American Teacher is basically a feature-length commercial on behalf of the teaching profession, attesting to how important and how difficult, underpaid, and underappreciated it is. The necessity of such an ad can be chalked up to the recent education-reform documentary barrage of The Cartel, The Lottery, and most prominently, Waiting For Superman, which all controversially criticize teachers’ unions and come out in favor of charter schools. American Teacher mostly avoids these murkier policy issues in favor of following a selection of idealistic teachers in their work and struggles, and interviewing countless others about the influence a good instructor can have on a child. The film is relentlessly one-sided enough to become tiring, but it’s impossible not to feel for the main characters, who all love what they do while continually being forced to question how feasible it is.
Brooklyn-based Jamie Fidler returns to work just six weeks after having a baby—she’s out of maternity leave, and she and her husband need the income too much for her to take unpaid time off. San Franciscan Jonathan Dearman takes up real estate after he finds it too challenging to support a family on his teacher’s salary. Harvard grad Rhena Jasey leaves her public-school position for a place at New York’s Equity Project Charter School, also because of the lure of better pay and the chance, as she puts it, to be able to afford takeout once in a while. But Texan Erik Benner is the real heartbreaker: The first in his family to go to college, he’s a beloved teacher and coach who has to work nights and weekends in retail just to get by. His brutal schedule costs him his marriage, he loses his house to foreclosure, and yet he’s stalwart and uncomplaining, a poignant figure in danger of being crushed by harsh economic realities.
American Teacher, narrated by Matt Damon and co-produced by author and McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers, is at its most persuasive when outlining how difficult it’s become to keep good teachers and attract new ones with the limited compensation and respect currently on offer. It’s less compelling when it verges into coloring teachers as saints, which runs counter to the grounded arguments that teaching is a profession in which success and skill deserve to be rewarded. As a whole, American Teacher is best taken not as a standalone film, but as a valid counterargument in what’s become a hot topic in the doc world.