Film Review: American Teacher

Terrific, uplifting and heartbreaking study of what it’s like to teach in America today should inspire intense admiration and even more intense anger over what is revealed.

Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn’s American Teacher contains more superheroes than even the upcoming The Avengers ever dreamed of. Their uniforms may be nothing more than comfortable sweaters and sensible shoes, but the kind of salvation they specialize in is the real deal, involving the nascent minds of this nation, as are the considerable, and truly tireless, powers they possess. They are the public-school teachers of this country who strive on, in the face of constant neglect, disrespect, and—surprise!—no money.

Just the fact that a huge majority of teachers pay for a goodly amount of school supplies for their students out of their own meager salaries is a shameful indictment of the screwed-up system in this richest of countries. Once one factors in the gruelingly long hours, not even counting weekend work, and the incredible amount of burnout which makes even the most committed, self-sacrificing instructors reluctantly leave the profession, you may sincerely wonder why anyone even signs up for these stints in the first place.

The answer to that question is a nigh-unbelievable, idealistic sense of honor and generosity reflected in the individual profiles provided in this stirring, blisteringly immediate film. There’s Brooklyn first-grade teacher Jamie Fidler, herself pregnant with her first child, who juggles that fact and all of its attendant problems of maternity leave with the dedication she feels towards her kids, as one who hails from a strong family tradition of teaching. The very young Rhena Jacey uses her Harvard degree to aid young minds, instead of becoming a doctor or lawyer, and, like everyone else focused upon here, finds her reward in the light of love and gratitude shining from her young charges’ eyes.

Particularly heartbreaking is the plight of devoted Texas history teacher/football coach Erik Benner, who finds he must take on grueling, sometimes embarrassingly menial extra jobs to be able to support his family, only to have his marriage break apart in the face of such hardship. San Franciscan Jonathan Dearman, one of a minority of men and, additionally, men of color, in the field, made the tough decision to leave teaching for the more remunerative field of real estate, to the sorrow of his kids for whom he was a real, rare role model. This is a world in which a mere extra $75 to advise an after-school cultural club—however little Spanish, say, one actually knows—is more than welcome, in spite of the time it takes one away from one’s own personal life and family. It’s telling, however, that even those who have forsaken teaching all admit to missing it nearly every day of their lives, and you believe them.

The filmmakers have done a wholly admirable job in presenting the dire, daunting facts of this truly hard-knock life, and also present sensible, honorable alternatives to America’s haplessness that are just beginning to be talked about here, and are alive in other countries with a higher grade of education, like South Korea and Finland, where teaching is actually considered the most admired of jobs, over law and medicine. There, it seems to be all about respect and proper compensation, factors largely missing in our land where the question “Why would you want to teach?” is common coin.