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New film fights negative perception of teachers

'American Teacher' shows how hard teaching really is.

Think of it as kryptonite for ‘Superman’: As lawmakers work to strip teachers of their collective bargaining rights and school reformers place much of the blame for the problems plaguing public education at their feet, a new film from former teacher Ninive Calegari strives to tell the story of what it’s really like for American school teachers from their own perspective.

“I was a classroom teacher for many years, and I had this feeling that people outside of education didn’t appreciate how sophisticated my job was,” said Calegari, who taught for nearly ten years. “People need to have a better understanding of how complex being a teacher is.”

Calegari co-wrote the 2005 book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, which charted on the New York Times Best Seller List. However, she became frustrated when people would tell her they bought the book for their friend or relative in the teaching profession.

I’d be happy that they bought the book, but I would be disappointed because teachers weren’t the [intended] audience for the book,” she said. “We were hoping to penetrate a much larger mainstream audience, because teachers already know the stories that are reflected in the book and in the film.”

The documentary, called American Teacher, opens Sept. 30. The film follows five teachers in different stages of their teaching careers, highlighting their daily lives and routines.

Rhena Jasey is a Harvard graduate with a master’s degree from Columbia, struggling with the lack of respect she receives as a teacher.

“All of my classmates were going for … PhDs, JDs, MBAs,” said Jasey in the film. “I knew I didn’t want to do any of those things. When I started telling my friends that I wanted to go into education, everyone immediately said, ‘Oh, like Teach for America?’ and I said, ‘No, I want to do education as my career,’ and people really didn’t understand that.”

She says she was met with disbelief when she told others she didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer.

“They said, ‘Oh, you could do anything—why would you want to be a teacher? Anybody could teach,’” said Jasey. She added: “Who would you rather have teaching your kids? You don’t want your kids being taught by someone who went to Harvard?”

Erik Benner, a teacher in Texas, was forced to get a part-time position at Circuit City (and later Floor and Décor) in addition to his coaching position just to make ends meet.

“Factor in a $350 car payment, having to pay more in taxes and insurance—it was pretty much paycheck to paycheck,” said Benner in the film.

Referred to by one of his students as “the most exciting teacher I’ve ever had,” Benner said the constant worry over money and long hours took a major toll on his family life and his marriage.

“It’s so clear that his students love him so much, and he’s so connected to the profession, that it kills me that we haven’t been able to figure out how to double his salary so he doesn’t have to work at Floor and Décor,” Calegari said.

Amanda Lueck is a second-year teacher in Denver struggling with an overcrowded—and underfunded—classroom.

“I’ve got about 40 desks in this small classroom just to accommodate everyone. I have students sitting on the counter,” she said in her video diary. “I feel like everything I do, I’m just making do.”

Jamie Fidler struggles to balance her upcoming maternity leave with her teaching position in Brooklyn. In the film, she spoke about her struggles when beginning her teaching career.

“I walked in and there weren’t any books, and I had no idea how much money I was going to spend out of my own pocket—because I didn’t get anything, really,” Fidler said.

In her first year of teaching, she reportedly spent more than $3,000 of her own money on essential supplies for her classroom.

Jonathan Dearman left the teaching profession for real estate when he found he no longer could support his family on his teacher’s salary.

“It just became a real vicious cycle and circle of burnout,” he said in the film.

That burnout is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, as 46 percent of teachers leave the profession before their fifth year.

“I know personally I didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing and didn’t find a good rhythm until my third year [teaching],” said Calegari. “We’re spending all these resources to train [teachers] for the first couple years, and then everybody leaves; it’s just an unbelievable waste. [Teachers] need legitimate salaries, they need adequate to much better conditions—and I also think teachers need a professional path so they can grow and still stay within the classroom.”

With the United States falling behind in international education rankings, teachers are taking a lot of heat from government officials looking to create a system of school accountability.

Teachers’ unions have raised concerns about how such a system should measure an educator’s effectiveness, how much of a role students’ test scores should play in this process, and what the consequences of a poor evaluation should be. For raising these concerns, teachers have come to be seen by many as obstructing educational progress and putting their own interests ahead of their students’—a conclusion reached by the widely seen 2010 documentary film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ for instance.

“You can’t argue that education isn’t the most powerful profession in terms of needing the best, brightest, most energetic people—and to make their job even harder is amazing,” said Dearman. “I never thought that people who are in education would be viewed as filthy and money-hoarding.”

“People really do think that teachers work from nine to three, and it’s not that hard. I think we have to … try and turn that [perception] around, and show people the thousands of decisions that teachers are making [each] day … and how critical it is for them to be well trained and supported, so they can do a really good job,” said Calegari.

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