AFF Review- American Teacher

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American Teacher

"Those who can, do.

Those who can't, teach."

- Someone who never stood in front of a classroom

"If we paid teachers what they're worth then the quality of education in this country would improve greatly."

- Someone else who has never stood in front of a classroom.

"This ain't a job. This ain't an occupation. It's calling, a need."

- Tommy Gavin

Oh, great. Another teaching documentary.

I am really torn on these things. Yes, they are important and I am grateful that someone out there is trying to communicate the realities of my profession, but I just.... Well, as a teacher, I know what it's like. I am six years on the job and during that time I have dealt with EVERYTHING a teacher can deal with. I am not exaggerating.

To give you an idea, last year alone my campus had

an accidental student death

a student suicide

a recent graduate die accidentally

a recent graduate commit public suicide

the death of a custodian on campus

the death of a former administrator

the death of one former student in an armed robbery

the arrest of another former student in the same armed robbery

Add to that the number of pregnant teenagers, dropouts, drug users, gang members, kids abused by their parents, kids abused by the person they are dating, and kids who get bullied and sometime it feels like I am fighting to hold Helms Deep.

"American Teacher" is interesting though. It isn't a hack job perpetrated by some hatchet faced prick like SOME MOVIES I COULD MENTION. I already talked about that one, and I OFFERED MY SOLUTION.

I come across all kinds, some critical, some laudatory. As a 6'8" 290 pound teacher, I find that the critical ones tend to shut up around me. I guess their desire to feel superior takes a back seat to their desire to not have the ever loving dog crap kicked out of them. The problem I do find though is that even the people who support me have it wrong. What do I mean?

There are two statements that explain this.

"If we just paid teachers what they are worth then kids might actually learn something."

and

"If we paid teachers more then we would attract the best and brightest to the profession."

How could I possibly have a problem with either of these, you ask?

Let me translate,

"If we paid teachers what they are worth they might actually do their jobs."

and

"If we paid teachers more then we would get better people and finally be able to replace all the lazy incompetents we have now."

This may not be the intent behind either, but that is definitely the subtext.

How about this...

"Why don't we pay teachers more because we value education and think it's appropriate to pay the people who educate our children as if we value the education they are providing?"

That is what people mean, but it's not what they are saying.

Let me say this. Nobody who goes into teaching, or who stays with it, has any allusions about how much we will be paid. Yes, this keeps people away from the profession, but it isn't one that is, or should, be done for money. But I will get to that later.

I have gone on at great length about WHAT I THINK IS WRONG AND HOW TO FIX IT. But there is a larger problem.

The rules surrounding education are written by people who have never stood in front of a classroom. Our pay, our curriculum, our ability to discipline, all of it is decided by people who know nothing about what we do.

Can you think of any other profession where that statement could be made? Would you want a house designed by an architect and an engineer, or by someone who knows all about houses because they've lived in them and use to build them with Legos?

Would you want a surgeon who went to med school, or someone who watched a lot of ER and played the game Operation a lot as a kid?

Would we let our Army be run by someone who was really good at the game Risk?

No, that would be stupid. And yet...

We allow our educational policy to be written entirely by lawyers and career politicians.

I could go on about this, but I think it's time to get to the review.

This movie is a celebration of teachers and the sacrifices we make. It shows the struggle of the long hours, the low pay, the inadequate support, and the over filled classrooms. You get to see the daily lives of teachers and meet successful educators who have left the field because they could make much more money for much less work (in some cases by just leaving the classroom for administration).

I like that the film eschews politics. There is no mention of unions, unlike some other PRICK FILMMAKERS I could mention, and not a ton of focus on students (unless it is in regards to their attitudes towards their teachers). It is simply about the difficulties of living on what our society says our services are worth.

What gets me is that it didn't go far enough. We didn't get to hear about the amount of time stolen from teachers for pointless testing or the uselessness of No Child Left Behind (Which was a bipartisan cluster fuck, so don't get all high and mighty if you happen to vote for people with D after their names. Yeah, Bush signed it, but Ted Kennedy wrote it, so everyone is an asshole on this one.)

For example, as an English teacher I was required to give...

Beginning of the year benchmark

Middle of the year benchmark

End of they year benchmark

District authored six weeks test (6 total)

The actually state test

That is 10 completely different testing days.

Now realize that kids have to take the same for all four core subjects.

That gives you 40 days of testing per year per student.

Think of that in terms of money. The tests have to be written, duplicated, administered, graded, scanned, indexed, and processed into both individual and campus wide results. Each step of that process costs money. And there is very little about any of this which is useful because tests don't tell you anything more than how good someone is at taking tests.

But back to the film.

