31). The success of both is extraordinary. But how can a great teacher be determined? Education leaders contribute low performance of students to the lack of “effective” teachers. Yet “effective” teachers are measured by the production of high-test scores. The film fails to mention the other factors in a student’s ability to receive a successful education.  An “effective” teacher should not be determined solely by the production of high test scores but instead Diane Ravitch indicates in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “A good accountability system must include professional judgment, not simply a test score, and other measures of students’ achievement, such as grades, teachers’ evaluations, student work, attendance, and graduation rates” (Ravitch 163). Although Erik Benner appears competent under these guidelines not all teachers who do produce high-test scores are and similarly there are great teachers who will not produce high-test scores for a variety of reasons. For instance Ravitch gives the example of her extremely influential English teacher Mrs. Ratliff. Ravitch recalls her teacher challenged her and her classmates while also teaching them about character and personal responsibility (Ravitch 169). Although extremely influential to Ravitch what she taught would not be the type of things that would appear on a standardized test (Ravitch 170).

The most important factor in academic success for American students “American Teacher” believes is the effectiveness of a teacher. But unfortunately the teacher occupation receives little respect and in fact is harshly put down by films such as “Waiting for Superman” as well as criticism from Fox news anchors.  The documentary also states that the job is so strenuous with a less then ideal salary that 46 percent of public school teachers within the first five years. For most teachers to be able to afford to teach 62 percent of teachers take on a second job. Because of the low salary, weak educational support system, and long hours with little praise, attaining “effective” teachers for the schools is not an easy task.  Because of this many top college graduates are drawn away from pursing a career in teaching. The film talks about the success of Zeek Vanderhoek when in 2009 he started the Equity Project Charter School (TEP) in New York. Zeek explains how a more generous salary has a catalytic effect on a lot of things by changing the perception of what it means to be a teacher (1:30:19). Statistics are then shown in support of TEP and other schools that there is an increase in teacher compensation, a decrease in teacher attrition, and an increase in student graduation (1:04:00). Zeek also explains how all the teachers at his school will start a base salary of 125,000 dollars that will be funded from the public funds. Yet finding the funds to give every public educator that substantial base salary is an unrealistic task. But the incentive is with a higher salary and therefore the title of a more prominent job many more great teachers would come forth. This analysis many business leaders and economists greatly support because it identifies with the way the free market works (Ravitch 171).

One of the four teachers followed in the film, Rhena Jasey, holds degrees from both Harvard University and Columbia University (“American Teacher” 00:18:00). She is just as much professional as her classmates who went on to become doctors and lawyers yet society does not view her occupation as important. Therefore she had to work to make ends meet in lieu of doing what she loves. She eventually went on to work at TEP taking away some of the strenuous attributes that go along with being a teacher (“American Teacher” 1:02:28). Most teachers aren’t so fortunate though to be given such a high salary. For instance Erik Benner spent such long hours teaching and working side jobs he unfortunately ended up causing strains at home to stay true to his passion of teaching (“American Teacher” 00:51:44). One scene I found most crucial was when Rhea recalls telling her peers she wanted to become a teacher and the reaction given. They told her anyone could teach and she should use her Harvard degree to be a doctor or lawyer (“American Teacher” 00:17:55). Rhea’s story is disappointing in exemplifying the fact that few people realize the professional level a teacher really holds. Without educators there wouldn’t be doctors, politicians, lawyers to get them where they are, in a sense educators really could be viewed as the most important profession.

Film critics generally seemed to have appreciated the different perspective and theory that came with “American Teacher” especially right after “Waiting for Superman”. For instance Chandler an education reporter at the Washington Post reports “At a moment when bad teachers have been targeted as the biggest problem in public education and lawmakers are scrambling to find different ways to evaluate and fire them, a new movie now being shown in previews and premiering later this year takes a less punishing view of our 3.2 million public school teachers, focusing instead on the need to support and pay them better” (Chandler). The film definitely opened up the eyes to viewers about the arduous job of teaching. Similarly Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times agrees with the theories presented in the film and finds the stories presented saddening for teachers and the culture we live in (Turan).

Works Cited

“About the Project.” The Teacher Salary Project.

American Teacher. Dir. Vanessa Roth. Prod. Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers. 2011.

Chandler, Michael. Washington Post. The Washington Post, 01 June 2011.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. First Trade Paper Edition, Revised and Expanded. Basic Books, 2011.

Turan, Kenneth. “What the ‘American Teacher’ Has to Teach Us.” Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2011.

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.

