Harsh Realities of an American Teacher

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American Teacher is a heart-warming, yet heart-breaking, factual documentary dealing with the everyday lives of school teachers in America.  Our country, in general, does not respect our teachers.  The film delves into the lives of four teachers and shares their hardships and struggles with its viewers.  The goal of the documentary is to influence the viewer’s opinion on what it means to be a teacher in America.  Other countries place more value in the teaching profession. In America, being a teacher is associated with low economic status.  Americans need to be aware that our teachers are instructing the future of our country and is a vital profession!  American Teacher is an attempt to improve our educational system by changing the stigma associated with the American teaching profession and in turn, increasing the number of qualified teachers who can be proud of their personal accomplishments and socioeconomic status.

The documentary begins with an odd, yet disturbing, scene of an explosion; a perfect depiction of what has happened to the American school system.  (McGinn, Roth 0:00:08).  Personally I believe this was one of the most crucial scenes of the movie.  It foreshadows what is to come, which would be the demise of the school system.  The first of four teachers is introduced and is interestingly shown walking out of her small, run-down apartment in Brooklyn, New York.  Jamie Fidler begins her story by explaining how every expense from her classroom comes from her own pocket.  Jamie is pregnant and later on in the documentary, we learn more about the hardships of maternity leave because no one expects the spouse, also a teacher, to be the “money maker”.  Next, we meet Rhena Jasey, an enthusiastic young teacher, who eventually leaves her school to follow a program called the Tep Project to earn more money.  Erik Benner’s story is a bit sadder because he needs to teach, coach, and work at a tile store in order to support his family.  His ex-wife speaks in the course of the film and explains how she basically felt like a single parent because he was never around.  Lastly, we learn about a teacher named Johnathon Dearman.  Dearman has a passion for teaching just like the other three, however, due to the lack of a decent salary, gives up his teaching career to join the family real estate business.  All of these teachers tell a story and struggle with the career they love.  In order for the producers to portray their problem, they use very important charts that are extremely simple and easy to comprehend.

To elaborate on a major theme of persuasion, TEP, The Equality School Project, is an alternative to the current view of teachers in America.  TEP is designed to redistribute and shift money around to bring teachers to schools that need them, and pay teachers a better salary.  As well, TEP works to ensure the best quality teachers for a low income student body.  It is not only a series of investments, but the hopes are to keep the teachers not to just attract them.  In the film, TEP is seen as a very tempting alternative to the long work day in a poorly paid environment.  When looking further into the philosophy behind TEP, it becomes evident it was well thought out and personalized for its audience.   “TEP uses a three-pronged strategy that it terms the 3 R’s: Rigorous Qualifications, Redefined Expectations, & Revolutionary Compensation.”  (Tepcharter 1). By implicating the TEP method, this is another attempt for the producers to persuade viewers view on what the profession of teaching should be.

American Teacher does more than just warn us about our country.  It relates the story of dedicated, intelligent educators.  These teachers love what they do, put in extensive hours despite popular belief, and in turn they receive little monetary reward.  The deeper rooted issue, embedded in the script of the documentary, is the lack of respect for the profession as a whole.  In other countries such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, aspiring teachers’ training is paid for.  (McGinn, Roth 1:05:29).  That means these teachers do not begin their careers in debt.  These countries value their teachers in society.  They have a very low rate of teachers switching careers.  The simple statistics which show the abandonment of the profession in the US serves to show the Nation’s view of its importance.  There is little emphasis on the profession as a whole if the passionate members are able to walk away from it.  Whether it is their personal choice or not, out nation makes it difficult for them to stay in comparison to other nations around the world.

Percentage of Teachers Who Leave the Teaching Percentage in Other Countries (1:06:15)
Percentage of Teachers Who Leave the Teaching Percentage in Other Countries (1:06:15)

This is due to the fact that their culture recognizes the importance of having strong teachers to educate future generations.  American Teacher points out the flaws within the American system.  After all, children are our future; so would it not be important to take pride and give respect to those responsible for the education of this precious resource?

However, Americans are taught to aim for higher paying jobs.  Rhena Jasey is a Harvard graduate and was told that being a teacher was a waste of a degree from Harvard.  In turn, she responded with a remark along the lines of “Would you not want your children to be taught by someone who went to Harvard?”  These four teachers embody the qualities that all teachers should have regardless of what country they live in.  Dearman is described as a teacher who holds all of his students to the same standards.  He told them what they needed to do, what they needed to learn, and who he wanted them to be by the end of his class.  These are the type of qualities parents want their children to be influenced by.  American Teacher shows the epitome of a quality teacher.  Once again, TEP is an attempt to ensure these types of teachers are available to those who are less fortunate and ensures they will stay with those children in underprivileged schools.  However, American Teacher also shows how difficult it is for these passionate individuals to stay with their profession.  How do we get these teachers to stay?  The answer in incentive other than pure joy of helping children.

