West Wind Hosts Screening of the American Teacher Documentary

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On Tuesday, April 3, West Wind Education Policy, Inc. and the Bijou Theatre at the University of Iowa co-hosted a screening of the American Teacher, a documentary produced by the Teacher Salary Project.  The Project aims to raise awareness of teacher working conditions in America, including salary, hours, and respect for the profession.  The film’s producers include Ninive Caligari, co-founder of the 826 National writing programs and a former classroom teacher who also co-authored the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers with co-producer of the documentary Dave Eggers, best known for his 2000 book,  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.   The film is directed by Vanessa Roth, who won an Academy Award for Freeheld, and narrated by actor Matt Damon.

The screening at the Bijou Theatre was followed by a panel discussion.  I was honored to moderate the conversation between the audience and the following panelists:

  • Michelle Bacon Curry, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, who is working toward an MAT in Secondary English Education.
  • Andrew Fagersten, a junior in the University of Iowa Department of Education, who plans to teach elementary school.
  • Mara Goodvin, an ementary music teacher in Rock Island, Illinois, who also holds a MA in Education Administration.
  • Coy Marquardt, a former 6th grade and language arts teacher, who is currently the Uniserv Director with the Iowa State Education Association.
  • Valerie Nyberg, a policy analyst at West Wind Education Policy, Inc, who is currently finishing her Ph.D. dissertation in the Department of Education at the University of Iowa.   In addition, Valerie is a former high school teacher, holds a K-12 administrator license, and is an adjunct professor at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City.
  • Dr. Renita Schmidt, a University of Iowa Associate Professor in the Department of Education, who is also a former teacher.

Not surprisingly for a discussion of teacher working conditions and salary, the audience had a lot of questions and comments for the panelists. And the panelists, all former, current, or soon-to-be teachers, found much common ground with the teachers on the screen.

The film follows several teachers as they make the decision to keep teaching or move into more financially lucrative careers.  We see them in the classroom teaching; hear from students and parents about their impact on their lives and education; watch them spend their own money to purchase basic classroom supplies; see teachers preparing lessons, spending hours at night grading papers, and working second jobs at warehouse retail stores.  We see their families splitting apart from stress.  We watch a new mother pumping breastmilk in a co-worker’s office for her six week old daughter.  We hear from a teacher, Jonathan Dearman, excited to be in the classroom everyday—he says it is the best job he ever had—and we hear from the students whose lives were touched by Dearmon.  And then we see Mr. Dearman selling real estate to support his family, having left the teaching profession forever.

The panelists shared stories of their own decisions to teach and the supports they see as necessary to improve the working conditions for teachers.  Some of the issues discussed included the negative language often used when talking about teachers in the media and the often negative reaction of peers to young people who chose to go into the teaching profession, especially young men.

The panel also discussed some ways to increase racial and gender diversity in the teaching profession.  One suggestion was to offer alternative pathways to certification that include payment for student teaching.  Another was to ensure the right supports are in place in the school building to help teachers of color overcome the challenges and barriers they often encounter.

Another topic of discussion was the amount of testing in the classroom.  Some of the panelists felt that the amount of testing is overwhelming the ability of a teacher to really teach or to even properly monitor student growth in the classroom.  A good portion of the panel discussion involved the supports teachers need in the classroom and in preparation programs.  These include higher salaries, support from the administrators, support from parents, recognition of their hard work in the media and community, and time for professional development and planning.  The panel also discussed some of the problematic laws currently proposed in Iowa, including raising the GPA for admission to a teacher preparation program to 3.0 and retaining children who cannot read in the 3rd grade.

Why did we at West Wind find this film compelling enough to organize a screening and discussion?  It is no surprise that a documentary about the teaching profession would catch our eye, but the way this documentary explores the profession and the individual teachers’ stories seem particularly relevant to the ongoing public debate about education today.  The teachers in the film do not seem different from many people in my life and, I suspect, yours either.  After I first watched the film, I was describing the story of Erik Benner, a teacher and coach in Texas who works several jobs to support his family, to my father-in-law, a former teacher, principal, and superintendent.  He said slowly, as though, I had missed something obvious all around us, “Yes.  When I taught I always painted houses in the summer.  That’s how we made a living.  Most teachers have to work a second job.”  As I thought about it, I realized he is right.  How many of us took piano lessons from the school music teacher or had our lawns mowed by the math teacher in the summer?  I know my teachers did these things, but I honestly never stopped to think about what that meant.

That is why the film seemed particularly relevant to me:  educator salary, working conditions, how we evaluate teachers, how we retain and recruit great teachers, and the language we use to talk about teachers are things many of us think about every day in our offices or otherwise.  But it meant something more to me because the film brought it to me through the lives of real teachers, teachers dedicated to their jobs and their students who I could see struggling on the screen.

The documentary has been screened across the country and is now available on Netflix.  In addition, screenings continue to be organized.  For a list of all screenings visit the Teacher Salary Project.

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