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What the 'American Teacher' has to teach us

The U.S. education system is shedding teachers at an alarming rate. This documentary, directed by Vanessa Roth and narrated by Matt Damon, delves into the problem.

September 30, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Jonathan Dearman, a high school teacher in San Francisco, faces pressure to leave the profession and join his family's real estate business.
Jonathan Dearman, a high school teacher in San Francisco, faces pressure… (www.theteachersalaryproject.org )

It's titled "American Teacher," but this unsettling look at what's wrong with our culture's attitudes toward that beleaguered profession could just as well have been called "The Vanishing Americans."

That's because our education system is shedding teachers at an alarming rate. As narrated by Matt Damon, this documentary tells us that 20% of teachers in urban area schools leave every year, with 46% of teachers nationwide quitting before their fifth year. With more than half of our teachers eligible for retirement within the next 10 years, we are looking at serious trouble.

It's trouble not only because educating young people is crucial to our economy and our democracy but also because studies of the subject invariably come to the conclusion that the Gates Foundation, headed by Bill Gates, did: "Having great teachers is the very key thing."

Given that individuals continue to be drawn to education in the abstract, why aren't young people lining up to actually teach? As directed by doc veteran Vanessa Roth, "American Teacher" answers this two ways, by talking to experts and by looking closely at the lives of four teachers.

Reason 1 for the lack of teachers is that, almost against reason, commentators on networks such as Fox News and in films such as "Waiting for Superman" have consistently demonized the profession.

As Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari, two of the film's producers, wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that likened teachers to soldiers, "When we don't get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don't blame the soldiers. We don't say, 'It's these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefit plans! That's why we haven't done better in Afghanistan!' No, if the results aren't there we blame the planners.... No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition."

That lack of basic respect is joined by a litany of other difficulties: lack of support from the education system, especially in terms of training; long hours that never quit and low salary. Teachers, we are told, make 14% less than other similarly educated professionals.

As a result, if you count coaching and advising in the mix, 62% of teachers have to take second jobs to make ends meet. And it's not just the money that matters: As one expert says, "Money has a catalytic effect." In other words, if salaries went up, perceptions about the profession would change as well.

In addition to laying out these general principles, "American Teacher" shows how they apply to the personal and professional lives of:

Erik Benner. A seventh-grade history teacher in Keller, Texas, Benner grew up in a trailer and teaches in part to show his students that education offers hope for all. Having to take time-intensive second and third jobs has a major effect on his family life.

Jonathan Dearman. A rare African American teacher in his San Francisco high school, Dearman is proud of being a role model for his students but faces pressures to leave the profession for the family real estate business.

Jamie Fidler. A second-generation educator who teaches first grade in Brooklyn, N.Y., Fidler is a dedicated professional who has difficulty balancing being a new mother with the demands of her job.

Rhena Jasey. A New Jersey teacher with a bachelor's degree from Harvard and two advanced degrees from Columbia, Jasey says her friends were frankly aghast that she chose such a low-paying, low-status job as her career.

Not surprisingly, the three countries whose students do best on standardized tests — Finland, Singapore and South Korea — approach the care and recruitment of teachers totally differently than we do.

As we watch the individuals in "American Teacher" struggle with the burdens the system places on them, it's hard not to feel like crying, both for them specifically and for our national culture. As one education authority laments after revealing his son's salary-based job choice, "Something's wrong when selling cellphones is more important to society than being a teacher."

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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