Film Review: American Teacher

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By Priya Varghese

As evidenced by the audience's response to the Washington, D.C. debut of American Teacher, personal sacrifice and dedication of public school teachers play nearly as well as Deborah Kerr's showing up in a wheelchair at the top of the Empire State Building in the blockbuster An Affair to Remember.

By featuring four hard-working, nurturing, popular teachers, the movie's producers deliver a well-executed, emotional appeal for increasing teacher salaries, though we aren't sure who it is that needs convincing. The film implies that most of us remain ignorant of the challenges teachers face every day (a sentiment also openly expressed by several panelists convened for the screening), but we think most Americans have an inkling. It's not hearts that need winning here, but heads.

We recognize that a policy polemic on teacher pay is not exactly blockbuster material, but filmmakers Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari find a number of opportunities to push their point of view as we watch the personal struggles of these highly dedicated teachers unfold. In an April 30th New York Times piece, they write that teacher accountability and measurement--issues we view as critical to settling the compensation question fairly--should be of secondary concern to that of salaries. But we're not sure they grasp what makes this issue so complex, at least for the rest of us.

The film highlights D.C. Public Schools as one of the districts investing in and rewarding its teachers at the level they deserve. It fails to mention, however, that D.C.'s compensation system is tightly linked to a rigorous evaluation system, one that has ruffled many a teacher's feathers. At the reception before the film began, I chatted with a DCPS teacher-friend, rated "highly effective" and awarded a substantive bonus, who remains disconcerted by the intrusions of five 30-minute classroom observations she receives each year. I had to bite hard into my pita chip to keep from pointing out that other professionals, like myself, share an office with their bosses, and are observed every minute of their work day.

Districts and principals do not have the same luxury as filmmakers in selecting their stars; they cannot settle for those who labor, however valiantly, for their students. They must have a reliable method for determining which teachers are raising student achievement.

Eggers and Calegari are right in comparing educators and soldiers: we don't blame the latter when military operations get bungled. Indeed, soldiers enjoy a unique halo from criticism, one that sets them apart from teachers and also just about everyone else. Some other things that set soldiers apart are boot camp, expulsion of low performers who fail physical or intellectual requirements, and a rigid, merit-based hierarchy of leadership.

We wish The Teacher Salary Project success in convincing America to put its money where its mouth is and helping to transform the teaching profession into one that attracts and keeps the very best for our children. In the meantime, the devil remains in the details: tight budgets, poor coaching, and fuzzy evaluation instruments. Back to work.