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The tagline of the 2011 feature-length documentary, “American Teacher” reads, “One of the toughest jobs in the world is getting tougher.” Co-directed by Vanessa Ross and Brian McGinn, the documentary is narrated by Matt Damon and produced by The Teacher Salary Project. “American Teacher” also identifies the toughest job in the world — being a public school teacher.

Debating the state of education in America’s public schools is a national pastime. However, there is common agreement that the most successful schools have quality teachers and that quality teachers make a positive difference in student achievement. So what makes an effective teacher? The overall conclusion is that it is a combination of factors: what teachers know about the subject matter and how to teach it, and what teachers do in the classroom. Seems simple enough: if we want good public schools where all children achieve academic success, we need to hire highly qualified, effective teachers. Therein lies the problem.

The obvious enthusiasm these teachers have for teaching and their commitment to their students is mesmerizing to watch.

“American Teacher” makes some pretty startling revelations about the teaching profession in the U.S., interviewing teachers, principals, and other public school personnel, as well as education researchers and government officials. The film chooses to focus on four teachers and tells their individual stories, which serves to personalize the film for the viewer.

The obvious enthusiasm these teachers have for teaching and their commitment to their students is mesmerizing to watch. But what we also see and hear is that to do their job with the professionalism it requires, these teachers work ten hour days, five days a week and still do additional work on the weekends. One of the teachers explains that in her first year of teaching at an elementary school, she spent $3,000 of her money on supplies for her classroom and her students.

Two of the teachers are males, and two are females. One of the female teachers becomes pregnant and takes the pregnancy leave available to her, six weeks following the date that she gives birth. One of the men is married with children and has been teaching for more than 10 years. He leaves school every day around 5 p.m. and goes to his second job at a hardware store where he works five nights per week to earn enough money to supplement his teaching salary and support his family. Filmed over a period of three years, we see one of the male teachers leave the profession to take a job selling real estate. The young mother mentioned above ends up taking a year of unpaid pregnancy leave with no definite plan to return to teaching.

The experiences of these teachers echo my own when I was in the classroom. The first year that I taught, 1984, I worked a full-time position but was assigned to two schools; I spent my mornings at Chapel Hill High School and my afternoons at Phillips Junior High. I used my own car, and paid for my own gas to drive between the two schools and no one ever considered paying me for mileage. Years later when I entered the legal profession, I was shocked but thrilled to find that if I had to travel for my work and used my own vehicle, my office paid the mileage no matter how far I traveled.

It is not about wealth but about earning a living wage.

The film is careful to point out that no one becomes a teacher with the goal of making lots of money. It is not about wealth but about earning a living wage. I was in the classroom full time for 9½ years and I only took one summer off. Most of my colleagues didn’t take summers off either. We taught summer school, or tutored students, or graded AP tests, and some worked in restaurants, department stores and other service industry positions. The goal wasn’t to earn money for a vacation trip but to earn enough to pay rent and make your car payment.

It is striking that none of the teachers interviewed in this film are complaining about salary because they want to be wealthy and live an extravagant life style. What they want is to be able to devote themselves to teaching their students, preparing materials for their classes and working after school with students instead of rushing off to part time jobs in order to make ends meet. The documentary makes a compelling case that if we want to hire and retain highly qualified teachers in our public schools, then we must offer them competitive salaries.

This film is a little more than three years old, but the points it makes and the issues that it raises are just as relevant in January 2015 as they were when it was released in 2011. It stresses that the need for action to address teacher quality and retention is urgent, calculating that 1.8 million of America’s 3.2 million teachers will retire over the next 10 years.

As North Carolina celebrates its 175th anniversary of public schools, it is worth recalling the experience of our first public school teacher. According to state lore:

“The school’s first teacher was George W. Garrett, a large plantation owner who had gone to school at a military academy in Virginia. In 1839, when the Common School Law was enacted by the General Assembly, Garrett provided Rockingham County with an appropriate school building on his land with the provision that he would be hired as the teacher. Garrett was said to be a strict disciplinarian who kept a large bundle of switches stacked in the corner of the school room, ready for use. Boys, ages six to twenty-one, attended the one-room, one-teacher school and from accounts passed down in the Garrett family, those switches didn’t stop the boys’ mischievous behavior. One cold winter morning some of the older boys hid in the building and overpowered Garrett as he entered. They tossed him and his switches into a pond near the school.”1

175 years later, the combination of long hours and low pay does not make teaching attractive as a profession even for the most dedicated educator. We leave the profession to pursue a variety of options but our reasons for leaving are very similar—salaries too low to afford to purchase a house, regular work weeks of 52 hours, insufficient funds for classroom supplies resulting in teachers using their own funds to purchase needed materials, and the need to work a part time job just to make ends meet.

The Teacher Salary Project website lists the data cited in the film about teaching, including salary comparisons with other professions requiring the same educational levels, and other statistics about teachers and the teaching profession.

This is a film for discussion and analysis, and its ultimate purpose is to engender action to ensure that every teacher, in every classroom, in every state is a highly qualified teacher.

The website makes no bones about the film being a tool of The Teacher Salary Project’s effort to motivate policymakers at the state level to increase teacher pay to a competitive level to attract and retain quality teachers in the nation’s public schools. However, the film is not only intended for an audience of policymakers but for parents, teachers, and community members as well. It is also not a film for simply watching. This is a film for discussion and analysis, and its ultimate purpose is to engender action to ensure that every teacher, in every classroom, in every state is a highly qualified teacher. It really is simple: if we want good public schools where all children achieve academic success, we need to hire and retain highly qualified, effective teachers.

Want to view the film?

The documentary is approximately 80 minutes long and pretty fast paced. It is definitely suitable for a group viewing, followed by discussion. The website provides a list of on demand sites where the documentary may be viewed online and also provides links for ordering a DVD of the film. Don’t watch it alone. Invite friends and neighbors to join you, maybe even a few policymakers.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Swift, Vance. “First Public Free School.” The State. January 1987. 14-15.
Sheria Reid

Sheria Reid is a native North Carolinian and an attorney in Raleigh. She taught high school language arts for more than 9 years in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools. She received her teaching degree and her law degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.