American Teacher Film Premiere: Review, Media Roundup

Oct. 11, 2011 American Teacher premiered in San Francisco this week, and I found myself pre-qualifying industry colleagues to see who had a macro lens to cover the screening in my absence, with questions like:

“Have you seen other ed policy films like The Cartel movie about corruption and misuse of funds in public education? Or Race to Nowhere about the testing frenzy and achievement benchmarks? Or Default: The Student Loan Documentary about the private lending industry filling their coffers on the backs of kids? Or Waiting for Superman or other ed reform films?”

Yep, gotta be thorough here. It’s become a media literacy must. As with any documentary, mockumentary, or ‘teaching moment’ the onus is on the viewer to discern point of view, both factually and theatrically.

Teachers as subject matter shouldn’t prompt an either/or reaction (vilified vs halo effect) yet I hear this polarity on and off campus with simplistic “you’re either with us or against us” thinking and it baffles me. Granted, the Save Our Schools rally this past summer had elements of this tonality, but it packed a powerful, “pro-teacher” punch for a very specific purpose, and set the stage for what I figured this film would be about. (You can see the positive passion shine through in Matt Damon’s speech on YouTube that I LOVED–video after the jump)

Since Matt Damon narrated American Teacher, I admittedly hopscotched this film to the top of my ‘must see media list’—not out of celebrification, but instead from his articulate ‘poster boy for teachers’ stint at the SOS Rally, which came across with credibility to me as smart, succinct sincerity with style…I was eager to have DH review the film, to give her own feedback as a scriptwriter, an education advocate, and a parent.

I should also add one note about ‘scalability’ of media…

Matt Damon’s Save Our Schools  appearance was also followed by his impromptu lambasting of media rhetoric about teachers, as he stood next to his renowned mom. (a highly acclaimed author, educator, and influential teacher/activist in the edu-sphere) 

The 1 minute video clip uncorked the whole tenure/ed policy volatility turning it into talk show media fodder while skyrocketing visibility to ‘viral video’ status…I mention this because those 60 seconds probably did more for teachers ‘exposure’ as a profession opening important conversations on the topic than all the talking heads and sound bites of the rally combined in terms of ‘reach’ and ‘saturation’ as we say in marketing visibility terms.

Before I lob this review your way, I’ll note that education documentaries (ALL docs!) should be subjected to the same media literacy conversations we use to scrutinize corporate marketers, PR firms, and political spinmeisters (see Frank Baker’s ‘the role of media in elections’) and yet, when I DO see an ed policy film and lob a critical thinking comment into the Q&A it all too often lands like a thud…

It’s almost as if there’s some unwritten “hallpass” for edu-documentaries being akin to ‘cause-marketing’ PSAs that shouldn’t be scrutinized. Whaaa?

Similarly, at every teacher’s strike and education ‘town hall’ when I ask, “What are the issues on the table this round?” I’m often met with surprise, suspicion and incredulity, as if I’m some clueless fop.

To me, it’s an exceedingly fair question. It’s also a litmus test for me to sort out who actually knows the answer and is capable of a nuanced debrief with merit (beyond generic “pay raise/benefits” or ed reform buzz words) and who is just serving up large dollops of one-sided propaganda and parroting ‘one voice’  party line.

So without further ado, please welcome a fresh face at the SY reporter table, who happens to be a parent, colleague and scriptwriting friend, to give you HER review of American Teacher, with HER critical thinking skills in play…

Enjoy, and if you see the film, please add your OWN voice in the comments section, and recommend some of your favorite ‘films portaying teachers’ and favorite tips and resources for the 21st Century Classroom (love this teacher’s blog!) Here’s to educators, everywhere…and the important, often thankless job they do with our children.

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.  ~Lily Tomlin as “Edith Ann”

American Teacher Shows Why Those Who Can Teach Often Don’t

by Dana Moe Halley

I expected to leave the Roxie theater in San Francisco all fired up and enraged after the October 7 premiere  of American Teacher, (tickets here) the documentary that’s the centerpiece of 826 Valencia co-founders Dave Eggers’ and Nínive Calegari’s Teacher Salary Project.

Anyone who’s seen Race to Nowhere, the 2009 documentary that exposes how our students are pushed to the brink in today’s obscenely competitive educational environment knows what I’m talking about. As a mother of two high school students, Race to Nowhere forced me to take a hard look at how today’s parents are more concerned with our kids’ grades and achievement than with their health and sanity. American Teacher, on the other hand, left me scratching my head.

It’s not that American Teacher doesn’t incite concern about the way we regard public school teachers in America. The situation is both exploitive and tragic. It’s just that the film could have made a better case for itself.

American Teacher follows four teachers who live and work in disparate areas across the country and their struggles to make ends meet on less-than-living wages.

Jamie Fidler teaches first grade in Brooklyn and is expecting her first child. Her main difficulty revolves around negotiating the tricky balancing act of becoming a hardworking mother of an infant, not to mention the incumbent financial constraints.

