There is a passionate, combative and riveting documentary to be made about the plight of the American schoolteacher, but unfortunately the well-meaning, unfailingly decent and overly slack American Teacher isn't it. Educators surely have it tough in today's America, where what passes for political discourse has degenerated into a shouting match between those who want to preserve the increasingly frail taxpayer-funded aspects of our social infrastructure and those who see everyone who draws a non-military government paycheck as a freeloader. But despite a very brief montage of anti-teacher diatribes by the usual gang of chest thumpers from Fox News, American Teacher doesn't really want to engage in that debate—an argument over national priorities so pervasive in post-Tea Party America it can only be ignored at the expense of both drama and topicality. Those who teach or who love their local teachers will applaud this gentle character-based plea for better conditions and wages. Nobody else's mind is going to be changed even slightly by a marshmallow like this.
Based on the ironically-named non-fiction book "Teachers Have It Easy," American Teacher attempts to depict the difficult workaday reality of good-hearted and motivated women and men who have dedicated their lives to teaching. The cast of characters is both overly vast and uniformly saintly, including: first-grade teacher Jamie Fidler, a pregnant Brooklyn woman whose father also taught school; Rhena Jasey, whose sense of a teacher's calling is met with shock and skepticism by her ambitious and upwardly mobile Harvard University classmates; and Erik Benner, an overworked but dedicated history teacher and sports coach who moonlights at Circuit City evenings and weekends just to make ends meet.
The message, drummed home over and over again, is that all of these people are underpaid when compared to those with similar educational backgrounds. The fiscal pinch they experience crimps their lives and drives the best teachers out of education over time. This, according to American Teacher, is the root of our educational problems in America. Indeed, it is the only factor seriously analyzed or addressed.
That's a viable argument, but there's something thin and pro forma about American Teacher's presentation that keeps it from being made persuasively. This is partially caused by director Vanessa Roth's very staid and somewhat rhetorical filmmaking technique, which is basically a dry assemblage of talking heads, charts and cinema verite b-roll with a little imitation Sufjan Stevens music thrown in. Though we spend a lot of time in classrooms, nothing much seems to happen within them, and the students, save for the one or two who are given brief on-camera face time to assure us that, yes, their teachers are good ones, are basically smiling ciphers.
American Teacher is an agenda-driven documentary, which is fine until it starts to seem like its been organized to support rather than prove its thesis. One example: for all the time spent showing teachers talking about financial inequities or the taking of second jobs, no one ever mentions what teachers do with their summers. Teachers are the only major professional class in America that stands down en masse for a quarter of a year—one in four days, save for those who teach summer school and presumably earn additional wages for the effort. How does downtime factor into a teacher's wage disparities vis a vis other professions, and is it worked into the income stats shown? I don't know, because American Teacher never tells me.
Then there's the exclusive focus on teacher's wages as virtually the sole determinant of a school's success or failure—an interesting point, but surely a debatable or overly simplified one. In a country awash with seductive handheld electronic timewasters and engulfed by historic levels of income disparity that directly impact the resources available to local school districts, surely there are other at least partial explanations to consider for why Johnny can't read.
Even the character arcs of the hero teachers contain some overt sins of omission. Benner, the teacher/coach/warehouse worker, sees his marriage go bad after 13 years or so, and he ultimately loses his home. According to American Teacher, the long hours dictated by his underpayment as a teacher are the root cause of his troubles—and this despite the fact that his home was foreclosed on in 2008, the year of the great American housing crisis, as any viewer attuned to the dates flashing by onscreen will recall. Call me old fashioned, but when a statement that sweeping is made about matters so personal and complex, I want more data and specificity to back them up.
It's an outrage that according to recent surveys, 92 percent of American public school teachers buy hundreds of dollars worth of instructional essentials like pencils and chalk out of their own pockets just to do their jobs—a stat that speaks volumes about the state of neglect American Teacher hopes to dramatize, but which it ultimately merely presents. Matt Damon, who narrates this film, recently spoke passionately to these issues in a spontaneous interview with a glib right wing reporter that was a huge viral video hit last summer. [link if wanted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFHJkvEwyhk] Damon's riveting sense of outrage during that chance encounter is exactly what's missing from American Teacher, a film that, for all its good intentions, drones on in a narrow intonation, like the most notorious kind of pedagogical bore. The kind of teacher who changes his or her students' lives and is remembered by them forever is usually a bit brazen and willing to take risks—behaviors this film this needed to emulate if it was going to make the difference it aspires to.
Distributer: First Run Features
Featuring: Erik Benner, Jamie Fidler, Rhena Jasey, Jonathan Dearman, Amanda Lueck
Directors: Vanessa Roth, Brian McGinn
Producers: Vanessa Roth, Ninive Calegari, Dave Eggers
Running time: 81 min.
Release date: September 30 NY/LA