Wednesday, September 28, 2011

AMERICAN TEACHER gives educators their due--& America a well-deserved raspberry

A joyous celebra-tion of good teachers and good teaching, the new documen-tary AMER-ICAN TEACHER makes a fine coun-terpoint, if not a counter-active, to last year's over-hyphed, over-sold and over-done education documentary Waiting for Superman. With all the talk of charter schools being our salvation, they only come back to the same idea as has been on the back burner for a century or more: So far as providing our kids with a good education is concerned, it's the teachers that count most.

Directed and co-produced by Vanessa Roth, shown at left (and co-directed and edited by Brian McGinn), the film introduces us to four major players in the education profession, as well as several more whom we meet only cursorily. These four, shown at the top of the poster above, are -- clockwise, from top left -- Erik Benner, Rhena Jasey (also shown with her students, below), Jonathan Dearman and Jamie Fidler, and you're going to be damned impressed with all of them.

Though it begins on a high note of immense satisfaction and joy -- these teachers really love their profession and the kids they teach -- as the film moves along, it darkens considerably. No surprise, this, to anyone who follows the state of American education, for the picture is dire, and growing more so almost daily. Beginning teachers gets the lowest salary and the hardest classes. They work very long hours and, to boot, they must pay for many of their classroom needs out of their own pocket.

The movie is not awash in statistics, but those provided are important.  We learn the attrition rate for new teachers (bad!), and history of the ever-declining "male" classroom teacher (34% in 1970, 22% in 2002, 16% in 2010) and how women were introduced to the profession, in part to help keep the salary-level down. Keeping that salary level down seems one of the more consistent goals of American education, and it no doubt accounts for why our kids are testing lower and lower on the international learning scale.

One of the very smart things this movie does is to show us the top three countries in terms of test scores for the kids -- Finland, Singapore and South Korea -- and then also shows what these countries have in common regarding how they treat their teachers.  This section is eye-opening, and it makes clear and cogent what must be done here in the USA. Will it? Fat chance. Education and America's children are about as high on the scale of what our politicians truly care about as are the environment and the genuine regulation of Wall Street and the banking industry. It's all about fancy words and nearly zero deeds.

Fortunately, there do seem to be a few alternatives such as The TEP Project to increase teacher's salaries, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to what must actually be done. As we learn more about our foursome, their stories deepen and take on a darker cast, particular that of Erik Benner, above, who must (as do so many teachers) take on a second job to keep his family going. Erik's history, where he came from and where he is now headed, seem particularly heart-breaking.

Probably the most unusual scene in the movie is the one in which Jamie Fidler, above, now a new mom but back in school after only 6 weeks, must find some private place in the school where she can breast pump -- because she is nursing her baby. Or listen to Jonathan Dearman (below) talk about his dedication to education: "From the money I made earlier in real estate, I thought I could subsidize my "teaching habit."  If only. Eventually, he leaves to return to his family's real estate business.

Despite its shiny surface, the movie offers a lot of thought, if not much hope. The fish stinks from the head, and despite these wonderful teachers -- and many more like them -- they are but underlings with little power to change anything. As that super-wealthy one-per-cent, together with our vast conglomerates and paid-for politicians, conspire and succeed in turning us into wage slaves, the education level will keep descending. Only faster. Well, why not? Still, America once held out such promise, didn't it?

American Teacher, from First Run Features, opens in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 this Friday, September 30, for a week's run, with a DVD release not far behind.

No comments: