Directed by Vanessa Roth
Produced by Nínive Calegari, Dave Eggers, & Roth
Based on the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers by Calegari, Eggers & Daniel Moulthrop
Released by First Run Features
USA. 81 min. Not Rated

American Teacher aims to improve the image of those who been seen in the media as the public enemy No. 1 of school reformers and budget cutters.

Matt Damon’s mellifluous narration quotes and updates reams of statistics from the 2005 book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, written by producers Nínive Calegari and David Eggers, along with Daniel Moulthrop. Noted author Eggers (son of a teacher) also founded 826 Valencia, a multi-city nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization. Former teacher Calegari is the founder of the Teacher Salary Project, which sponsored the film and its accompanying advocacy activities. The film uses the book’s style of supplementing lots of stats with teachers’ true tales. It follows four teachers in cities and suburbs over more than one school year. These effective portraits poignantly personalize the multitude of charts and testimony from many education and academic experts.

The most involving portrait is of Erik Benner, a Texas history teacher who was also featured in the book. Director Vanessa Roth uses her considerable vérité skills, as seen in one of the best of the school-kids-in-competition-documentaries The Third Monday in October (2006), to cover how his job leads to financial and family pressures. Representing the stresses of the almost two-thirds of teachers who have to take second (and third jobs) to make ends meet, he’s also an afterschool athletic coach—it doesn’t hurt that he seems like the mentoring football coach from the TV version of Friday Night Lights. So the exhausting late shifts in electronics and home improvement stores that destroy his family life is that much more touching. Even as fewer and fewer men stay in the profession, the portrait of Brooklyn second-generation public school teacher Jamie Fidler emphasizes her work/family balance as she faces pregnancy and maternity leave issues.

The film faces down last year’s pro-charter schools polemics, Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery, Bob Bowdon’s The Cartel and Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman. Jonathan Dearman was an influential teacher at San Francisco’s first charter high school, Leadership High, but financial pressures also drove him to join his family’s real estate company (though it’s hard to believe that’s still a better choice in this housing market). His story is mostly told through a prism of regret, from alumni and colleagues who relate his earlier influence, and his on missing teaching. To stem the tide of almost half of teachers quitting before their fifth year, New Jersey suburban teacher Rhena Jasey is induced to stay in the profession through a New York City charter school that recruits outstanding teachers by offering very high salaries.

Several of the charges made in the other documentaries are carefully avoided, notably the power of teachers’ unions, both within educational bureaucracies and as a political force in elections, particularly for local school boards. Though focusing on the difficult daily work conditions of teaching, there are more complaints about critical parents than the pressures of being evaluated based on their students’ standardized test results (let alone on less effective teachers). With many of these participants and interviewees having teaching degrees, including masters’, there is no criticism of schools of education, and Teach for America, that recruits top college graduates to teach for a couple of years in low-income communities, is only mentioned in a pejorative passing inference as a temporary fill-in. By putting a human face onto policies outside the classroom, American Teacher sympathetically portrays the day after day, year after year, challenges of commitment in the classroom.