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.

One thought on “American Teacher Film Analysis”

  1. Emma,

    I think it’s very interesting that “American Teacher” emphasizes the importance of adequate educators, because in “The Lottery,” the proponents of charter school education argue the same point. It is certainly a dilemma that teachers’ success is determined by the standardized test scores of their students, because it is quite true that there remains so much more to learn in the classroom that will never appear on a standardized test.

    It is also important to discuss the financial issues that teachers face. Teachers do an incredibly important job and deserve to be compensated properly – they should at least be making enough money to support themselves and their families without taking on a second job. There are many teachers in my family and I have the utmost respect for the profession. We ought to recognize how crucial teachers are to the lives of students.

    I enjoyed reading this analysis and I agree with the points made in “American Teacher” that you have described. This seems like a documentary I would enjoy and would likely want to share with others.


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