News & Politics

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.

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. Goherefor 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.

So in the film we wanted to show people who are examples of those things. There’s Jamie who se about to have her first baby, so she’s struggling between being a teacher who could be available all the time to a teacher who is about to have to balance the demands of family and teaching. We wanted to make sure we had diversity and watch the impact an amazing teacher has on their students and what happens when and if that teacher has to leave teaching, which we have in Jonathan’s story. And second jobs are something that are very common for teachers, and we wanted to show what that meant and the impact it has on a teacher’s family and the choices they make about teaching. We also have Rhena, who is a Harvard graduate and has two masters’ degrees, and her friends and family don’t understand why she went into teaching because she could do anything. And her feeling is, “Yeah, I want to go into teaching.” She is really the epitome of the message we wanted to send about professionalizing teaching and bringing it up to the status it should be to educate kids to the levels they need to be educated to.

EW: In the movie you presented information about how teachers are treated in other countries, how good teachers make a monetary difference in kids’ lives, about the impact of teacher turnover- which argument do you think has the most traction?

VR: I’m not sure yet. When I talked to teachers while I was making the film I feel like one of the biggest things for them is the salary, but it’s more than that. There’s a line in the film where they ask Jonathan if he could keep teaching if he made more money. And he says, “Probably not, but with that there comes a certain kind of prestige, a certain kind of colleague, a certain value.” It seems at least what resonates with teachers is they want to be valued, and they want to be supported with resources and training, and they want to be understood a little bit, and they don’t want to be scapegoated. This is vague, but I think it’s about value as a whole.

EW: It seems like usually in movies about teaching, you see teachers struggling with discipline and kids who have difficult home lives. That’s not in your movie.

VR: I think in order to do a good job with that, you have to invest time in a particular storyline and then the arc or the core of the movie becomes about that child or that relationship. We wanted to make a film that was a little more broad. This film does not pinpoint specific relationships. We have some students in the film talking about the impact teachers had on them. What we wanted to point out is not the struggles or certain kids that teachers aren’t sure how to reach but instead to understand that in every single class are 30 different kinds of learners, 30 different kids coming from 30 different experiences. So no matter what classroom you step into you’re going to have challenges, and that’s part of what makes a good teacher so incredible is to balance all the needs of all of those kids in the moment they’re teaching them.

EW: Waiting for Superman was a movie that some saw as saying public schools were failing and attacking teachers. Was your movie a response to that?

VR: It’s not at all. I think we started making this even before they started making Waiting for Superman. I think where Waiting for Superman has a very specific point of view that looks at the system of education and comments on that, our movie is just a different movie. Our movie is about what happens inside a classroom and the lives of people who work in that classroom. It’s just different. Where Waiting for Superman incited a lot of passion from people one way or another, I think our film can do that too but coming from a different place.

EW: You said you immersed yourself in this world. Was there something you found out about teachers you didn’t know?

VR: What awes me about great teachers is the ability to be on so much of the day with so many demands on them at the same moment, and continually wanting to improve.

My grandparents were teachers, and when I think of teachers, I think of this constant curiosity and willingness to keep learning and improving your craft and the real investment in a teacher’s students. It’s not a job you can just show up to if you’re a good quality teacher. In a lot of jobs, you can check out, but a good teacher is someone who every minute is very present.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.
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