'American Teacher': A Film on Education That Gets It Right

by Mark Phillips

Every policymaker should be required to see the new film “American Teacher,” which powerfully reveals the huge challenge that the country faces in attracting and keeping the best teachers to help improve public education.

Director Vanessa Roth’s new film, co- produced by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari and narrated by Matt Damon, notes that while “most people agree that a teacher is the most important in-school factor to school success,” you’d never guess this from what many teachers experience in our public schools.

Instead of focusing on this problem we’ve gotten lost in misdirected answers and foolish debates about improving public education. The answer is charter schools! The problem is charter schools! Blame the teacher unions! Fire bad teachers! And some movies, like “ Waiting for Superman ,” have fallen into the same traps.

American Teacher takes a different approach. It compellingly shows how we lose many of our best teachers, and suggests how we can change this pattern.

The film follows a handful of teachers, each dedicated and highly effective both pedagogically and interpersonally. They are:

  • A first-grade teacher in Brooklyn who works 10 hours every day and who spent $3,000 of her own money to provide classroom supplies during her first year. (Ninety percent of public school teachers have been found to spend their own money to provide necessary supplies.)
  • A middle school teacher, who has 40 desks in her packed classroom along with with students sitting on cabinets. She says, “I feel like I give everything I have, but it’s never enough. …And if I had three of me I might be able to get it done.”
  • A gifted social studies teacher and coach in a Texas school who has a starting salary of $27,000 and eventually has to take a night warehouse job to help support his wife and two children.
  • A gifted young African-American teacher, with a bachelors degree from Harvard University and a masters degree from Columbia University, who has to explain to family and friends why she chose teaching. “You could do anything! Why teaching?!”

There is no better encapsulation of the problems facing teachers than the story of this teacher, named Rhena, who also exemplifies the best practices and habits of a great teacher. She has great energy, knows her subjects, motivates kids, and works closely with their families. She makes it clear just how challenging and complex teaching is today:

“So little of what I do is …instructing in the classroom. So much of what I do is in the role of a counselor or a social worker or a parent when they need one, or a friend when they need that. Dealing with all of those other social and emotional and personal issues so we can just get down to the work of learning is a huge part of what… many teachers do that I don’t think people always realize.”

Certainly most policymakers don’t.

Most good teachers work 10 hour days that include early morning tutoring or planning and afternoon tutoring, coaching or club advising. Many have papers to grade at night. They average close to 50 hours a week at school and 15 hours after school. Many work on weekends. And more than 30% also have after school jobs.

The stories of these teachers are in some instances heart-breaking.

The Brooklyn first-grade teacher gets six weeks of maternity leave and then has to go back to work to make ends meet.

The Texas teacher, continually unavailable to his wife and children, loses his family, his home is foreclosed, and he eventually has to take an even longer night job.

Another superb African-American teacher who helped many inner-city students go on to college has to quit to go into the family business because he can’t support his family with the low salary. Students use the words “shocking” and “devastating” to describe his departure.

Forty-six percent of all teachers quit before their fifth year, driven from the profession by a combination of low salaries, long hours, a lack of support, and the lack of prestige given to the profession. Almost all leave despite a love for teaching. Almost all miss it. And, of course, many potentially excellent teachers don’t choose this as a career because of these same obstacles.

The deputy superintendent of South Carolina nails it when he says: “When you have teachers who have to have second jobs…. teachers that are living at the poverty level. Then I think there is something wrong … And as a society we need to really change that culture. We need to flip it around to say that being a teacher is the most important job in our society.”

Although the film doesn’t see this as THE solution to the problem, it introduces us to Zeke Vanderhoek’s new Equity Project Charter School in New York City. He pays the best teachers $125,000, cuts almost all other costs, most of them administrative, and thus gives the kids who need it the most the best teachers possible. Vanderhoek says that the high salaries change the perception of what it means to be a teacher.

As the film shows, Rhena becomes one of 600 applicants for eight teaching positions at this school. She is selected and leaves her traditional public school in New Jersey, a loss deeply felt by the children and parents. But after a number of years of low salary and long hours, this is an understandable choice.

“We still struggle to provide the status, the salaries, the respect, and the training that teaching as a full profession requires and deserves,”said Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher training and one of our most prominent educational leaders.

Finally, the film notes that the top-performing countries on international standardized tests in math, science, and reading share a number of characteristics. They selectively recruit for teacher training programs. Training is government funded. The pay is much higher than in the United States. Professional work environments are excellent. And the cultural respect for teachers is very high. In Finland, teaching is the most admired job among top college students. Few teachers leave the profession.

“American Teacher” spells out the cost to teachers who stay in troubled, low-paying schools as well as to the students when good teachers leave — and it continually makes the point that the most disadvantaged kids are the ones who suffer the most as a result. But it goes beyond spelling out the problem by showing things that we can do to change the dynamic.

The film will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, in San Francisco on October 7th and in New Orleans on October 14th. It will also screen in Rockville, Md., on Oct. 12; in Charlottesville, Va., on Oct. 13, and many other cities. You can check the screenings here.

You can also check the Teacher Salary Project website for additional information and updates on showings: www.theteachersalaryproject.org/

Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips is professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.





The Answer Sheet Blog

Victory for Tacoma teachers

Dan Trocolli, a member of the Seattle Education Association, reports on the widespread implications of a victory by Tacoma public school teachers.

Tacoma teachers on the picket line in defiance of a judge's injunctionTacoma teachers on the picket line in defiance of a judge's injunction

AFTER 10 days on the picket line in defiance of judge's order, Tacoma teachers fended off a pay cut and attacks on the union's seniority protections to win a contract that bucks the concessionary trend in teachers' union settlements across the U.S.

