Title: American Teacher
Director: Vanessa Roth
An inoffensive but hardly essential piece of occupational boosterism, “American Teacher” provides a look at the public education crisis in the United States through the eyes of those often lambasted or pilloried as somehow being a bigger part of the problem than of the solution. Helmed by Academy Award-winning director Vanessa Roth, the documentary spotlights the extraordinary personal sacrifices that a lot of instructors make by choosing to teach — as well as how qualified and otherwise passionate people are sometimes driven from the field by the rocky shoals of hard-knock financial reality. Many of the subjects here are inspiring, but, sadly, “American Teacher” comes off as more of a staid, herky-jerky stump speech than a fiery and clarifying call to action.
Supposedly narrated by Matt Damon (I say supposedly only because it sounds very little like the Oscar-winning actor, as if he’s trying to drain the personality and tone out of his voice), the film purports to chronicle the stories of a quartet of teachers — Harvard graduate and New Jersey elementary school teacher Rhena Jasey; 7th grade Texas gym coach and history teacher Erik Benner; pregnant Brooklyn 1st grade instructor Jamie Fidler, herself the daughter of a teacher; and Jonathan Dearman, a role model at a predominantly African-American San Francisco high school. ”American Teacher” gives each of these individuals an actual arc; they’re speaking on their personal experiences, and what teaching has both meant to them and, in different ways, cost them. This is an interesting tack, one not often associated with nonfiction films of a certain persuasive mien. Interspersed with their recollections and insights, though, is a wide variety of other talking-head footage, which comes across as scattershot in its inclusion and placement.
“American Teacher” is at its best when underlining what those who lamely trot out the tired old cliche that “those who can do, while those who can’t teach” fail to acknowledge or even entertain — namely, that teaching, for those who are truly invested in the work, is among the most intellectually rigorous occupations. After all, teachers are constant, active decision makers — not only working to circumvent certain social constructs, but developing, sometimes even on the fly, relatable ways to not only impart information but also a complementary, contextual reasoning of why these facts and skill sets are important.
Too frequently, though, the movie loses sight on this theme, slipping off into statistical homilies (that 46 percent of teachers are out of the field within five years, for instance, which creates additional structural costs and places even more enormous strains on dwindling resources) that are related, yes, but hijack the movie’s emotional momentum. Good teachers — the ones that inspire and open your eyes to a world of both possibilities and responsibilities larger than you’d heretofore considered — are an invaluable commodity. By showing how we’re failing those charged with actually developing our kids, “American Teacher” has the chance to locate an unexpectedly emotional connection to the sedate issue of education. Too bad, then, that it loses focus and takes its eyes off the prize, unnecessarily substituting macro lessons when its localized examples pack more of a punch.
Written by: Brent Simon