As a young, Harvard graduate, Rhena Jasey chooses to pursue a career as a (5th grade) teacher instead of delving into one of many far more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. She clearly loves her job and has the skills and personality to motivate every student she teaches. However, Jasey’s choice to teach is not without internal conflict, exacerbated by constant grilling—“Really? you went to Harvard and you just want to teach?”

Jonathan Dearman is a charismatic, well-loved teacher at Leadership High School  in San Francisco. Though the film neglects to tell us this, Leadership is a nationally-renowned charter school. Dearman is clearly passionate about his job, but he struggles with the low pay and ultimately succumbs to the financial rewards of joining the family real estate business. This leads to one of the most poignant images in the film in which we see Dearman in his new job. As a real estate agent, he drives a Mercedes Benz S.U.V. and is earning over $100K, but he is obviously bored and uninspired in his new vocation, and is clearly a paying a price for leaving public education. Surely his students are, too.

The film’s most heartbreaking story of all is that of Texas teacher Erik Benner who works takes on two extra jobs to supplement his base salary of less than $28K. He is able to purchase a nice new house for $125K (when this figure was mentioned, the collective gasps of the San Francisco audience I was a part of could likely be heard in the next county). Still, his absence and constant exhaustion takes a toll on his marriage and ultimately leads to its failure and the loss of his house.

There is a fifth teacher who seems to have been retrofitted into the film for some reason (she isn’t even mentioned on the film’s website). Although her position on the extremely long hours required of teachers is certainly valid, her delivery veers too close to annoyed complaining. Oddly, in this teacher’s last scene, she seems to be filming herself from her iPhone, giving her visage an eerie glow that brings to mind The Blair Witch Project. Her presence in the film is confusing.

The most compelling scenes in American Teacher are those that show us teachers doing what they do best—interacting with the children in the classroom. However, most of the film consists of teachers and education experts talking to the camera, and these scenes are generally less interesting than seeing the teachers in action.

One of the more interesting education experts featured in the film is Zeke Vanderhoek founder of the Teacher Equity Project (T.E.P.), a charter school in Washington Heights, New York. We learn that Vanderhoek carefully selects high-caliber teachers, offers them a supportive environment where standards for performance is high, and guarantees a starting salary of $125K with opportunities for bonuses. (Where the funds come from to pay teachers such impressive salaries is not explained in the film.) T.E.P. is certainly an interesting project, but since the program requires teachers to work extra long hours in a nearly year-round schedule, it’s not a solution for those who want to spend more time with their families.

Teaching requires intelligence, skill, compassion and good instincts, to name just a few virtues, and it’s wrong that it’s not perceived as a respectable career in this country. The fact that many teachers have to reach into their own pockets to pay for supplies (one teacher in the film spent $2,000 of her own money to set up her classroom) is clearly unacceptable.

Teachers in general have the lowest starting pay of any profession requiring a college degree, which is a despicable fact considering their potential contribution to future generations, but it should be mentioned that the benefits are better than many if not most, corporate jobs.

American Teacher makes the point that the only teachers who don’t struggle are those who have virtually no financial obligations—those who are young and single, or married to a spouse with a more remunerative career.

A great deal of screen time is devoted to Fidler’s complaints about only receiving six weeks of paid maternity leave, a period that’s considered typical, if not generous, in the private sector. When she does return to work, she complains that she can’t find a vacant room where she can pump breast milk, but this too is a common problem in the corporate world.

American Teacher is successful in refuting the tired axiom, “those who do, do, and those who can’t, teach.”  It’s just that the film could have picked its battles a little more carefully.


Dana Moe Halley received her degree in Film Studies (with a concentration on Italian neo-realist cinema) from U.C. Berkeley. 

She is a screenwriter, marketing copywriter/editor and unrelenting film fanatic. She joins us on Shaping Youth when reviews pertain directly to subject matter we cover for media analysis, and we welcome her ongoing knowledge sharing.

Know of a documentary or narrative fiction film you’d like to see reviewed? Contact Dana at


American Teacher Directed by Vanessa Roth; narrated by Matt Damon; directors of photography, Dan Gold, Steven Milligan, Arthur Yee and Rich White; edited by Brian McGinn; music by Thao Nguyen; produced by Ms. Roth, Nínive Calegari and Dave Eggers; released by First Run Features.

Related Resources: Media & Film Roundup

Year of the Education Documentary? (USAToday)

Documentaries Spark Education Debate (CNN)

15 Education Documentaries That NEED To Be Made (eSchoolNews)

 Silver Screens and Blackboards (Harvard Political Review)

Year of the Education Documentary Turning into a Decade? (“Teached” Blog)

NEA Bkdg/Talking Pts on American Teacher Film (ABEA edublog)

Top Inspirational Movies About Teachers (

25 Best Movies About Education Ever Made

Top 10 Films FOR Inspiring Educators (



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