Wednesday, November 23, 2011

American Teacher Fights To Survive

Competing for space in the American mind, which Allan Bloom famously declared closed more than twenty years ago, we have unemployment, a recessed economy, two wars, and a confederacy of dunces vying to be the next leader of the self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth.” Somewhere in the middle of that pack is American education. Every yahoo running for political office from dog catcher to president wants to be known as the education candidate. Yet once in office, those same politicians offer the old tired mantras of standardized test scores and teacher accountability. We must return America’s students to the top of the heap in math and science, they bray. Let’s hope they can read, too.

We have been treated to a number of documentaries in the local cinema over the last few years regarding our education problems in America. There was the much ballyhooed Waiting For “Superman,” (2010) by the people who brought us global warming and the Al Gore PowerPoint lecture; there were also a number of lesser known films like The Lottery (2010) and Teached (2011). Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn have been flogging their take on the education crisis with American Teacher (2011).

The film follows the lives of several teachers as they navigate the emotional and difficult waters of a typical school year. To be fair, Roth and McGinn are not breaking new ground. The film, The First Year (2001), which aired on PBS, did a much better job of packing the emotional wallop of the daily life of an educator. That film was directed by Davis Guggenheim, who went on to do An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting For “Superman.”

American Teacher was inspired by the Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers’ book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (New Press, 2005). Eggers went on to help produce the film. Look, one would have had to be living under a rock for the last few years not to know that teachers are the republic’s version of the sacrificial lambs. They work for little pay, even less respect, and in dire circumstances to educate our children. We pay the big salaries to our corporate CEOs and professional athletes while our teachers put in eighty hour weeks and work part time at Home Depot. So the film tells us a story we already know and for which we can easily predict the outcome. However, the portions of American Teacher featuring Jamie Fidler and Erik Benner are exceptionally moving.

Fidler begins the film very pregnant while attempting to teach her class. She purchases her own supplies, and works endless hours for her students. She looks haggard and worn, and one has to wonder if her exhaustive preparation and teaching will harm her baby. Once she returns from giving birth, a miraculously short few weeks, we see her wandering the halls looking for an empty classroom or office in which to pump her breast milk. Other scenes show her spending her limited lunch break on the phone with her medical insurance carrier, determining the procedure for her upcoming pregnancy leave. But she is a diehard teacher through and through, a woman who is fiery and passionate about her work.

Benner works his time in a Texas classroom, while simultaneously coaching school teams and working evenings and weekends at the local Circuit City. He is a bear of a man, appearing to have fathomless reserves of energy. Then, his job at the electronics store is cut, and he moves to a tile and flooring emporium. His days are long and draining, and his hard work forces him to pay a price: the loss of his family. His marriage crumbles and he agonizes over whether to take on extra shifts or spend the time with his children.

Director Brian McGinn says that the film purposely avoids politics, or assailing any one party, such as teachers’ unions. This film does not participate in the same dust-up instigated by films like Waiting For “Superman.” They did not interview union leaders or charter school entrepreneurs. Education secretary Arne Duncan sneers his way through a comment on teachers, and Bill Gates performs his rumpled version of Steve Jobs on stage talking to an audience, but that’s it. Gates contributed some money to this production, says McGinn, but only at the end when the film was finished. He did not know if Gates had even watched it.

I wonder how many Americans will sit through another documentary about teaching. This country loves the feel-good stories, the films like Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995), and even To Sir With Love (1967), none of which were documentaries, but were purported to be based on true stories. The story of education, and its failure in America, defies the classic cinematic narrative. The audience wants the white hats and black hats, the cowboys and Indians. When the house lights come up, there must be a catharsis, and an upbeat ending. We want to know that we are on the right track, and that there’s a workable solution around the next bend. We do not like stories that are downers, and this is why so many films and television shows get the drama of the classroom wrong.

In American education, the happy ending is proving quite illusive. There are no easy solutions, no quick fixes. There’s graft and waste and mismanagement. There are slimy politicians and shady characters waiting to make a fast buck in the rush to privatize our schools. Meanwhile, the kids languish and suffer, and we fall down as a nation.

The film makes a big deal out of other countries who have better education systems. Although they fail to give much detail about what exactly they are doing that works, it seems like the best solution might be to copy what those nations are doing, and build on that. Instead, we get the almost lemming-like focus on standardized test scores, with the resulting cheating scandals when teachers teach to the test because they are always aware of the loaded gun pointed at their heads. Teachers in America kill themselves, buy their own supplies, work outrageous numbers of hours, forego family life, and in the end, find their jobs eliminated in the latest budget bloodbath.

We do not need another documentary to tell us how bad things are. We know: the system is rigged, the fix is in, and nothing ever changes. More and more, bright, compelling, excellent teachers find other careers that offer not only a decent salary, but a chance to work more than five years without a nervous breakdown. Americans do not really want to know the true story of education, because that one isn’t going to end well, and with everything else that is going wrong, we can’t stomach all that darkness.


  1. Read this awhile back, didn't comment, but took a little more time & feel compelled to say a few words now. Your best line was that teachers are the "republic's version of sacrificial lambs."

    I work in a school, myself, & do some teaching, but my title is not officially teacher. I see the crappy home lives kids bring to school & how it affects their academic performance & inner psyche. Teachers are competing with all the bullcrap brought on by dysfunctional families and society overall. It's unfair to hold teachers solely accountable for overcoming all these obstacles.

    We're up against inexorable forces. We should all be working together -- teachers, administrators, parents, community centers, churches, mosques, YMCA's, the local businesses, community centers & the like -- but it ain't happening. You feel like a lone voice in the wilderness.

    On the other hand, you're inevitable -- sometimes -- going to see a miracle or two.

  2. More and more studies are showing that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is only a small part of student achievement. The child's homelife and economic level have much more to do with academic success.

    Teachers are always, have always, been up against impossible odds, but still they fight on, because for most educators, this is not just a job, but a life choice akin to having children of their own or deciding to get married. Teaching is never "just a job."

    Thanks for your comment, and of course, for reading.


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