by Nínive Calegari, Producer of American Teacher
from the American Teacher screening kit
Even though I’ve watched our film countless times, unexpected moments still make me cry. This summer, during a screening at a teachers’ conference, I got teary watching a former English teacher named Gretchen Weber describe moving her two thousand novels from basement to basement in the hopes that she might still someday go back into the classroom. I couldn’t help but think of the boxes of original lesson plans and primary document materials in my own basement—like Gretchen, I keep them just in case I ever go back. Teaching wasn’t ever just a job for me; it was a way of life, and it shaped the way I still think about the magnificence and fragility of our democracy, an honest day’s work, creating community, and being responsible for other people.
After receiving my master’s in Education and my teaching credentials, I taught in three different settings: a large urban public school, a large suburban public school, and a tiny public charter school, San Francisco’s first. There were huge differences in these settings in terms of resources: I was laid off from my first job due to a budget cut combined with our union’s “last in, first out” requirement; the second school was in a wealthy suburb with plenty of resources and meaningful professional training; and the charter school didn’t even have a building until a few weeks before the start of the year.
What the three schools had in common, however, were superb faculties. I marveled at the teachers at those three schools: How David Sondheim knew the souls of every kid in the halls of Drake High. The way Jonathan Dearman brought an entire music department to our under-supplied charter school. The eye-popping science experiments that Sarah Kerley designed on a limited budget and with scrappy materials. I could go on and on.
I witnessed firsthand how these creative, warm, hilarious, and intelligent teachers made sincere connections with students and provided inspiring lessons day after day, but I knew the outside world didn’t see what I saw, and I often felt and heard a very different impression about our profession. In 2003 I was thrilled to team up with Daniel Moulthrop and Dave Eggers to attempt to address this lack of awareness, and we wrote a book collecting vivid depictions of teachers’ lives. We interviewed hundreds of teachers about the complexities of their work, their passions for their profession, their frustrations with public conceptions of their value, and their financial struggles to make it all possible.
We talked with people who said they would have loved to go into teaching, but didn’t want to be undervalued professionally or scraping by financially. We also examined schools that had raised their teachers’ salaries and saw good results: increased applications for openings, increased teacher retention, increased graduation rates, and, yes, increased test scores. The book was well received, and yet, I wanted to speak to people beyond the educational community. American Teacher is our attempt to bring these stories to a wider audience.
At the moment, we have a rare opportunity to fundamentally shape the future of the teaching profession. Over half of our nation’s teachers will be eligible to retire in the next ten years, and we can take advantage of this shift in personnel to spark a cultural shift as well. We have to make teaching a desirable profession, with fair pay, opportunities for professional growth, and acceptable conditions. I want to live in a country where collegestudents stay up at night wondering if they will be successful enough to become a teacher, the same way they worry about getting into medical school.
Many people tell me that teachers aren’t motivated by money, and there’s a lot of truth to that; for many teachers, the job itself is the real reward. But that view overlooks the many long-term consequences of undervaluing a profession. Many college students want to teach but can’t see a financial and professional future in it. Of those who do take the leap, over half have to work second jobs outside the classroom. We can’t ask teachers to take a vow of poverty and then expect miraculous results. If we want a different future for our kids and grandkids, we need to give education reform the time, attention, and money that it demands and deserves.
As we take this film from city to city, I often think about all those boxes of lesson plans stashed in my basement. I’m still in touch with many of my former students, but I miss the challenges and excitement unique to being in charge of a classroom of young people. I know many of my old colleagues feel the same way. For all of them, and especially for all the recent graduates currently considering the profession, I hope this film helps build support for vital change. Our kids and our country deserve the most talented, dedicated teachers available who can stay and thrive in the profession—and those teachers deserve our respect and fair pay.