[3 September 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“There are about 40 desks in this small classroom,” says Denver middle school English teacher Amanda Lueck. “I’ve got students sitting on the counter.” She worries about limited resources and escalating needs. “If there were three of me,” she says, “I might be able to get it done.” Like other teachers interviewed in American Teacher, Lueck attests both to her dedication to teaching and the frustrations that come with it. The job is hard. “Almost nothing harder,” points out Brad Jupp, the US Department of Education’s senior program advisor, “because teachers are constant active decision makers, they make thousands of decisions a day, they do it about the life of a child in that moment.” In Texas, history teacher Erik Benner’s students love him, in part because, as he says, “I try to treat the kids like young adults,” even as he’s unable to support his family on his teacher’s salary at Trinity Springs Middle School (he also works as an athletic coach at the school and has a second job at Floor & Decor). And Rhena Jasey, in Maplewood NJ, remembers friends advising, “Anybody can teach: you went to Harvard, you should be a doctor or a lawyer, you should make money.” After six years teaching in public school, she took a position with the Equity Project Charter School (T.E.P.), in NYC’s Washington Heights, a change she
The teachers who tell their stories in Vanessa Roth’s documentary, premiering on Documentary Channel on 3 September, are passionate and smart, innovative and inspiring. And yet, they consistently work for “low pay and long hours,” a combination that leads them to “burn out at a high rate.” As narrator Matt Damon (whose mother, Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a teacher) explains, some “46% of teachers quit before their fifth year.”
The film makes the case for teachers’ commitment (“I know I’m a teacher in every cell of my body,” says one); these talking heads aren’t complaining or agitating so much as they’re testifying. Their heartfelt, specific stories hardly need generic bolstering by Arne Duncan (“Our students simply cannot be successful unless they have good teachers in front of them”) or the Hoover Institute’s Eric Hanushek (“It’s an unfortunate situation in the way we manage our schools, specifically, we always put new teachers in the most difficult to teach situations”) or the Equity Project Charter School’s founder Zeke Vanderhoek (“The point about money is it does have a catalytic effect on a lot of factors”). American Teacher takes seriously its most obvious task, to counter the current public criticism of teachers and teachers’ unions.