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Winter 2012

American Teacher

A new documentary looks at teacher pay and perception

American Teacher still frame of classroom teacher and studentsFor teacher Rhena Jasey, having a starring role in a nationally released documentary is one thing, but having actor Matt Damon say your name is completely another.

"It's been really exciting," says Jasey, one of the educators profiled in Nínive Calegari's new documentary, American Teacher, which premiered in New York City on September 25. "Matt Damon said my name twice in the film. My aunt said maybe I could make that the greeting on my phone."

But for Jasey, this film is about much more than excitement: It's about validation.

"It's rewarding that someone is recognizing all of the hard work it takes to be a teacher, and it was fun to go to my Harvard reunion and say, 'I'm going to be in a movie. I'm not married and I don't have any babies, but I'm going to be in a movie,'" she says. "It's also great to see my doctor and lawyer friends excited, finally, about me being a teacher."

Why did that excitement, mostly from Jasey's Harvard College peers, take so long? It is one of the questions that former teacher Calegari, Ed.M.'95, tried to address as coproducer of the film.

"We really want to change American culture," Calegari says. More specifically, she wants to change the perception, prestige, and pay scale of teachers, which is not an easy task in a post–Waiting for "Superman" world.

Narrated by Damon, directed by Academy Award–winning director Vanessa Roth, and produced by Calegari and author Dave Eggers, American Teacher delves significantly deeper into some of the questions raised, but not answered, in last year's Superman. Among them? How the United States will address the retirement of more than half the nation's teaching force in the next decade and attract new talent to a field that pays far below the private sector. (Jasey, for example, earned about $50,000 annually after six years teaching in the South Orange/Maplewood School District in New Jersey, which is in accord with the national average.)

Based on the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers by Calegari, Eggers, and Daniel Moulthrop, the film is one part of the Teacher Salary Project, which aims to shine a light on the undervaluation of the nation's 3.2 million teachers. To illustrate this point, four educators, including Jasey, share their universal stories of success, challenge, and, in two instances, departures from jobs they love.

"When I was teaching, I thought no one was happier than me. I could not believe how rewarding it was, but I felt the outside community didn't realize how sophisticated the job was," says Calegari, who taught for nearly a decade before cofounding 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization that supports both teachers and students in writing skills. "I felt the burn of America's ambivalent feelings about it. Some people had a sense it was important work, while others didn't. Meanwhile, I married someone who graduated from an M.B.A. program right at the start of the dotcom boom, and he and his peers were all being offered these six-figure salaries. I love innovation and I think technology is important, but the fact that I couldn't even go to a friend's wedding because I couldn't afford it on my teacher's salary … Something seemed very wrong to me."

Calegari was not alone in her pursuit of this project, and found support among fellow Ed School graduates including board members Louise Grotenhuis, Ed.M.'95, and Ellen Gordon Reeves, Ed.M.'86; Mark Kushner, Ed.M.'95, who helped Calegari find one of the teachers profiled; and 2005 National Teacher of the Year Jason Kamras, Ed.M.'00, who holds the distinction of appearing in both American Teacher and Superman.

Kamras, who currently serves as the chief of human capital for the District of Columbia Public Schools, has a varied perspective echoed today by many inside and outside education: While great teachers may be underpaid, new evaluation criteria are critical to determine appropriate salary levels.

"Sometimes folks in education do ourselves damage when we say everyone should be getting more money regardless of what is happening in the classroom," says Kamras. As for the perception problem? "The reality is the top third of college graduates do not go into teaching, it is usually the bottom third," he says. "It is still not perceived as professional or as respected or as important as going into medicine or law or science … so it is not, on average, attracting the top. But the caveat is there are great people going into the profession every day and doing great things for kids. Rhena shows us that.

"Going forward, one of the ways to address this and to change the perception is to be honest about the profession and to be concrete," says Kamras. "We have to be able to stand up and say, 'Those who are not doing a great job have got to go.' What attracts great people is other great people. The way we can create that cycle in schools is to make sure we have the best and not tolerate anything less. If we do that, I'll be at the front of the line saying we have to pay people more. That is what we have tried to do here in D.C. Not only do we give out annual bonuses of up to $25,000, but we also move people up the salary scale — their base salaries — in some cases by more than $20,000. When you attach the dollars and it shows what you value, it does show prestige, and it goes hand-in-hand with saying, 'We are not going to tolerate mediocrity.'"

As for Jasey, who left her public school job in New Jersey for a $125,000-per-year teaching post at a charter school in New York, she is hopeful that American Teacher will promote dialogue and impart "a new appreciation for how complicated and how difficult the job is, as well as the broad range of talent required to do it well.

"I'm lucky because I use so many of my strengths throughout the day and I want people to come away with that understanding that this is more than babysitting. Someone is showing the world what we do and the impact we have," says Jasey, who holds two master's degrees. "Teaching is a real profession that requires an intense amount of expertise."

— Mary Tamer is a Boston-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Ed.

— Go to www.theteachersalaryproject.org to watch a clip of this film.

A screening of American Teacher will be held in the Ed School's Askwith Hall in Longfellow Hall, Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 4:00 p.m.