What to pay an 'American Teacher'
The last 12 months have been the Year of the Education Documentary. "Waiting for Superman," a cinematic adoration of the charter school movement, was screened in selected theaters. Then came the anti-Superman "Race to Nowhere," a less-slick, lower-budget flick that criticized what it saw as the undue stress on students today, with their slates of AP courses and standardized tests, hours of homework and phalanx of extracurricular activities. Included in its complaint was the No Child Left Behind Act and lack of freedom for teachers. Screened in churches and community centers, and watched mainly by parents who shared its concerns, it received a less publicized but no less enthusiastic reception.
On Friday night, in the theater of the Creative Artists Agency in Century City, a quieter school documentary had its first Los Angeles showing, and there's no knowing when it will come back or in what form. "American Teacher," co-produced by acclaimed author Dave Eggers, does the usual job of weaving shots of classrooms and homes with interviews conducted with teachers, parents and experts. It carefully tiptoes around issues of school reform as it argues, with strong justification, that U.S. teachers are paid far too little. It shows how many of them get outside jobs to make ends meet; the 12-hour days; the money spent out of pocket to make sure their students have necessary supplies.
The film points out that half a century ago, schools were able to draw from among the brightest college students by hiring women, who had few choices among the professions in those days. In fact, the move to recruit women was done in part to lower the cost of public education.
Those days are gone, and now teachers tend to come from the low half of the college pool. Even then, about a fifth of those new teachers quit each year. Countries such as Finland that have the highest scores on international tests recruit from top university students and pay for their training, then pay them more when they start teaching.
The makers of the film, including award-winning director Vanessa Roth, sought to avoid controversy by sidestepping the issues of where the money would come from in a dreadful economy (though it does briefly show the Teacher Equity Project in New York, a charter school that managed its money so it could pay all its teachers more than $100,000 a year) and refusing to address the disputes between the school reform movement and teachers unions. Unfortunately, this is also its weakness. Of course we'd like to pay good teachers more. A great teacher who inspires students is worth everything we can manage and then some. But where do we find the money, and how do we avoid paying those sums to mediocre and low performers?
The filmmakers argue, rightly, that many of us can point to teachers who made a huge difference in our lives. Sadly, the film did a less-than-convincing job of showing teachers in the act of accomplishing just that. A young graduate of Harvard University -- who found that she had to continually explain her decision to enter such a low-prestige profession -- brilliantly delivered creative, heartfelt lessons, keeping a continual eye out for her students' ability to make independent decisions and stand up for themselves, along with their ability to do academic work. The other teachers seemed nice, but $125,000-a-year nice?
Finding a teacher in the midst of doing his or her magic isn't an easy task; inspiration comes in those unscripted moments when just the right explanation reaches just the right child. But that might be what the filmmakers need to do in order to convince the public that great education doesn't come cheap. Nor can a convincing film shy away from addressing the tough questions. The film has a single showing planned in Washington; its future past that point is unclear, and that might be for the best right now.
Photo credit: theteachersalaryproject.org