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Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries: Talking with Vanessa Roth, Director of New Documentary "American Teacher"

A new documentary, narrated by Matt Damon and based on a book by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari, shows another facet of the troubles teachers in the US face.
 
 
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The new documentary American Teacher, narrated by actor Matt Damon, looks at the lives of four teachers who love what they do, but worry low salaries and high demands could mean they can’t afford to continue. There’s Jonathan, a high school teacher in San Francisco who leaves to become a real estate agent; Erik, a middle school history teacher in Texas whose coaching and second job mean he has little time to spend with his family; Rhena, a Harvard graduate whose family and friends want her to do "more" with her degree than teach; and Jamie, an elementary school teacher who is pregnant for the first time and wonders how she will balance the demands of a new baby and her job.

American Teacher is based on the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers by the co-founders of the 826 Valencia writing program, Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari, along with former public school teacher Daniel Moulthrop. Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as well as several other books) and Calegari have dedicated considerable time and energy to trying to change how teachers are valued in society, starting The Teacher Salary Project and writing an op-ed for the New York Times last spring, “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries.”

Along with the teachers’ stories, the film has interviews with leaders in education reform and explores how to make teaching a prestigious, supported profession.

Academy Award-winner Vanessa Roth, whose documentaries include an examination of middle school student council elections and the foster care system, directed American Teacher. Alternet caught up with her when she was at the San Francisco International Film Festival for the film's premiere. She talked about the continuous curiosity teachers have, how we need to professionalize the profession, and how their movie wasn’t a response to Waiting for Superman.

American Teacher opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Go herefor individual dates across the country.

Emily Wilson: Had you thought much about teachers before making this film?

Vanessa Roth: I was more focused on kids and families, but because I spent a lot of time in school settings, it was a very natural thing to say and to question what are we not hearing from teachers that is important to hear.

EW: What do you think is the predominate myth about teachers?

VR: I think a big one is the presumed workday or work year. Some people think teachers go into teaching because they work from 8 to 3 and they get summers off. There’s not a single good teacher I know that works those hours either in the day, the week or the year. Many of them have second jobs, most of them work from when they get to school at 7 in the morning, and they don’t leave school till 6 or so in the evening. They have papers to grade, they have lessons to plan, and they’re working more like 60, 65 hours a week. Most of them work on weekend s and have summer jobs. It’s not something teachers get into lightly. They’re very invested in their kids.

EW: Why did you choose the teachers you did? What was the story you wanted to tell?

VR: Teachers Have It Easy profiled lots of teachers and had a lot of facts. What I wanted to do was keep that human face and tell stories of different teachers that would bring up policy issues and questions that are raised about teacher value. Our main point in the film is the need to have a cultural shift and a policy shift in how we value teachers. Part of that is monetary, part of that is supporting and training teachers, part is recruiting, and the biggest thing is seeing teachers as professionals.