What Does It Mean to Be an American Teacher?

American Teacher, the new documentary from the Teacher Salary Project, opens with several people telling the camera what they love about being teachers, and a quote from Arne Duncan that puts these testimonials under the macro-scope:

“Without effective teachers, we don’t have a democracy,” says Duncan.

Given the huge demand for talented teachers and passionate testimonials from practitioners, what could go wrong? Through storytelling and sobering statistics, American Teacher explores the mismatch between the value of effective teachers and the United States’s history of disinvestment in teacher salary, support, and status.

On average, teachers work longer hours (the film cites 50–65-hour work weeks), for less pay (14 percent less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education), and with little on-site support (examples of chaotic working conditions, teachers spending planning periods cleaning their classrooms, and spending thousands of dollars on basic classroom materials).

There’s a clear correlation between effective education and the economic health of a nation. Eric Hanushek tells us that every student taught by a teacher in the top 15 percent of effectiveness has an extra lifetime earning of $20,000. Multiply that by 20 kids in a class, and you get the picture. (Research from McKinsey and Co. also bolsters this argument.)

There are benefits to attracting and retaining effective teachers, and then there’s what’s actually happening in the United States, as illustrated by the film’s subjects:

  • Teacher, football coach, and forklift operator Erik Benner is underpaid, overextended, and in foreclosure. (62 percent of teachers have a second job, teachers are priced out of housing markets in 32 cities.)
  • Rhena Jasey is highly qualified but cheaply valued. (Harvard and Columbia grad, starting salary $41,900.)
  • Jonathan Dearman represents the double-edged loss of teachers of color and men. (Only 25 percent of teachers are men and 15 percent of teachers are black or Latino, while 35 percent of students are black or Latino.)
  • Oh and those testimonials at the beginning of the film? Turns out, those are all ex-teachers, too. (Teacher turnover costs $7.34 billion dollars annually.)

At its core, American Teacher is about teachers who love what they’re doing and are good at it, but cannot sustain teaching as a career because, as Equity Project founder Zeke Vanderhoek says, “Teachers have no control over the amount of stress and responsibility in their jobs proportional to their pay.” (Vanderhoek uses public funds to pay all of his teachers starting salaries of $125,000.)

What will it take to repair the collateral damage associated with low teacher salaries?

“People think teaching is about liking kids or getting summers off—they don’t understand the intellectual rigor involved in teaching students in a way that they’ll understand,” says 2007 New York Teacher of the Year Marguerite Rizzo.”The number one reason teachers leave is lack of leader support,” adds Sabrina Laine of the American Institutes for Research.

American Teacher screened this Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to a packed auditorium of local teachers and national policy advisors (including former teachers Brad Jupp, Jason Kamras, and DOE Secretary Arne Duncan). Filmmakers hope for wider theatrical release in Fall 2011—and the chance to set the record straight about an often-squandered national resource.