The role of a teacher in America is highly influenced by gender roles.  There is a clear lack of respect, low pay, and something called the “burnout circle” as described by the teachers.  To begin, the society we live in is based on the assumption that the man in the relationship is meant to be the provider.  Therefore, in teaching, being a predominately female dominated field, it is “okay” to pay them less because their spouses will supposedly bring in more money. With this being said, males have existed the teaching force in order to live up to the stereotype of the “bread winner”.  It would be very difficult for a male to fully support his family simply on a teaching salary.  As well, it is thought that women have a maternal instinct that is better suited to teach children.  Truthfully, males and females can be great teachers but our society is socially constructed, which makes it difficult for men to stay in a “female profession”.  In addition, these teachers work more extensive hours than everyone believes.  On top of working ridiculous hours (most 7 to around 6), many teachers are in desperate need of a second job.  In fact, 62% of American teachers have a second job.  Does this really allow them to give their all in the classroom?

Percentage of Male Teachers (00:13:47)
Percentage of Male Teachers (00:13:47)

As well as having these compelling arguments as to why living the life of a teacher is quite difficult, I think the creators of the film make significant choices to make the audience feel even more sympathetic.  The teachers were chosen wisely.  There is one of Latino descent, one African-American descent, one white female, and one white male.  Most of the population was targeted which ensures the viewers will all relate to the issues and hardships these four underwent.  In addition, it is impossible for viewers to not have sympathy for a woman who just gave birth and a man who lost his wife and children in a divorce due to his low salary from teaching. The music is peaceful and coincides with the intense scenes to truly let viewers feel as if they are a part of the teachers’ lives.

Outside source, rotten tomatoes allows for outsiders to comment on the documentary.  Comments such as “Terrific, uplifting and heartbreaking study of what it’s like to teach in America today should inspire intense admiration and even more intense anger over what is revealed.” (David Noh).  However, while I think it is unanimous that this film is hear-breaking and heart-warming, there are also negatives to be noted.  The film is entirely one sided and does not look into an entire economic view on available money.  The movie does not tell the story of the rich, white, upper class.  It does not account for private schools and for children who are paying for their educations.

American Teacher’s original name started out as Come Back Mr. Dearman.  I believe the title was broadened to reach a wider variety of audiences.  Originally, the film was debuted in New York City and was praised for showing the public how hard the educators in our country work.  However, economists and other scholars followed by completley disagreeing with the movie’s plan.  They believed they should be able to hire any teacher regardless of their educational background and only raise his/her pay if test scores improve.  (Goodwin 1).  There is also research to show that merit pay does not necessarily correlate with an increase in school performance.  This would prove the entire movie to be false.  As well, teachers with high educational resumes appreciated and enjoyed this film.  This in itself, has sparked an intense criticism of Obama’s policies which benefit merit pay.  (Goodwin 2). I think it is also important to note, Matt Damon promoted this film and was the narrator.  He is one hundred percent part of the upper class and this has a large impact on the film’s audiences.  The entire film was funded by the Teacher Salary Project. This is a project to ensure “teaching becomes the prestigious, desirable, financially viable, and professionally exciting job we all know it needs to be.”  (TSP 2).   I think it is interesting to not TSP is a non-partisan organization, technically this should be the film would take no side.  However, this proves to be false.

Fortunately, American Teacher gets the main concern across which is, if we continue at the rate we are going, America will have few people willing to be educators and few quality educators to teach our future generations.  It reaches the hearts of every lower class American parent who wants the best for their children and it is easy to become very biased while watching this film.  Once again, the upper class is not accounted for and while it may alarm the parents there is little hope and opportunity that can be gained because they are not represented within the film.  The two audiences will definitely take different aspects away from the film.  An upper class parent may watch this film and be unaffected by the educational realities because his/her child is receiving a quality education.  To an extent, the emotional scenes will reach everyone, but the overall message is only alarming to those being affected by the lack of money.  Without looking at external factors, these facts seem troubling and appalling.  When watching, it is important to note there is a whole side of an untold story.  However, I think one point that all sides can agree on, is that the profession of teaching needs to be more nationally respected.

Epitome of American School System (0:00:08)
Epitome of American School System (0:00:08)


Works Cited

“American Teacher (2011).” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

“Full Cast & Crew.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

News, Liz Goodwin Yahoo. “‘American Teacher’ Film Argues Teachers Aren’t Paid Enough, but Ignores Merit Pay Debate.” Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Roth, Vanessa, and Brian McGinn. American Teacher. Video documentary, 2011.http://www.theteachersalaryproject.org/.

“TEP Charter – Philosophy.” TEP Charter – Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://www.tepcharter.org/philosophy.php>.

“The Teacher Salary Project.” The Teacher Salary Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <http://www.theteachersalaryproject.org/about-the-project.php>.



