November 22 — 3:22 pm, 2011

What it means to be an ‘American Teacher’

Need in Deed created a valuable space to discuss challenges facing teachers and potential solutions with a screening of American Teacher and a panel discussion. As one audience member put it, “on any given day, a teacher can get chewed out by students, colleagues, parents, and administrators, work on average 15 hours per day, and still struggle to find food on a daily basis. And you want me to stay for how many years?!”

American Teacher joins the ranks of documentaries focused on education including: The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, TEACHED, and 2 Million Minutes. The question is how will this movie change the public discourse?

What separates this film from the pack is its holistic focus on the requirements for effective teaching, both inside and outside of the classroom.

One major success of the film is its ability to discuss the sacrifices necessary to lead a comfortable life while serving as an effective teacher.

  • Erik Benner explains that despite teaching for over 10 years, he must still work a separate job to make ends meet.

  • Rhena Jasey now works at The Equity Project Charter School in New York because it pays teachers a base salary of $125,000. However, in return for superior compensation, she is expected to serve additional roles both in and outside the classroom.

  • Jonathan Dearman discusses his departure from the profession to become a real estate agent. As a real estate agent he makes nearly double what he made as a teacher.

  • Jamie Fidler returns immediately after her six-week maternity leave. She has to juggle leading a first grade classroom with breaks to pump milk because her family cannot afford for her to take unpaid leave.

Do you see a common theme here?

The film exposes how the teaching profession is not a sustainable career. The superintendent of Utah explained, “the problem with teaching salaries is not where teachers start but how much they are paid when they finish.” There is no understood upward mobility. The opportunities for advancement that do exist require a teacher to leave the classroom for administration.

While there is much focus on teacher compensation and development, the movie does not mention the role of teacher unions and school districts in this conversation. The film doesn’t take sides here, but urges awareness and conversation. More on this to come in a subsequent post.

Some additional big themes include:

  • The lack of resource support. While websites such as DonorsChoose are helping teachers locate additional resources, we can’t expect teachers to produce a proposal every time they need reams of copy paper.

  • Additional support can come in the smallest forms, such as a functioning classroom. One audience member said, “just give me a classroom with working lights and well-constructed desks, and I can handle everything else.”

  • Benefits of instructional coaches. The successful Mastery Charter Schools network provides their teachers with instructional coaches whose sole focus is to help their teachers with instructional and classroom management techniques.

  • Good and bad principals can make all the difference. Good teachers will not continue to work for bad principals.

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