Film Capsule: American Teacher

Ask anyone from Barack Obama to Arne Duncan to Bill Gates, and they’ll tell you the one component – the only component – that’s been proven to have a significant, long-term impact on a child’s learning potential is the quality of the teachers that child encounters along the way.

How significant is that impact?

Well, according to statistics from the Department of Education, one superior teacher can increase the average student’s lifetime earning potential by as much as $20,000.

That $20,000 per student … per awesome teacher. 

Now consider – for a moment – the immeasurable impact a constant stream of top-notch teachers might have on a child’s future, and you’ll likely find yourself pondering the same question that plagues our Department of Education on a daily basis: “Why aren’t we doing more to ensure our schools are chock-full of world-class educators?”

That’s one of several questions American Teacher – a new documentary co-produced by Dave Eggers and narrated by Matt Damon – attempts to answer. In so doing, the film provide a welcome contrast to the blanket argument for charter schools endorsed by 2011’s Waiting for Superman.

Whereas Waiting focused on the many travails of our education system from the perspective of its students/parents, American Teacher attacks the issue from the perspective of its personnel – a large percentage of which has either already thrown in the towel, or taken on a second/third job just to make ends meet.

The average school district in this country suffers from a 20% turnover rate – a dynamic which translates to more than $7 billion in annual recruiting/training/admin costs. What’s more? Nearly half of new teachers quit the profession altogether at some point during the first five years. This despite the fact that almost every educator interviewed in conjunction with American Teacher agrees there’s no other profession on the planet capable of providing them with the same level of personal fulfillment.

So why are teachers burning out at such an exorbitant clip?

Well, a lot of those who took part in the film claim it’s the hours (65-80 a week), or the stress, or the emotional strain it places on personal relationships, or the lack of any long-term earning potential, or the fact that 90% of teachers have to dig into their own pockets to pay for supplies/certifications, or the fact that the public school system doesn’t really provide any substantial FMLA/maternity leave, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of educators have been forced to juggle 1-2 side jobs in addition to their full-time teaching gig.

The list goes on and on, but beneath the surface, what it all really boils down to is money.

Money … Money … Money … Money … Money.

Money as a necessity to pay one’s biills. Money as a catalyst and a motivator. Money as a means to build a family and maintain a mortgage. Money as a reasonable hourly wage, as opposed to an arbitrary salary. Money sufficient enough to focus on one career, as opposed to several. Money as a means of improving the conditions and resources available in a classroom.

Proponents of the charter school model would argue it not only offers teachers the salary they deserve, but also guarantees the students a  education. The primary argument against charter schools is that they only increase the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots (i.e., Students who come from affluent stock, or test well from a very early age are almost guaranteed a better lot in life). Meanwhile, students who don’t have the same advantages are forced to make due with unmotivated, unqualified teachers who are a stark reflection of the antiquated system that churns them out.

Is American Teacher an entertaining film? No, American Teacher is not an entertaining film. But it is a necessary one, and it goes a long way toward helping viewers understand what’s broken about our education system, even if it fails to offer any real-world solutions.

(American Teacher goes straight to DVD on February 14th).