American Teacher

Vanessa Roth's latest documentary explores what many believe is the major reason U.S. public education has declined for years: educators aren't given the respect or wages that the tough and important job should command.

'American Teacher'

Part straight appreciation, part plea for greater renumeration, “American Teacher” opines that one major reason U.S. public education has been in decline for years is because educators aren’t given the respect or wages that a tough — and important — job should command. Mostly upbeat in its focus on several inspirational teachers despite a barrage of sobering statistics, latest docu by Vanessa Roth (“Aging Out, “The Third Monday in October”) would need considerable marketing outreach to educators and parents to make a dent theatrically, but should stir discussion as a broadcast and home-format item.

Loosely inspired by the ironically named 2005 nonfiction tome “Teachers Have It Easy” (with two of its authors onboard as producers), pic opens with a barrage of commentators — all on Fox News, unsurprisingly — accusing the nation’s 3.2 million public schoolteachers of being “public servants who are only serving themselves.”

Promulgated primarily by conservative union-busters, such sentiments are then contrasted with the realities of the profession: More than 90% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies; many work 10- or 11-hour days, not including time spent grading papers or planning curricula at home; burnout is such that nearly half of all teachers quit before reaching their fifth year on the job. These and other grim stats are laid out in frequent graphics, while educational officials and experts are interviewed about the roots of the problems.

Roth adds human interest and a narrative spine by focusing much of the docu on five dedicated teachers. Brooklyn first-grade instructor Jamie Fidler has to juggle a heavy workload with having a first child of her own. In Denver, video-diarist Amanda Lueck begins her teaching career with a classroom so overcrowded some kids have to sit on the windowsill.

Small-town Texas history teacher Erik Benner’s marriage collapses when he’s forced to take on a second job to make ends meet; indeed, men are steadily abandoning the underpaying profession. In San Francisco, Jonathan Dearman’s students are bereft when he leaves to join his family’s real-estate business — work that in a slow year doubles his teaching salary.

The counterpoint to all this seems to be Harvard grad Rhena Jasey, who finds a job at a school whose enviable pay rates are designed to draw and reward the very finest educators. In districts where similar enhanced-salary funds have been found, schools have seen dramatic improvements in staff attrition, test scores, graduation and dropout rates.

“American Teacher’s” fix-it approach doesn’t make room to address quibbles with unions that keep underperforming teachers on the job, or other problems fingered by those who blame educators for the decline in U.S. education — issues that have been well covered in other recent docus. But its inspiring portraits of hardworking subjects make a fine case for raising the bar by rewarding excellence rather than punishing failure.

Empathetically narrated by Matt Damon, engaging pic is nicely assembled in all departments.

American Teacher

  • Production: A Teacher Salary Project production. Produced by Vanessa Roth, Ninive Calegari, Dave Eggers. Directed by Vanessa Roth. Co-director, Brian McGinn. Based on the book "Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers" by Daniel Mouthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, Dave Eggers and Henry Louis Gates.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Dan Gold, Steve Milligan, Arthur Yee, Rich White; editors, McGinn, Livio Sanchez; music, Thao Nguyen; graphics/animation, Stefan Nadelman; sound, Steve Shepherd. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, May 5, 2011. Running time: 81 MIN.
  • With: With: Erik Benner, Jamie Fidler, Rhena Jasey, Jonathan Dearman, Amanda Lueck. Narrator: Matt Damon.