Video Analysis: American Teacher

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American Teacher Film Analysis

As Nelson Mendella once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” An excellent educational system has always been regarded as a fundamental component for a strong democracy. Today, however, America’s public school system is rapidly deteriorating, with those attending schools in urban districts suffering the greatest of the repercussions (Carey). That said the debate concerning what can be done to improve the educational system has been prominent in the United States for decades. In spite of the amount of attention and money invested into the issue, little progress and improvement is evident. One conclusion that has arisen from the debate however is that there is a need for better teachers. Although research has proven that a great teacher is an imperative factor in a child’s future success, America’s teachers are incredibly underpaid and often unappreciated–receiving criticisms left and right for why America’s public schools are in the condition that they are (Carey). Vanessa Roth’s “American Teacher” portrays the disturbing truths of today’s teachers, the trouble of attracting qualified educators, and why the majority of America’s greatest and most qualified teachers are abandoning the classrooms and turning to alternate professions. Is there hope for American education? The filmmakers of “American Teacher” believe that there is, but only if Americans are able to disregard this misconceived notion that teachers are the number one public enemy of the education system. Instead, teachers must be considered dutiful “public servants” who are there to cater to the children and transform them into good and able citizens well adjusted for this democratic society (Turan).

The renowned documentary “American Teacher” was created by the Teacher Salary Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness on the working conditions of public schools throughout the country. The project began with the publication of Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, a hard-hitting exposé on the struggles educators endure, retaliating against Fox News commentators who claim that the country’s public schoolteachers are merely “public servants who are only serving themselves” (Harvey). Since the project’s creation, supporters–ranging from concerned parents and teachers to large foundations, such as the Isabelle Allende Foundation–of education reform have contributed greatly to the movement in hopes to see positive change made in the public school system. The film addresses the hot-button problems in education reform: how to not only find, but maintain capable teachers as well. Experts in the field have argued that it is an absolutely imperative thing a school must do to sustain and improve student achievement levels (Turan). The staggering statistics presented in the film concerning our serious deficit of qualified teachers and our inability to keep those that are qualified in the field exemplified this problem further. For example, approximately 1.8 million teachers will be eligible for retirement in the next ten years (Turan). Moreover, an astounding 20% of teachers in urban districts quit every year, while reportedly 46% of new teachers leave before their fifth year—a turnover that costs an estimated $7.34 billion each year for school districts (Turan). The question has evolved from “Where are all the good teachers?” into “Where are all the good teachers going?”  Perhaps most importantly, the filmmakers question, is “Why are all the good teachers going?”

Real wages for teachers have been in a thirty-year decline, the filmmakers argue, which has led to a weakening in teacher effectiveness. According to Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the low teacher salaries are accredited to the recruitment and prevalence of female teachers in the profession. The common belief during the early to mid twentieth century was that women are to be supported by their husbands. Thus the belief was that their teaching wages would be a mere supplementary income that did not need be very high. This has had terrible repercussions in that by decreasing teacher salaries, fewer qualified candidates seek out careers in education (Roth).  By the 1970s and 1980s, the reduced quality of teachers was exemplified through the low academic performances of students in the United States (Carey).  Increased salaries, the filmmaker’s maintain, would alleviate the damage done. To depict this, the film introduces you to four principal characters—Erik Benner, Jonathan Dearman, Jamie Fidler, and Rhena Jasey—whose lives and careers are closely portrayed over the course of several years. These characters, through their personal stories and recollections of teaching, have inadvertently provided great insight into the lives of the 3.2 million teachers in the country (Turan).

In spite of the vast differences in backgrounds, sexes, races, geographical locations, and departments in which they teach, there is one underlying similarity between all of the teachers—the insufficient salaries involved in the teaching profession. Erik Benner is a middle-school history teacher and coach at Trinity Springs Middle School in Keller, Texas. He is also one of the few men remaining in the profession, where the decline of male teachers has allegedly been dropping steadily from 34% in 1970 to a staggering low of 16% in 2011 (Turan). Erik confesses to viewers his love for teaching and coaching, however that his $54,000 annual salary is not sufficient enough to support the needs of his family. Subsequently, Erik was forced to take an additional job. Erik comes to symbolize the two-thirds of teachers in America who are also forced to take up second and third jobs.

American Teacher (50:48)
American Teacher (50:48)

Erik discusses the time demand of teaching and coaching at length, which contradicts what many people presume are the regular work hours of teachers. The filmmakers weave in an animation that involves the actual number of hours teachers work per week, which often exceeds sixty-five hours (Turan).

American Teacher (29:46)
American Teacher (29:46)

Furthermore, the documentary introduces you to a character by the name of Jonathan Dearman. Mr. Dearman reminisces on his time teaching at Leadership High School in San Francisco, California. As an African American male (only 35% of teachers are African American) he finds the issues surrounding the urban schools—which are primarily minority—particularly disturbing (Harvey). The producers included interviews with former students and peers of Mr. Dearman who speak of this beloved teacher with utmost respect and admiration. Unsurprisingly, the two students chosen to provide commentaries were incredibly successful academically: a law student and a graduate of UC Berkley. The producers deliberately chose these two student success stories to further persuade the viewers of the importance of a good teacher, such as Mr. Dearman. Loran Simon, one of the former students of Dearman and a current law student at the University of San Francisco considered Mr. Dearman “a pillar of Leadership High school.” Mr. Dearman ultimately left behind his life at Leadership and took over the family business in real estate sales where the filmmakers shot him in his new office showing around a client. They contrasted this image with a rather sad looking school that seems void of life and deplete of happiness. He is one of the many teachers who, despite being good at his job, has to make a sacrifice to support himself financially. This only contributes to the already bleak status of inner-city schools.

