The Plight of The American Teacher

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“The American Teacher” is a documentary that explains the struggles of teachers in the United States today.  It was directed and produced by Vanessa Roth, written by Dave Eggers, and narrated by Matt Damon.  The difficulties of the teaching career are told through interviews with educational policy experts and by chronicling a year of the lives of four teachers.  The documentary is funded by the Teacher Salary Project, “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the impact of our national policy of underpaying and under-valuing educators” (“About The Project”).   The film conveys the idea that  the American educational system  struggles  because of the disrespect shown the teaching profession.

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Bill Gates discussing education reform
“The American Teacher”

“American Teacher” suggests that even though teaching is a difficult, laborious job, it is often low-paying and disrespected.  Also, despite the fact that it serves a vital role in shaping students’ futures, graduates from most selective colleges do not consider it for a career because it is not as prestigious as becoming a doctor or a lawyer.  According to the film, this results in students underperforming in schools.  A clip of Bill Gates, whose foundation has donated heftily to education reform, shows Mr. Gates asking, “how do you make education better?  The more we looked at it the more we realized that having great teachers was the very key thing” (Roth 0:01:21-0:01:30).  For the American education system to improve, we need distinguished, prepared, intelligent teachers for our students.  The film offers a solution to this problem: Given the problem of underperforming students in schools, the reform goal is to transform the nature of teaching by making it a more prestigious and well-paid occupation.  This can be accomplished by the capacity-building of the rigor of the teaching career, and designing programs to increase teachers’ salaries to entice professionals toward the career.

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The American Teacher

To express the difficulties inherent in the teaching profession, the film follows four teachers, Erik Benner from Texas, Jonathan Dearman from California, Jamie Fidler from New York, and Rhena Jasey from New Jersey for one year.  By filming class sessions and telling the story of the teachers’ lives at home, it is made clear that teachers work long hours both inside and outside of the classroom.  Fidler says, “I leave the house at seven o’clock in the morning…and I get home at 6:30” (Roth 0:04:45-0:05:00).  The film notes that the average teacher who does their job correctly works at least a 65 hour work week.  So why then, the film questions, is teaching regarded by society as an easy, attainable career?

To further illustrate the struggle of the American teacher, the film describes how low salaries affect a teacher’s personal life.  Erik Benner, a history teacher and middle school football coach in Texas, was forced to pick up a second job at Circuit City in order to support his family.  He justified this decision by saying that as a man, society views his as the “provider” of the family (Roth 0:39:40).  Between teaching and shifts at Circuit City, worked seven days a week, which put severe strain on his marriage and ultimately led to divorce.  It is clear his starting salary of $27,000  was not reflective of the amount of work he put into his job, and was not enough money to support a family.  Due to situations such as this, not only are fewer people interested in becoming teachers, but current teachers are being driven out of the classroom.

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The American Teacher

Money is a powerful incentive especially for recent college graduates.  It can have a profound influence on choosing certain professions.  It is no surprise that many of the best students want to become doctors or lawyers,  professions with the possibility of hefty salaries.  There is little motivation to become a teacher when there are many other professions with better salaries held in higher esteem.  The Vice President for educator quality at American institutes for research, Sabrina Laine said, “If you want somebody to stay in education…and you want them to feel like they can make a decent living…we gotta be more creative in the kinds of alternatives we provide for how we pay our teachers” (Roth 1:00:53-1:00:10).  Money is a possible incentive for attracting professionals towards the classroom.

    Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of The Equality Project School (TEP), has designed a program in which the best teachers are brought to students who need them the most (Roth 1:01:50).  TEP is designed to solve the problem of the nature of teaching and to hopefully inspire other schools to redistribute funds so that teachers earn a salary they deserve.  The teachers hired at TEP receive a competitive starting salary of $125,000 which is publicly funded(Roth 1:02:13).  Vanderhoek says, “if you increase teachers’ salaries, you change the perception of what it means to be a teacher” (Roth 1:03:00-1:03:18).  The film does not however, offer any indication of how TEP “redistributes funds.”  For example, it does not discuss if any programs have been cut in order to pay teachers more money.  Schools around the country who have adopted similar programs have reported rising graduation rates, lower drop-out rates and higher teacher retention rates.  The ultimate goal is to fix the American education system, and “The American Teacher” argues that through programs such as TEP, which allows teachers to be regarded as high-ranking, well-paid professionals, our schools will improve.

    The New York Times identifies gaps in the documentary.  The article, “What’s a Teacher Worth” by Neil Genzlinger suggests that teacher pay is not the only factor for improving schools, and the film should have expressed other major issues.  “The film…never addresses specifically how higher salaries would be financed…and it treats pay as if it’s the only factor in educational dysfunction; not a word is said about no-show students, uninvolved parents or other issues” (Genzlinger).  This is a legitimate claim, however, the documentary correctly expresses how teaching and specifically teacher quality affects schooling.  By highlighting the adversities teachers face, the film succeeds in offering a compelling argument that by making education a distinguished, prestigious career choice, we will improve the education system.

Works Cited

“About the Project .” Teacher Salary Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <>.

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

Genzlinger, Neil. “What’s a Teacher Worth.” The New York Times. N.p., 27 09 2011. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <>.

One thought on “The Plight of The American Teacher”

  1. This seems like a very interesting documentary. Does the documentary offer any incentives that can be used to get more undergraduates to become teachers besides money? Also, does it speak to the compensation disparities between teachers in urban v/s affluent neighborhoods?

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