By: Robyn Gee
A new film on the education circuit offers a new assessment of the answer to America's public education woes. Simply put: our current treatment of the teaching profession is killing all prospect of growth. American Teacher -- which is making its debut in select screening locations around the country -- attempts to emphasize that good teachers in a variety of school settings are the linchpin to improving American schools.
The movie is one component of The Teacher Salary Project, which hopes to document the stories of teachers and assert that teachers are undervalued in American society in terms of compensation. The book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of American Teachers, written by Ninive Calegari, Daniel Moulthrop and Dave Eggers, inspired the making of the film, which was produced by Calegari, Eggers, and Vanessa Roth, and is narrated by Matt Damon.
According to the project's website, "46 percent of public school teachers leave the profession within the first five years of being in the classroom. Salaries and stress are among the top reasons teachers say they leave."
I became a classroom teacher at age 22, but left the position after two years. As I watched the movie American Teacher, memories of my own teaching experience flooded back -- arriving at school before sunrise and leaving after dark, just to go home and work some more.
Calegari was a classroom teacher in Massachusetts and California. After three years in a Marin school, she left to teach at a charter school in San Francisco. She started working with Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work Of A Staggering Genius, to start a literacy center in San Francisco.
The film looks at five stellar teachers from across the country who are revered by their school communities, and what challenges they confront every day to continue teaching. One teacher has two secondary jobs to supplement his teacher salary. Another returns to teaching just six weeks after giving birth, and frantically looks for places to use a breast pump during passing periods. The movie also interviews experts who speak to the lack of support for new teachers, and the disparity between how teachers are treated in America versus other countries.
Turnstyle spoke with Calegari about producing the film.
Turnstyle: What was your strategy for tackling the huge issue of teaching?
Calegari: Our strategy is to elevate the teaching profession and shine a light on good and excellent teachers. I think when you are focused on attacking the bottom, bad teachers, even good teachers get offended and feel that it dishonors and denigrates the excellent work that they do on a day-to-day basis, so I think it's a really important strategy to be positive and think about the excellent work that is happening and try to amplify that, and make a profession that is attractive to college kids. My goal has always been that the teaching profession is so exciting and so attractive that college students would stay up at night and worry about whether they could become a teacher just like they would worry about whether they could get into medical school.
Turnstyle: Were you torn between not wanting to scare people away from joining the teaching profession, and wanting to show some of the harsh realities teachers face?
Calegari: I don't see the movie as a teacher recruitment tool. We've taken the film to teacher training sessions, and it's a heart-breaking film to watch because ... you see and feel the sacrifices people make to be good teachers, and that's very painful for people going into the profession. You see the financial strain.
I'm hoping the film serves as a place for people to come together to have conversations -- to figure out how to shift our culture and realign our priorities. I would say that classroom teachers should be at the top of our list right now.
Some people feel even more inspired because I think the film does a good job of showing how critical this job is to our economy and our democracy.
Turnstyle: All of the teachers profiled in the film have very different situations. Could you pick one and tell me why you felt their situation was representative of larger issue in the field of teaching?
Calegari: I taught with Jonathan Dearman at Leadership High School and I witnessed first-hand the magic that he brought to the classroom and to our school community. When he decided to leave Leadership I was physically crushed. In the film, the students are now young successful, engaged adults and they talk about the loss of him leaving, and his influence in their present day lives.
In terms of the country, he is a really important person because we know that it's incredibly challenging to attract and retain black intellectuals, especially men in this profession, which is predominantly white women. We want to make sure that kids see a reflection of themselves in their teachers... Right now our teaching faculties are not as diverse as our student bodies.
[Dearman] says in the film that he thought he had enough money saved up to "subsidize his teaching habit." But when he had his second child, his financial buffer ran out, and he just could not raise a family on a salary of $40,000. At the time when he left, the highest salary you could earn in San Fransisco Unified School District was $71,000. We need to look at models where there is great earning potential at the height of their careers. The figures need to be larger, it's not charity work.
Turnstyle: Why did you decide to avoid going into depth around the issues of merit-based pay for teachers, and unions?
Calegari: Merit pay is imperfect, but we certainly shine a light on various examples of it, without going into depth. Evaluating teacher effectiveness and being clear on what it takes to support people who are doing a good job, is definitely a piece of the puzzle.
About the union piece, we absolutely left it out on purpose. The whole history of unions and everything about that dynamic could be a whole separate movie. We've had heads of unions supporting the film. The movie isn't in any way anti-union, it's pro-individual teachers doing an excellent job... We'll work with anybody who wants to talk about elevating this profession so that excellent teachers can stay.
I was a very proud union member, and yet, I was laid off because I was the last-hired. I didn't think twice about it at the time. But now I think that last-in, first-out is a ludicrous policy.
When I was teaching in Marin, CA I received tenure even in my twenties. I wasn't sure that the way tenure was set up made a lot of sense. And yet I paid my union dues and I felt really grateful for the support that I had, but I didn't think it was perfect.
Turnstyle: Was your film in any way, a response to Waiting for Superman?
Calegari: Our film is based on the book that came out in 2005, and [Davis Guggenheim] didn't start that early. Waiting for Superman didn't impact our film one way or another. But when I heard Davis Guggenheim had a movie, I did think we were sunk. I thought it meant we would never make it. For the bulk of the movie we had about $232 in the bank. We weren't receiving these ginormous grants.
A lot of people said, 'No one wants to see a documentary about teachers and teaching.' But Waiting for Superman proved them wrong! I think our film came out at the perfect time.