Film Review: American Teacher

One of my job descriptions, as The Free School Apparent, is to watch any documentaries that I can find relating to education. If the central idea of this blog is to have a national dialogue as to what we define as education, then it is my duty. It is not always convenient, but yesterday I got hold of a copy of the documentary film, American Teacher, directed by Vanessa Roth and narrated by Matt Damon.

My intent is not to review this film on its’ artistic value, but rather to see what questions it raises about the education crisis in our country. I have to admit that my preconceived attitude was to judge the film based on my own prejudices towards conventional education. And the first 10 minutes had me rolling my eyes at some of the questionable reasons teachers love to teach. I react every time I hear Obama make some proclamation about how to improve the “classroom.’ Or a teacher expressing how they relish the “40 sets of eyes waiting for them to impart knowledge.”

Setting aside my disdain for the classroom setting, and the appointing of adults to stand in front of our children who sit at desks in military formation, waiting open eyed and enthusiastic. This popular fantasy is beyond old. But the film actually touches on another aspect of our national crisis.

Many people who go into teaching have a real desire to share something with the next generation. If you ask me, this is an instinctive need for ALL human beings. The adage that unfairly states “those who can do, those who can’t, teach” is refuted strongly, and rightly by this movie. Teachers are hardworking and dedicated. Being that we have a social structure and a system that requires us to take designated roles, those who choose teaching as their path are not rewarded in the way teachers in other countries are. They are grossly underpaid, overworked and unsupported. There seems to be a total lack of interest by the system at large as to what the outcome of all this and it’s affect on society will be.

Listening to many of these dedicated individuals express their frustration at being drawn away from the thing that they love is heartbreaking to watch. One teacher, who was awarded “teacher of the year” in his district, had to work a second job just to stay afloat. This overwork compromised his family life. Another teacher is shown trying to call human resources during her 20 minute break, to inquire about maternity leave. The call takes 18 minutes just for to find out that she only gets 6 weeks. And a third, who leaves to join the family real estate business because he can no longer afford to be a teacher, much to the chagrin of his students. And this followed by the shocking statistic that only 16% of teachers are men.

The dilemma that we gather from watching American Teacher is that the problem is much bigger than any philosophical approach to pedagogy can illustrate. Teachers consistently have to go out and buy their own materials because none are provided. They end up having to clean their own rooms. It is estimated that educators spend an average of 65 work hours a week which includes taking home material for grading and review. When stacked up against other leading literate nations, the United States looks downright third world.

So in addition to what I have termed “a war on kids” we have embattled teachers who no longer can stay in the fight. This shows us that our crisis is much greater than imagined. Not only are we teaching to the test which is an indication that there is no real educating going on, but we are tying the hands of those who can assist in improving and rebuilding what we have. The system is broken and should be discarded. But that does not mean you toss out the dedicated individuals who can help to rebuild a healthier system. From where I am sitting, that accomplishment may be light years away unless someone with political and economic influence wakes up and lends a hand instead of just paying lip service. I recommend this film as it will help deepen the understanding of what is wrong from the teacher perspective. Wrong on the most fundamental level. I do not call this a great film. But it adds to an important and missing component to the dialogue on where we went wrong.