This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001



Documentary examines the sorry treatment of teachers in America today

AMERICAN TEACHER (Vanessa Roth, 2011)
AMC Empire 25
234 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
September 30 - October 6

“It’s the best job in the world, no comparison,” Jonathan Dearman says in American Teacher, Vanessa Roth’s eye-opening documentary about the sorry treatment of teachers in the United States today. Based on the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (New Press, 2005) by Dave Eggers, Daniel Moulthrop, and Nínive Clements Calegari, the eighty-one-minute film looks at the surprising lack of status, salary, respect, and training afforded what is considered in other countries the most important profession by examining the cases of four current or former American teachers, dedicated men and women who are born educators but who have been deeply affected by a seriously flawed system. Texas history professor and sports coach Erik Benner sees his marriage fall apart as he works two jobs to help support his wife and two daughters. Brooklynite Jamie Fidler is following in her father’s footsteps as a teacher, but her pregnancy complicates her future in part by revealing the relatively poor health benefits. Maplewood’s Rhena Jasey is a Harvard grad with two masters degrees from Columbia who is considering leaving the kids she loves so much for a Washington Heights charter school that pays a far more substantial salary. And Dearman, a beloved San Francisco educator, turns to the family real estate business when teaching just can’t pay the bills. Part of the nonprofit Teacher Salary Project, American Teacher is at its best when it shows the teachers in the classroom and talking about what they love about their job, but when it focuses on the many negatives, it feels too much like a telethon, as if a crawl should be running across the bottom of the screen soliciting donations. The film includes numerous statistics involving turnover rates, the declining number of men in the industry, and, of course, various financial figures, dryly narrated by Matt Damon. In addition to following around the four protagonists, Roth speaks with students and their parents, superintendents, principals, professors, and other industry professionals who want to see the system changed. Interestingly, one word that never comes up is “union,” which is often at the center of any discussion about the state of education in America. Although it can pull too much at the heartstrings while stating the obvious, American Teacher is an important documentary that makes a strong case for the United States to fix this growing problem, and fast.

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