Document This- "American Teacher"

"There's almost nothing harder"- Brad Jupp, Department of Education

Today I watched American Teacher, a documentary about public school teachers, narrated by Matt Damon. And, give the fact that this directly related to my profession, I have a few things to say about it.

1. First of all, it was nice to see public school teachers protrayed in a new light. In recent years we've been accused of being overpaid, mediocre (at best), and the reason why the United States is behind so many other developed nations in the core subjects. The film instead shows teachers as being hard working, devoted, educated, and underpaid. 

2. The documentary tried to capture different types of teachers from around the nation- a pregnant woman, one just starting out her career, an African-American that had left the field, and a Texan who worked two jobs to provide for his family. It also interviews many different experts from universities and the Department of Education.

3. The many different shortages teachers experience was discussed in detail. First of all, we are short time. We are expected to do so much in our contractual day that it ends up spilling over into our personal time (please note I use the collective "we" because I am too a teacher, not because I completely agree with everything being said). We also experience a shortage of supplies, many teachers reaching into their own pocket to buy basic supplies like paper and pencils. The film also mentions the shortage of pay over and over again.

4. The film doesn't really offer any true solutions. Yes, we need to pay teachers more so that retention and recruitment can increase. Yes, we need to make sure teachers have the resources they need to be successful. Yes, we need to make teaching a more respectable career in this country. But how? Where is the money going to come from? In a day and age where I see my friends get RIFed year after year how can we justify asking for a raise? Please, tell me, Matt Damon, where will the funding come from?

5. I did appreciate that the film did focus on a pregnant teacher, highlighting the difficulties related to maternity leave and post-partum work. As with many fields of work, teachers get six weeks of leave from the day they give birth (this is paid as long as they have the sick leave to cover it; if not they must pay for a substitute out of their salary). After that it's back to work unless you have a doctor's note. The teacher in the film was exhausted and was overwhelmed with trying to manage her first-grade class and get breaks to pump. Something lovely to look forward to in the eventual future...

6. One negative aspect of the film, in my opinion, was that it painted teachers as martyrs, or victims. I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the gig- I had studied salary schedules, I had done observation hours, and I accepted the shortcomings of the job. Yes, teachers are busy. But a lot of teachers waste a horrendous amount of time during the day, whether it be over-planning, grading every tiny assignment with a fine-tooth comb, or gossiping with coworkers. I'm not perfect, but I utilize almost every second I have between about 7 and 3 or 3:30 so that I can take home less work (by the way, that's an 8 to 8.5 hour day... just different hours). Also, we do not have to spend money out of our own pockets. I quit my third year of elementary and survived on what we had. Kids seriously just need paper and pencils- they don't need pencil boxes, stickers, fancy posters, etc... If teachers are okay making the choices to buy extra things and spend extra time than great. If not, figure out other ways to cope and stop complaining. Oh, and another plus- we also have great schedules, decent benefits, and retirement (well, at least right now).

7.  There were a lot of statistics that I found really interesting regarding teacher turn-over- again, crazy to me since teachers in California are clamoring to remain employed. 

8. American Teacher does focus on the compassion, energy, and love that goes into the profession. Good teachers are teachers that not only know the curriculum and content, but sincerely care about their students. I definitely agree; the years (like this one) that I've felt most connected to my students are the years that I've felt I've been most effective. When you care about your students you want to be the best teacher for them.

Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are also bad doctors, lawyers, and police officers. While not perfect, I appreciated that American Teacher tried to give credit to those of us who really try. I'm not sure if teaching was necessarily the field I was "supposed" to go into, but as long as I'm here I'll do my best to kick ass for those foul-mouthed, hormone-ridden, dirty-look giving kids I hang out with all day every day.

Should you watch it? If you're a teacher or parent, absolutely. 


  1. I will have to watch that one. The last teacher documentary that I heard about was "Waiting for Superman" and I still refuse to watch it.

    1. I haven't watched either- it's been in my queue for months. I want to, but I know it will piss me off. Maybe next time I'm already in a bad mood...

  2. Sounds like a good one! The maternity leave aspect of teaching has really surprised me. I always assumed that teachers were able to take off a lot of time. One of my coworkers just gave birth and she plans to only take 3 weeks off because that's all the days she has. My jaw dropped when she explained it to me. You'd think that since it's a profession so dominated by women that maternity leave would be better, but I guess it varies by insurance.*

    1. It's absurd, and it's like this in so many more industries. You look at European countries and they get so much more time and they have better education systems. Hmmm....