The teachers, members of the Tacoma Education Association (TEA), voted September 22 by a margin of 98.9 percent to ratify the tentative agreement with Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) and return to work.

The agreement was reached a day earlier after union and TPS negotiators met for hours in the state capital of Olympia, with Gov. Christine Gregoire mediating.

If Gregoire felt pressure to intervene, it's in part because of the widespread community and labor support for the strike. Members of other unions, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, United Food and Commercial Workers and Washington Federation of State Employees were present at picket lines in support as well. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel recorded a message of support for Tacoma teachers.

As Fred Garnsey, a fourth grade teacher at Arlington Elementary, said: "NEA is the largest union in the United States, and as such is in the forefront [facing] attacks to eliminate collective bargaining and free up corporate administrations to do whatever they want, whether it be to hire and fire without any justification. This is a microcosm of what's happening nationwide in different states.

The TEA came up with creating ways of publicizing the struggle, including a website called WeTeachTacoma.org. Comments on the website from people supporting the strike came in not only from Tacoma and the surrounding area, but as far away as Wisconsin and Indiana.

The TEA also distributed a regular flyer to picketers called On the Line, which informed strikers of new developments and picket location changes, while providing talking points for union members. A group of teachers organized a group that cycled from picket to picket, earning a rousing cheer at each location.

Protests were critical to the struggle as well. After voting by 93 percent on September 14 to defy a judge's back-to-work order, thousands of teachers and students rallied the following day, completely encircling the school district's Central Administration Building.

Support for the strike was strong throughout. Students organized a Facebook group to back their teachers and rallied at the Tacoma Dome to support teachers when they voted to defy the court order. Hundreds of students chanted, "Teacher Power" and formed a gauntlet of high fives for teachers to walk through.

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THE TACOMA teachers' strike shows that it's possible to stand up against school districts and corporate reform groups' attempts to shred due process and balance budgets on our backs.

"We haven't gone on strike in 33 years," said TEA President Andy Coons. "We didn't go into this lightly. We have a very high strike threshold--80 percent of the entire membership, not just those that turn out for the meeting. It's unified us. We realize the power of the worker, and that when something is not right, we can stand up, and we can make it right."

The TEA and the school district disagreed primarily over removing seniority from displacement and transfers of teachers, as well as disputes over pay and class size.

Under the agreement that union members approved, seniority protection will remain in place for the first year of the three-year agreement, during which time the district and the union will form a joint committee to explore new criteria for the displacement process.

Initially, TPS sought to cut teachers' pay, even though the district has $45 million in reserves. Despite a state cut of 1.9 percent to teacher pay, the union avoided a cut to the salary schedule, losing only one building optional development day. The TEA also protected existing class size limits and strengthened contract language on class size caps for elementary schools.

The district played hardball from the get-go, hiring an outside negotiator, Washington Employers, at a rate of $1,500 a session. On its website, Washington Employers describes its services: "We provide a full range of collective bargaining services for member employers with unionized employees, as well as for nonunion employers facing union organizing efforts...[including preparing] a strike readiness plan and assisting in maximizing the employer's ability to withstand a strike with minimal interruption of operation."

TPS also used robo-calls to get its claims about bargaining out to teachers and the community--many teachers were outraged by what they felt were outright lies about the district and union proposals. The TEA routinely tried to set the record straight at WeTeachTacoma.org.

The school district was being lobbied to make drastic changes in seniority by a group called the Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition (VSTC). On its website and elsewhere, VSTC lays out its claims focus without any supporting facts. For example, in a letter to the Tacoma News Tribune on behalf of Vibrant Schools, the authors claim that 80 percent of Tacoma voters support a teachers contract that guts seniority protections.

Vibrant Schools, which formed in late April, is a coalition of various local organizations, including the Tacoma chapter of Stand for Children and the Gates Foundation-funded League of Education Voters, both corporate-style "education reform" organizations.

According to the Seattle Education blog, which is affiliated with the group Parents Across America Seattle, the domain name for the Vibrant Schools website was registered to someone from Strategies 360/DMA.

Strategies 360 is a marketing firm used last year in Seattle by another Gates-funded group, the Alliance for Education, to conduct a push-poll advocating performance-based pay for teachers, the anti-union Teach for America program and an end to seniority protections for teachers. The firm then used the push poll to set up an Astroturf group in Seattle, called the Our Schools Coalition, to push corporate school reform.

Meanwhile, Vibrant Schools also hired an outside firm, EMC Research, to conduct surveys in Tacoma upon which most of its positions are based, though it is unclear how the supposed "grassroots" coalition paid for the polling.

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DESPITE THE pressure from the school district and VSTC, union members' resolve only increased.

It's clear that the district intends to continue its efforts to undermine the union. For example, according to a letter from TEA President Coons to the Tacoma School Board and district superintendent, school officials are violating the amnesty agreement in the contract by withholding all but two days' pay during the strike from teachers' October paychecks.

But TEA members say their struggle didn't end when they voted to approve the contract. In a speech to the association after ratification, Coons quoted Margaret Mead: "Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals."

Teachers feel they won an important victory, even though the fight to defend seniority rights will continue. Teacher Fred Garnsey reflected the overwhelming sentiment among TEA members after the approval of the contract:

There has to be some flexibility, but there also has to be some safeguards. There needs to be due process for teachers so that they have the opportunity to be mentored, to improve and at least know why and not be fired for no-cause. Classroom teachers do an awful lot, but they can't do it all. Just having a teacher in every classroom is not enough. We need support personnel and resources to meet the needs of our students.

TEA members will have to keep their passion alive to ensure that the joint committee on displacement doesn't succumb to pressure to erode seniority further and keep the district to its word.

Published by the International Socialist Organization


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