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What to pay an 'American Teacher'

American Teacherdavid eggerslos angelesmoviepremiereteacher pay

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.


Teaching, the most important profession

A 1-hour fix for the racial achievement gap?

Jim Newton: Education and the magic of hard work

The mother tongues: Learning Spanish and English unites children

LAUSD: Public education and private money may prove a mixed bag

--Karin Klein  

Photo credit: theteachersalaryproject.org


Comments () | Archives (12)

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You cannot ask for accountability if you don't pay.
Japan,Korea and many other EU countries pay the teacher well for their job.
Saw and you shall reap!!


I will pay if it is a full-time position. If you only work 9 months a year, and hit the parking lot at 3:01, then I will not pay $100K a year. Why not make it a 9-5 job and correct homework at school?

trust no one

Pay for performance. The UTLA refuses to acknowledge an acceptable measuring methodology for teacher performance, so they're acting as an impediment to progress.

The best teachers should be making hay. Those that aren't should be on disciplinary action and then let go if they can't perform.

I know of no one that believes great teachers should not be making great money.


Sure, let's make teaching a 9-5 job, 12 months out of the year. If parents are willing to change the bell schedules at schools to 9am-4pm and keep kids in school year round. How many parents are realistically willing to do that?


You obviously have no idea what you are talking about, but why should that stop you from mouthing off. Once you add up the time lesson planning, trying to get apathetic parents on the phone to discuss their kids, and yes correcting homework teaching is more then a full time job. Its amazing that people can be so ignorant and think that just because somebody isn’t sitting in an office waiting to punch out they automatically aren't working. I bet you're a republican because silly statements like yours are just so typical from the right wing in this country


LA Mom, if a teacher hits the parking lot at 3:01 it's only to beat rush hour traffic so she can get home and get to work grading papers and preparing lesson plans for the rest of the night. And I don't know how it works in K-12 but for community college teachers they don't get paid for the summer unless they work during the summer, and even then they don't get their full salary.


btw don't forget that school starts at 7:50AM, not 9AM. Teachers have to get there before class starts to open up the classroom and prepare for the day, so even if you go by your theory, you're still operating on a 7AM to 3PM day, which is literally the same as 9AM-5PM. But then again, you haven't accounted for anything except the teaching day. The "full time job" you propose doesn't leave any time for grading or lesson plan formation.

Greg Maragos

Better Questions:

Should teachers be considered civil servants? If so, why are so many people willing to pay so much more for private schools, when they can send their child to a public school for free?



Why does correcting homework at school make teaching a full time job whereas correcting homework or prepping at home make teaching only a part time job? Do people who telecommute not really work, then?


As a teacher, I am pretty satisfied with my salary. I make close to the 100k per year mentioned in the article, of course I get home at about 10pm from taking on additional part-time teaching job at night and also have a master's degree, but there is also a nice pension and benefits. I aslo never work on weekends or spend my personal money on student's supplies like many have posted, because my money is for my family and myself. There is no reason parents or the school cannot supply their kids with supplies for learning.

Paul Cline

It's all good. For Teacher Appreciation Week, I got a free bowl of oatmeal from McDonalds!!! Thanks, Mickey D!!!


The price needed to get good teachers can only be determined in a market where teachers are selected, retained and paid by the value they add to the educational mission. The current system, and likely this movie, is the anti-thesis of such a market and outcome-based determination. For many good teachers, would be teachers and teachers that left the business, it is the lack of focus on the educational mission and the intense politics, union power games and bureaucracy that turns them off. People's satisfaction with their employment is not just a function of compensation, but is also highly correlated with atmosphere created by the organization, their co-workers and their supervisors, as well as the pride in the work product. I know teachers who are profoundly frustrated and offended at a system that is really more about the adult government employees than the education of children.



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