4 thoughts on “Harsh Realities of an American Teacher”

  1. It was interesting to read this analysis of American Teacher as I watched the same movie as well as read the same article about Merit pay. This is very well written and makes me think about the movie in another way that is more focused on education in America as a whole.

  2. This analysis of American Teacher is very interesting because it also touches on teachers receiving low pay. In this analysis it talks about statistics of women getting less pay because they assume that their spouse is making a high income. In my analysis statistics showed that New Jersey was spending a tremendous amount of money on superintendents and other administrative positions. There is always talk about how teachers incomes should be higher because they are responsible for teaching our future, it is interesting to see how the differences the two documentaries take in speaking to teachers income.

  3. To start, this piece was well written. Although I have not seen this particular documentary, I felt moved and informed about the documentary after reading the piece above.

    What was especially strong about this essay was that it was detailed, showed factual evidence and it told a story that related to many. Within the strengths, there are weaknesses that show themselves. For instance, I had a hard time putting a tangible representation to the statistics (factual evidence) shown within the essay. The reason being, there was not a comparison within the essay to the American “value of teachers” backed with percentages as to how many American teachers leave the profession. Also, I didn’t feel the male reduction in education was not explained fully. The facts were presented, but there again was not a clear way to understand what that signified to the viewer or reader.

    Within the text, there seemed to be contradicting views on how you interpreted the documentary. For example, you stated at one point, “The film is entirely one sided and does not look into an entire economic view on available money.” This was a very good point that I felt needed to be included in order for the reader to understand another viewpoint. But then later on within the text, in the conclusion to be more precise, you stated, “It reaches the hearts of every American parent who wants the best for their children and it is easy to become very biased while watching this film.” I just feel if the argument was stated as being one-sided, then it wouldn’t reach “the hearts of every American”. This seemed to be a bit of a generalization. Again, the point made about this being one-sided was great. Elaboration as to what the other side is would of given the reader a better sense of what needed to be taken in for their own internal dialogue, giving them the information for them to make the decision as to whether the side of the documentary argument or the other side(s) are for them in their viewpoints pertaining to the topic.

    Besides the contradictions found within the written work that are stated above and the lack of relation the statistics, this piece was clear and concise when analyzing and portraying the documentary. One point that may be helpful or may not be helpful is presenting insight as to how different audiences may view this documentary and how the meaning of the documentary will connect with the different audiences. This may be stretching the tasks of the assignment (I apologize if so), but maybe showing the reader how exactly will particular audiences might view this. This idea may be hard to present because of assumptions that may need to be made, but may be translating what the writers and film makers are conveying through this documentary into what they wanted each segment of the larger audience to see, to learn and to understand. Were there points that the film makers made that were direct to certain segments of the audience, others that were indirect? This may give a better translation of the film and the meaning behind the film by creating a human element that can seem lost in content and persuasion sometimes.

    As stated before, I have never seen this film before. This piece showed me an interesting insight into the genre of Education Reform. There is something that happens though with these pressing issues. Similar to other very serious issues that need to be addressed in a quick and thorough manner, this idea of Education Reform may fall into this concept within the minds of many that this is a problem that will never go away similar to other problems of our generation. There is an emotional tie that is presented within the piece. I can not say that this drastically changed my view on Education Reform as a genre, but it did show me insightful concepts of how the films are made and the meanings behind the films. This also showed me the weaknesses of the film, which was known, but not seen as clearly as before. People can be bogged down by the negatives of problems, hence the mindsets that were explained before are developed. Showing light with these downsides can be very helpful, giving hope the viewer, a chance that there can be a change. This piece showed me (correct me if there was a representation of light and hope shown within the documentary), there is a serious problem being addressed, one that is negative to Americans and the American society,, that was addressed with negativity. I do not see hope there, nor if this is a representation of the genre, do I see hope within the genre. I see negativeness that needs to show positive outcomes. This shows, as you stated, an one-sided argument, which seems to be negativeness. Where is the positive side? There has to be teachers that are happy with their occupation. This can give the sense that the documentary is selfish by only showing one-side- as if there is a self interest in this problem, and not a good one. So, I feel this piece showed wonderful illustrations as to what this genre is, and did alter the way the information is presented within this genre of documentaries.

    In conclusion, this was an informative presentation that gave insight into a pressing problem while showing the reader what this genre of film is about. There were strengths that stood out as well as weaknesses. Overall, this presentation gave a good depiction that was clear and to the point, for the most part, that hopefully will show those who read it a sense of what this documentary is presenting and signifying for itself and the genre of Education Reform.

    Michael Meigs

  4. I enjoyed reading this essay. It is clear that the you understood the key points the film was trying to make. The inclusion of the film’s statistics is effective, and adds legitimacy to the points being made in the paper. I agree that the film is attempting to change the way in which we view teaching as a profession, but perhaps you could explain some of the methods by which it attempts to that with a bit more clarity, perhaps by going into more detail about what the TEP program is, etc.

    Otherwise, I think this is a solid piece of work!

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