American Teacher (45:29)
American Teacher (45:29)

The viewers are also introduced to Jamie Fidler, a first-grade teacher at Philip Livingston School in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Fidler reports how she annually spends approximately $3,000 of her own money on classroom supplies that should be supplemented by the school. Jamie Fidler is incredibly concerned with this, as she not only serves as the primary source of income for her family, however has a newborn child. The filmmakers deliberately chose a scene of Jamie Fidler frantically trying to find a place that she can pump her breast milk. It truly tugged at the hearts of the film’s viewers as this woman had just given birth six weeks ago and cannot be with her baby. Instead of taking care of her newborn, she is taking care of twenty children that are not her own. The strain of work is indirectly affecting the lives of teachers’ families, to the point that teachers need to essentially choose between their professions and their respective families.

Lastly, there is Rhena Jasey. Ms. Jasey earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and two master’s degrees. She recalls her friends’ and colleagues’ reactions when she told them of her decision to enter the teaching profession. She got responses that usually entailed, “You went to Harvard!” and “You should be a doctor or a lawyer.” In spite of her desire to make a difference by educating the youth, Rhena found that the lack of salary made it incredibly difficult to stay at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood, New Jersey. Although she loves her students and “thinks about them everyday” she found the offer from TEP Charter School in Washington Heights, New York City far too compelling with a starting salary of $125,000 per year. Teachers cannot afford to take low-paying public school jobs, robbing children in those schools of effective, well-educated teachers. Overall, the combined testimonies of these four teachers offers a very grim outlook for the future of our public education system and our children.

Ninive Calegari, one of the co-producers of the film, said in an interview that she wanted to create a film that exposed not only the troubles, but also the ludicrousness teachers face on a day-to-day basis. Absurdities that include (but are not limited to) buying their own supplies for the classroom or having to hold down second jobs to support themselves, all the while trying to disprove the old saying: for those who can’t do, teach (Harvey). I would have to commend her on this, because the film painted a vivid portrait of the poor conditions and obstacles teachers in America must endure. While I do agree that teachers do face a great deal of criticism and are in many respects underpaid, I do not believe that increasing teaching wages, or rather, improving the working conditions for teachers is the sole solution to school reform. Critics of the film have argued that the film primarily focuses on pay as if it is the only factor plaguing educational dysfunction, yet very little is said about student absences, disengaged parents, among other pressing issues (Willmore). Even if it were, with consideration to the current political debate over teacher salary reform, the film never specifically addresses how to finance these increased salaries. The film has also been criticized for presuming that teaching is the most vital of the undercompensated jobs, while farmers, social workers, and others might disagree (Willmore).

Moreover, as made evident by the teachers featured in the film, they all shared similar sentiments about “knowing” they were meant to be teachers. Teaching is a challenging and demanding profession that attracts a very particular type of person. This “type” of person is generally characterized by his or her ability to be patient, compassionate, and must have some sort of liking of children. Unfortunately, not everyone in this world fits this particular “type” and consequently the selection pool of teachers (let alone qualified) is already a relatively small proportion of the population. Additionally, I was fairly confused in respect to the ambiguity of what the filmmakers defined as a “good teacher.” Is it one who forms strong bonds with his students like Mr. Dearman? Or is it someone who is an incredibly intelligent Ivy School graduate, such as Ms. Jasey? They also fail, critics argue, to mention how one should properly assess a teacher and what distinguishes a teacher from being either “good” or “bad.”  They failed to mention that the current method of assessing the success of a teacher has created a climate of fear within the schools (Ravitch). In fact, the method of assessment has actually given way to school scandals and reported incidents involving school officials changing incorrect answers on tests to raise their students’ scores (Ravitch).


Carey, Kevin. “An Admirable Move From the Country’s Biggest Teachers’ Union (Yes, You Read That Correctly).” The New Republic, July 11, 2011.

Harvey, Dennis. “» American Teacher.” Variety, n.d.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. First Trade Paper Edition, Revised and Expanded. Basic Books, 2011.

Roth, Vanessa, and Brian McGinn. American Teacher. Documentary, Biography, History, News, 2011.

Turan, Kenneth. “What the ‘American Teacher’ Has to Teach Us.” Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2011.

Willmore, Alison. “American Teacher.” AV Club, n.d.,62512/.

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