American Teacher: Film Review

American Teacher Documentary Poster - P 2011

American Teacher Documentary Poster - P 2011

A very important subject gets too dry a treatment to keep one's attention focused.

Documentarian Vanessa Roth presents the teachers' side to the current national debate about education and what teachers get paid.

NEW YORK — Intended to illustrate the poor working conditions and low salaries that discourage the best and brightest from teaching in the American public school system, Vanessa Roth’s documentary has the unfortunate feel of a boring classroom lecture. Featuring a tedious procession of statistics, graphs and talking heads, American Teacher undercuts the forcefulness of its arguments with its underwhelming presentation. It’s the cinematic equivalent of keeping students quiet with an instructional video rather than engaging their hearts and minds.

Based on the ironically titled book Teachers Have It Easy, the film certainly delivers a barrage of sobering stats. Male teachers are leaving the profession in droves, with their percentage diminishing from 34% in 1970 to 16% today. 31% of teachers are forced to work a second job to make ends meet. And 46% quit before their fifth year on the job.

Profiles of several struggling teachers leaven the dryness of the proceedings. Texas history teacher Erik has to work nights and weekends at an electronics superstore to supplement his salary, even while teaching full-time and coaching sports after school. New York elementary school teacher Jamie attempts to juggle her professional responsibilities with the demands of pregnancy and a newborn baby. San Francisco teacher Jonathan reluctantly abandons his students to enter his family’s real-estate business, instantly doubling his income in the process.

Contrasting with these hard luck tales is that of Rhena, a Harvard grad who -- after several years of teaching in public schools -- lands a job at a charter school with a starting salary of $125,000.

While certainly timely considering the current political debate about the compensation of teachers and other public sector employees, the film is yet one more example of the increasing trend in documentaries of preaching to the choir. Its pedantic tone is only accentuated by Thao Nguyen’s oppressive musical score and the portentous narration by Matt Damon

Opens Sept. 30 (First Run Features)
Director: Vanessa Roth
Producers: Vanessa Roth, Ninive Calegari, Dave Eggers
Narrator: Matt Damon
Editor/co-director: Brian McGinn
Music: Thao Nguyen
No rating, 81 minutes