I came across the documentary American Teacher as I learning about education policy to teach a new course on Homeschooling and the Law. Although the course focuses primarily on the legal aspects of homeschooling, issues with the public school system in many ways prompted the modern homeschooling movement. As a result, we will discuss various educational reform efforts at the beginning of the course.
American Teacher is a film about the challenges that public educators face. A lack of resources (e.g., materials, time, support) to do one’s job is one huge challenge addressed. But another major challenge addressed in the film is how teachers are underpaid. To my surprise, the issue of teacher salary was actually a major component of the film.
American Teacher notes that when public schools originated the teachers were mostly men. But the film describes that early in the 20th century there was a conscious effort to recruit women to the profession. The reason for this was that at that point in time, women could be paid less than men for the same job. It would cost less to educate kids if women did the work.
The film also noted that men have become an increasingly small minority in the teaching profession over the last several decades. The film theorized that decline is because of the poor pay. The film describes how men used to be able to support a family on a teacher’s salary but no longer are.
Parenthetically, I’ll flag that even before the women’s movement, moms, grandmas, aunts and sisters have sometimes had to support a family from their earnings when the father (or other men) of the household died or abandoned them. It is interesting to me that that reality is never addressed. The debate is always on the man-supporting-a-family model.
Interviewees in the film noted that our current educational system is built on the premise that women who teach do not have to support a family. They are presumed to have husbands who are the primary breadwinner. The wives’ teaching salaries is thus thought to just be an added financial perk, but not really necessary to a family’s well-being. With that framework, it doesn’t matter that the salary is not competitive with other professions.
The film focused on a handful of good teachers across the country.
The two male teachers featured both had families. Though it was not clear, it appeared their wives did not work outside the home. They describe the birth of their children as putting great financial stress on their families. Both of the featured male teachers illustrated the issue that a man could not support his family on a teacher’s salary.
One gentleman had saved a lot from real estate investments, which he thought would help bridge the gap from his teaching salary. Ultimately, it did not. He left teaching primarily for financial reasons after he became a dad. He joined the family business to support his family. He noted that even in an off year, in the family business he was earning twice what he earned as a teacher. Moreover, he had a lot more control over his schedule and workload. He had less stress and more time with his family. Unfortunately, he seemed sad about his professional choice. Clearly, he had loved making a difference in students’ lives.
The other male teacher featured in the film had not left teaching, but had worked a second-job for many years. After teaching a full-day, he then spent another five plus hours loading heavy merchandise onto forklifts and into customers’ vehicles. Working round the clock to make ends meet took a huge toll on his family. He rarely got to spend time with his children. Due to exhaustion, he fell asleep at family functions. The family’s home was foreclosed. Eventually, he and his wife divorced. She said that he was never home; she felt like she hadn’t had a husband when they were married.
Three female teachers were featured in the film. Two were apparently single women without dependents. They both described the long hours they put in, and how much they relied upon their own money to provide basic supplies for their classrooms.
These two single women also described the grueling hours the devoted to their jobs. Insightfully, one of these women stated quite strongly that every teacher, whom she respected professionally, worked 6-7 days per week and during evenings. The suggestion was that if you weren’t working such hours, you were not dedicated and not a good teacher.
The third female teacher featured was pregnant at the start of the film. She was scheduled to give birth to her first child mid-way through the academic year, but was only allotted 6 weeks of paid maternity leave no matter what. It was not entirely clear, but it appeared that she was the sole breadwinner of her family. Her husband stayed home to care for their baby full-time. Among other things, the film followed the struggle this female teacher went through to find time and a place during the school day to express milk for her baby. She was also exhausted after being up with her baby in the night and then teaching all day.
In one interview, this new mom described how exhausted she was and how she wasn’t even taking care of herself. She mentioned everyone kept asking how she could come back so quickly after giving birth, but rather exasperated she asked rhetorically what choice she had. Her husband and she did not have rich parents and had to support themselves. They needed her paycheck. It seemed like those around her did not anticipate that her teaching salary would be financially necessary to sustain a whole family.
Towards the end of the film, this same teacher seemed to express ambivalence about continuing on as a dedicated teacher now that she was a mom. She indicated her priorities were shifting. She said that for the first time in her adult life, something other than her students needed to come first. She could no longer sacrifice everything for them.
At the end of the film, it was noted that one of the two single female teachers had gotten married and had given birth to her first child. It was added that she took a year off from teaching and was not yet sure if she would be returning.
One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.” Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.”