Title: American Teacher
Directed By: Vanessa Roth
Written By: Vanessa Roth
Cast: Erik Benner, Jonathan Dearman, Jamie Fidler, Rhena Jasey
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 9/8/11
Opens: September 30, 2011
Vanessa Roth’s documentary, which focuses on three teachers from diverse areas, is the kind of movie meant to serve as uplift-to remind us about how saintly the characters really are and how the society tramples on these idealistic folks by affording them low prestige and even lower wages. Though the film undoubtedly has its heart in the right place, it is flawed by repetition, by a refusal to explore its hypotheses instead of merely presenting them, and of a nature so staid that even a marvelous actor like Matt Damon, who serves as narrator (presumably free of charge) comes across like an 85-year-old philosophy pressure who is so burned out that he simply reads his lecture from a book. Its most incredibly useless and irritating features is the use of Thao Nguyen’s musical score throughout—not to raise suspense as music has proved essential for thrillers but almost to distract the audience from what is being said. Can you image a teacher in front of a class trying to evoke answers from students while bland music simultaneously operates? Isn’t it enough that our young people have ipads that cut into their concentration on schoolwork: now we have to have its equivalent in a documentary?
The film, which features an oversupply of talking heads—the bane of documentaries and the reason that docs are perhaps even lower on the totem pole of audience popularity than foreign language movies—focuses on three teachers, each of whom has a hard luck story to tell. And those stories deal almost exclusively with salaries. Never mind that the big issue torn from today’s newspapers are about attacks on teacher tenure, the view that tenure makes teachers lazy—as though secure pedagogues each dealing with 150 kids daily can just lie around reading the newspapers while their charges sit quietly by. Everything is about money.
That’s not to say I have no sympathy for the hard luck that some have shown. Erik, in particular, teaches history in Texas to middle-school kids—though throughout the movie we hear only a smidgen of commentary from the young people while they’re in the classroom. He not only has had to work two jobs, really three—one as classroom teacher, one as the students’ athletic coach, and disastrously another in Circuit City where he put in time from 5 in the evening until 11 in order to make ends meet. His hours, however painfully long, belie the view of the film that teachers work not only six hours a day, thirty per week, but more like sixty-five when you count grading papers and preparing lessons. How does Erik have time for that? Eventually his marriage breaks up, but whether that’s because of his hours or some other tensions that developed at home, is difficult to ascertain. Also, if I had a teacher that peppered his daily classroom commentary with as many “you-know”‘s as he does in front of the camera, I’d likely drop out of school.
Jamie, who teaches elementary school in New York, must cope with her pregnancy, “pumping” milk for her baby every two hours in a separate room, and critical that the school system allows only six weeks off for maternity leave.
Rhena is the lucky one, a Harvard graduate with an advanced degree from Columbia University whose friends could not believe someone with such a prestigious background would choose teaching. She eventually lucks out with a job paying a base salary of $125,000 for Equity Project Charter, but to get that job she had to be one of only eight people chosen from an applicant pool of six hundred.
Teaching is a tough job, particularly in big cities. I can assure everyone of this, given my thirty-two years in the New York City high schools (not as a student). Whether I or my colleagues could have made more in private industry, as the film suggests, is debatable. How many teachers could have instead been Chemical Engineers, who, if in the top 20% of the class are now offered six figures to start? How many could have been corporate lawyers, some given $160,000 as freshmen at the major white-shoe firms? Here in the Big Apple, though, the pay is better than that offered in most of the rest of the U.S., $103,000 a year, but you have to put in twenty-five years to attain that top pay, while forty-six percent of us have quit in the first five years.
“American Teacher” offers nothing new—everyone knows that we are underpaid and under-appreciated, a situation that is not universally held. For example in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, teachers are paid considerably more vis-à-vis their cost of living and have more prestige. But even at eighty-one minutes, the theme of low salaries is repeated ad nauseum to the neglect of many other issues being debated today such as tenure and the advantages and disadvantages of teaching to the test.
Unrated. 81 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – C
Technical – C
Overall – C