Review: American Teacher

In the sense that it perpetuates a compartmentalized view of education, American Teacher does more harm than good.

American Teacher
Photo: First Run Features

It’s a high better than any other drug I’ve ever tried,” admits a talking head within the first few moments of American Teacher, alerting us feistily to the film’s for-better-or-worse orientation toward instructor experience. Ostensibly an hour-plus study of our national education system’s tendency to cannibalize its most crucial participants, the movie is a curious blend of teacher-appreciation mandate and recruitment video—though it’s not always clear at whom the narration’s gravely spoken factoids are directed. Early on, the typical public school faculty member’s daily schedule is broken down for us, starting with the assumption that his or her toil begins and ends with classroom hours. The strenuous nature of this occupation aside, is there anyone who really thinks that teachers only work from nine to three? Furthermore, the footage illustrating this extended workday is mostly comprised of after-hours paper-grading and class setup—the completion of which evinces a great deal of dedication, but isn’t at all related to the often misunderstood skill of engaging didactically with youth.

There’s no doubt that our pedagogues are underestimated and overworked by global standards, but this is a symptom of our backward school structure and not directly the cause of it. This point is elucidated quite effectively in the film itself via brief historical interludes that trace the undermining of educator prestige back to the early 20th century, when women were targeted as cheap sources of classroom labor. (This trend would cyclically occur through the passing wars, deficits, and federal administrations of the years to come.) But aside from the sprinkling of these PowerPoint-like diversions, American Teacher rather shamelessly vies for our pity.

We follow a core “cast” of five- or six-star instructors, most of whom have undergone severe professional difficulties and some of whom have been forced to forsake their careers. Their trials, however, all too often feel unspecific to the vocation or its pressing systemic blights. One pregnant teacher is left on hold for 20 minutes during her lunch hour while attempting to determine the extent of allowable maternity leave with her district’s HR department; this is meant to symbolize our educators’ lack of resources, but what public bureaucracy isn’t this disorganized? Another man is forced to take a second job to pay his mortgage and support his family, then watches his marriage disintegrate and his house foreclosed on when the ancillary gig falls through; the annals of our current recession are buckling with the weight of such stories, the tragedy of which is wholly irrelevant to whatever industry turned away the economic victims.

The value of a film that simply stresses the undeniable mistreatment of teachers in today’s market is questionable to begin with, and director Vanessa Roth doesn’t argue the preciousness of these individuals forcefully or persuasively enough to pull the dour portrait off. Pedagogy is at heart a dynamic between two parties, and the dismal climate of American schools has been in part fostered by a lack of problem-solving that views the student-teacher partnership holistically. There are a few interviews with kids strewn throughout the film, but they mostly underscore the nebulous talent of the instructor in question, praising his or her ability to connect with difficult youth or enliven dull subjects. What this trickle of compassion and empowerment socially irrigates, however, is never spoken of in concrete terms. (There are no statistics comparing the graduation rates, typical career aspirations, or frequency of criminal activity between students of poor teachers and successful ones; the utterly meaningless point is made, however, that “good” teachers are roughly 30% more efficient at instructing academic principles than their lower-than-average counterparts.)

We watch one of the aforementioned “victimized” teachers divorce from his wife and move into a more modest middle-class home, and we have to wonder what became of his students. Considering the implied urban milieu, it’s likely that they reverted or succumbed to academic apathy; some may have even dropped out, or joined gangs. We don’t know for sure because these potential effects are never addressed; Roth is too busy underscoring the dolefulness of the ex-teachers, who think about their old jobs “every day” while struggling to make ends meet.

The film continually makes the point that increasing occupational prestige is one route to acquiring a stronger pool of national instructors who can transform the system. But it neglects the most logical method of garnering respect for these professionals: promoting the doctors, lawyers, politicians, thinkers, and artists that they have taught, are teaching, and will teach. In the sense that it perpetuates a compartmentalized view of education, American Teacher does more harm than good.

 Director: Vanessa Roth  Distributor: First Run Features  Running Time: 81 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2011  Buy: Video

Joseph Jon Lanthier

Joseph Jon Lanthier is the director of What Should I Put in My Coffee? His writing has also appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal.

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