by Christopher Paslay
“American Teacher,” the new education documentary narrated by Matt Damon, dares to portray schoolteachers as competent professionals.
In an age of school reform, in an age where the phrase failing schools has become boilerplate, the film “American Teacher” arrives at a surprising conclusion: schoolteachers aren’t the bums they’re made out to be. In fact, many of them are extremely dedicated, and work really long hours. They write lessons, and grade stacks of essays, and bond with their students. They counsel, and mentor, and spend up to $3,000 of their own money to buy supplies. Many do this while holding a second job. And raising children. And managing a home. And maintaining a relationship with a spouse.
As Neil Genzlinger wrote in his review of the film for the New York Times, “It quickly knocks down the idiocy often voiced by right-wing television commentators that teachers are goof-offs who work six-hour days and take three months off every year. The director, Vanessa Roth, follows several teachers through their long days at school and into their personal lives, where low pay is a constant worry that affects marriages and contributes to an alarming turnover rate.”
“American Teacher” is for the most part refreshingly free from underlying politics and agendas. It does suggest the teaching profession should be made more attractive by increasing pay, but it never advocates performance pay. It stays away from the subject of unions, school choice, and the achievement gap; unlike “Waiting for Superman,” this lack of controversy may very well keep it from receiving the attention it deserves.
Its wholesomeness and respect for America’s schoolteachers goes against the grain of the message being promoted by education reformers such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, whose organizations have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal to paint educators in an unflattering light; Bill Gates donated $2 million to promote “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that noted education scholar Diane Ravitch called “propagandistic” for cherry-picking statistics and test data in order to help further expand charter schools and privatize education.
“American Teacher” shows the other side of “Superman,” which is probably enough to sink it like a stone. This isn’t to say those interested in the real lives and careers of our nation’s schoolteachers should pass on it. On the contrary, it’s a film the American public needs to see.