It's a loving look at my profession, and were I not a teacher I would have found it incredibly moving and inspirational. But I am a teacher so I spent the entire time thinking, "Well, yeah. And..." It was stuff I already knew and assumed that everyone else knew.

What I wanted to see was the real hardships. Not just the low pay for hard work, but the heartbreaking, soul shattering side of it. Yeah, you work your ass off and get paid very little, but what about when the 14 year old girl tells you she's pregnant? How does that affect you? Or when one of your best students has to drop out so they can get more hours at the fast food place they work so they can support that child? What does that do to you? Or the kids who flat refuse to try because they are trying to impress the other members of their gang? What about the suicides, accidental deaths, abuse, and drug use we see?

How do you explain that to someone that has never been there?

This is a very good movie. It's moving and it makes the point well. But it does have a thesis that annoys me. Pay us what we are worth and we'll do our jobs, or pay us what we are worth and we might get some worthwhile people to do the job.

How about a simpler question, how seriously can you take a country's commitment to education when they pay their educators less than an assistant manager at a Chili's. Not that I am slamming Chili's management staff, but I think that what I do should be valued as much as what they do.

"American Teacher" is not just a documentary, it is a cry for attention and a call to action. It asks you as a viewer to look at your priorities and see where you stand, if you stand at all. It asks you to look at what decisions are being made in regards to YOUR children and to do something about it.

This is a fantastic movie, but as an insider it was something I knew too much about to really enjoy.

I said something earlier about it not being about the money. This is clichéd, but here it is. We do it because it is important. Because, while the pay might be low, it is a job where you get to objectively do good. There are not many of those out there.

Instead of trying to figure out the best way to end this, I'll just paraphrase the rest of the Tommy Gavin quote I started this with.

But there ain't no medals on my chest, assholes, 'cause I ain't no hero. I'm a teacher. We're not in the business of making heroes here.



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  • Gil

    Great review. I also agree on all of your points on pay and the profession. I am a teacher and I know how you feel. I wonder how I would view the film if I wasn’t a teacher. I wished I could see it without all of the EDUCATION AUSTIN union in the theater. Screening to the choir if you will. I thought the music was overpowering and the mix muddy, but all that aside, I wanted to see more HIGH SCHOOL, more DANGEROUS MINDS, I wanted to see that tired 30 year veteran of teaching going through the motions with their dated lesson plans. This movie was “shallow” like you were saying. Really was hoping for more. But you’re right, a very good movie.

    Oct 29, 2011 at 4:41 pm
  • "Jewish Friend" "Technical Savior" Matt

    Jim,

    As you know, I loved this film. I’m an outsider, but not a complete one. My sister just started her first year of teaching, and I have a good friend who is a teacher (you).

    I understand your feelings on documentaries, and the issue with documentaries having a thesis that they are trying to get across, but I have no issue with a film of this sort, as long as it is not masquerading as something it’s not. I agree with you that the most powerful, moving documentaries I have seen are ones that ended miles from where they started, that followed the natural drama of the internal players. However, that, in my mind, does not mean that film makers are either incapable or should not be allowed to present a cogent, logical argument in film.

    I do not really make any distinction between the written work and film work. The world has a long history of written works making strong arguments highlighting injustice, social wrongs, and ideas for advancement. Some of the documents have changed the world for the better. I see no reason why a filmmaker should not follow in this tradition.

    Of course, these films should be be viewed as critically as their written counterparts.

    Perhaps this genre requires a different name. Perhaps it should be called “Discourcinema” or “Argu-Doc” or something much less lame.

    I viewed the film from the viewpoint that the film was making an argument, and it was on that basis that I raved about the film. I thought it did an excellent job of explaining many of the problems with education, and making strong, supported arguments on how the system could be improved.

    I agree that a film that focused on the other struggles of being a teacher, primarily the emotional toll it has, would make for an excellent documentary. However, I think that for the purpose of the film it would have muddled the argument.

    I judge the film on what it set out to be and how well it met those objectives.

    One benefit of paying the wages of teachers more that wasn’t explored at all, but that I think would be an effect of higher teachers salary is that educators would end up with more of a say in education policy in government. It’s a sad fact that the side with the most money usually gets their way in politics. If teachers had more money with which to lobby, or could afford to travel, by themselves, to Washington or the state capital, education laws could be improved and mandatory testing could be dropped or reformed.

    /Rant over Matt

    Oct 30, 2011 at 12:55 pm
  • Jim

    I am totally with both of you on this. It was a very well made and effective documentary, but as an insider it felt very “preach to the choir.” I do think it’s great though that it exists as a way for other people to see what teaching is really like. Basically, I think I am just too close to the subject matter.

    Oct 30, 2011 at 10:40 pm