American Teacher (2011) - Movie Review for Parents and Teachers | Student Handouts
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American Teacher (2011) > U.S. History > Into the Twenty-first Century > Books and Films
Length: 80 minutes (1 hour, 20 minutes)

Age appropriateness: American Teacher is a documentary film that is safe for all ages.

Summary: American Teacher, narrated by actor Matt Damon (the husband of a teacher) is a well-crafted, easy-to-understand documentary film that explains the link between teacher quality and student achievement. The film focuses on five K-12 public school teachers from around the United States.

American Teacher (2011) - Film review and guide for teachers.Jamie Fidler teaches first grade at Philip Livingston School in Brooklyn, New York, and is her young family's primary breadwinner. She must return to work, despite still breastfeeding, six weeks after the birth of her first child.

Amanda Lueck teaches English Language Arts at Horace Mann Middle School in Denver, Colorado. Like many new teachers, she finds herself buying the bulk of her classroom supplies from her meager salary.

Erik Benner, the first member of his family to go to college, teaches Social Studies at Trinity Springs Middle School in Keller, Texas. In addition to his coaching duties, Coach Benner must work a second job to make ends meet.

Rhena Jasey, a graduate of Harvard University, is transitioning from Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood, New Jersey, to TEP (The Equity Project) Charter School in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. TEP has garnered national attention by offering its new teachers a base salary of $125,000.00 per year.

One of the few African-American men to enter teaching, Jonathan Dearman left his successful position at Leadership High School in San Francisco, California, to pursue a more lucrative career in real estate.

The basic premise of American Teacher is that low teacher salaries in the United States lead to high rates of teacher turnover. Forty-six percent of teachers quit before their fifth year of teaching. This teacher turnover costs $7.34 billion annually.

In 1970, 34% of teachers were male. In 2002, this percentage had dropped to 22 percent. In 2011, the year this film was released, the number of male teachers was down to 16 percent. According to Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the recruitment of female teachers (starting in the mid-to-late twentieth century) was done in order to keep the cost of teacher salaries low. The premise was that women were supported primarily by their husbands, and so the "second income" provided by teaching need not be very high. Lowering teacher wages left fewer qualified candidates seeking a career in education. By the 1970s and 1980s, lowered teacher quality was weakening students' academic performance. The answer, according to the filmmakers, is higher teacher salaries.

Cited as models of teacher and education quality are the countries of Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, which score the highest in international assessment of their students' math, reading, and science knowledge. These nations have career-oriented teachers and low teacher turnover because they practice all or most of the following: (1) selective recruiting of future teachers, (2) funded teacher training, (3) competitive compensation, (4) professional working environments, (5) and cultural respect for teachers.
  Rhena Jasey   Jamie Fidler   Rhena Jasey   Erik Benner   Jonathan Dearman  
  Rhena Jasey   Jamie Fidler   Rhena Jasey   Erik Benner   Jonathan Dearman  
  Dave Eggers    Vanessa Roth   Ninive Calegari          
  Dave Eggers   Vanessa Roth   Ninive Calegari          
Creators and stars: Amanda Lueck, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Beverly Williams, Brad Jupp, Brian McGinn, Charlotte Danielson, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Jaeger, Eric Hanushek, Erik Benner, Greg Peters, Gretchen Weber, Helen Min, Jamies Fidler, Jason Kamras, Jennifer Dick, Jonathan Dearman, Larry Shumway, Linda Darling-Hammond, Loran Simon, Lori Hurwitz, Marguerite Izzo, Matt Damon, Melody Schepp, Ninive Calegari, Rachel Russell, Rhena Jasey, Sabrina Laine, Scott Gaiber, Sydnee Dickson, Thao Nguyen, Tony Thacker, Vanessa Roth, Zeke Vanderhoek

Accuracy: The documentary film American Teacher cites accurate statistics. It includes interviews with a wide variety of knowledgeable persons--teachers, administrators, university professors, parents, and students. The opinions expressed all lean toward the filmmaker's vision, but they are nonetheless informed opinions.
Review: It's hard for me to be objective regarding a film with which I am in almost complete agreement. As a classroom teacher with a masters degree, I have watched as friends and family members working in other fields (with associates or bachelors degrees) earned much more money and enjoyed much more free time. In how many other professions is an employee expected to work 10-30 hours extra per week off the clock, without compensation, while simultaneously paying for the bulk of his/her supplies? At what office do employees bring their own pens, paper, and printer ink to work? For its insight into understanding the basic financial struggles of teachers, I strongly recommend that anyone considering a career as a teacher watch this film.

TAmerican Teacher Documentary (2011) - Rhena Jasey with a student.he one failing I see with this film is the lack of a look at the financial realities faced by working-class parents, which could have been used to illustrate why so many Americans today are opposed to higher wages and good benefits for teachers. As stated above, working as a teacher, I know very well what other people with my level of knowledge and high college degree are earning. I know what my other career options are. However, most of the parents of my students earn anything from zero dollars to, at the most (and rarely), $50,000.00 per year. How can a teacher earning $35,000.00 per year explain to a single mom raising three kids on $22,000.00 per year that teachers should make even more money?

I have taught at schools where the parents and students considered the teachers to be "rich" because our cars were fifteen years old or less, we seemed to own our own homes, and we had clothes from "upscale" stores like J.C. Penney and Kohl's. Sadly, in these poor communities, teachers and administrators are more likely than not to be the "wealthiest" people with which parents and students come into contact. These parents lack the background knowledge to understand that someone with a masters degree and high content knowledge who is willing to put in 60 hours per week can instantly double, if not triple or quadruple, his or her earnings by entering the private sector. Educating parents about the need for higher teacher salaries is a difficult and complicated business at any time, let alone during a recession. Perhaps this is a goal of American Teacher, and a reason why parents should watch it. Click here to enlarge the official movie poster.
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American Teacher Movie Review Publication Date for Citation Purposes: June 20, 2012