By Leo Collis.

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth, American Teacher is a documentary that focuses on the lives of four teachers, as they approach different points in their careers. Going beyond their role as educators, the film looks at how the profession has shaped their personal lives, and those they have taught.

The documentary investigates the reasons for failures in the American education system. Using research that looks into the levels of teacher turnover, the salaries of teachers, the number of graduates who consider teaching as a profession, the standards of teaching in America compared to its global rivals and the number of teachers who have a second job, the documentary presents some startling statistics. The film raises important questions and offers insightful opinions and proven examples of ways in which to improve the system, for the good of both teachers and students.

The stories of the four individuals are inspiring. The care, dedication and overall love of teaching are demonstrated through the way they talk about it, and their obvious unyielding enthusiasm for the children they teach. Even the teachers who are given a smaller focus exhibit a passion that is truly incredible. However, the reality of the pressures and strains of the job is heartbreaking. The low salary and lack of incentives or recognition obviously take their toll.

Discovering that some of the individuals from the film’s opening were forced to quit teaching, even though they expressed such a love for it, is shocking. The difficulties and stress of looking after a family on a small salary force many people out of the profession. The most crushing example is Erik Benner’s story. Having to work two jobs to support his family, Benner spent very little time at home, which caused too much strain on his marriage, leading to his divorce. However, despite the pressures, Benner keeps teaching.

Whereas the stories of the individual teachers are more emotive, the statistics given are the major feature for concern. The level of teacher turnover, the high number of working hours, and the lack of a rise in salary – amongst other aspects – contribute to the decline in teaching quality and interest. Although the statistics seem woeful, the documentary does fail at times to identify who conducted the research. I was able to discover that consulting firm McKinsey was a contributor, but only through reading an article from the film’s producers, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, based on the same subject. The figures given could therefore be subject to bias, which makes the documentary less objective and reliable than it could be.

The statistics are not the only feature of criticism for the documentary. The narration of Matt Damon is awfully monotonous, and the recording quality is sub-par. Damon’s voice sounds like it was recorded in a huge school hall on cassette tape. The sound levels for the recordings of the interviewees are also not consistent, prompting various changes in volume. However, this may be something that can be fixed for general release.

Animation to help explain statistics is used well, but often the superimposition of text to explain who certain individuals are is lost. It is often difficult to read the text, due to the contrasting nature of a person’s clothes or the background of the setting. This is a small stylistic point, but something that perhaps should have been looked into.

Regardless of the criticisms, American Teacher is a fascinating and watchable documentary. Roth finds a delicate balance between the emotional tales of the individuals and the hard facts. Although the film will gain the most interest from teachers, it gives the general audience a unique and eye-opening view of the people we all feared as children. For parents, or those who intend to be, it may also provide an impetus to demand more for the people who hold a child’s future in their hands.

American Teacher seeks to provide a wake-up call to those who misunderstand the life of a teacher, and indeed those who have the power to change the system. In general, the documentary is effective, and important as a catalyst to change the way in which America looks at its policy regarding teachers. The stories of the four individuals are conveyed with sensitivity and grace, and provide a tangible presence to the various issues that teachers face. Teachers have such an important role in a nation’s development of children, which, in turn, impacts a country’s growth in social, political and economical matters. The film highlights the importance of teachers and demands their recognition. Despite certain mistakes and flaws, this documentary should be witnessed by all, if not to instigate change, then at least to increase awareness of the issues that surround teaching.

Leo Collis is a Film, Media and Journalism graduate from The University of Stirling. Now an aspiring film writer, Leo is looking for projects that will challenge him and further increase his love of film.


Film Details

American Teacher(2011)


Director Vanessa Roth

Producers Ninive Calegari, Dave Eggers, Vanessa Roth

Edited and Co-Directed by Brian McGinn

Narrated by Matt Damon

Runtime 80 minutes

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