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'American Teacher' focuses on real problems of those who stand in front of the class

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2011 - Depending on your age, your taste in movies and your relationship to education, your image of a teacher on the big screen could be Sidney Poitier in "To Sir, With Love," Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver" or even Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher."

You won't find any of those fictionalized superteachers - or superbad teachers -- in the film "American Teacher." Instead, you will see four very real teachers dealing with very real problems -- burnout, family conflicts, second-guessing and second jobs to help make ends meet at home.

The movie, directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Vanessa Roth, follows a format familiar to anyone who has seen other recent education-related films like "Waiting for Superman" or "The Lottery." But in this case, instead of focusing on students who are trying to get into better schools, "American Teacher" highlights the joys and frustrations of four teachers:

Jamie Fidler, a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn who spends $3,000 of her own money each year on essential classroom supplies and is unsure how she will manage everything after her baby is born.

Erik Benner, a middle-school history teacher, one of a declining number of men in the profession who also coaches but still needs to take a job driving a forklift to bring in the money his family needs.

Rhena Jasey, who has a bachelor's degree from Harvard and two master's degrees, has to cope with the disbelief of her peers when she says she wants to make a difference by going into the classroom.

Jonathan Dearman, a teacher at the Leadership high school in San Francisco, who as a black man is a member of an even smaller teaching minority but is also the kind of teacher that students look back on with admiration and appreciation.

The movie, narrated by Matt Damon, also features interviews with education experts that cover a broad philosophical spectrum. While it focuses on the four teachers, it also -- like any good instructor -- slips in a number of relevant facts about the plight of education today: 1.8 million teachers will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years; teachers typically have a workweek that can stretch to 65 hours; 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit every year; 46 percent of new teachers leave before their fifth year - turnover that costs an estimated $7.34 billion each year.

The movie grew out of a book titled "Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers," written by Dave Eggers, Ninive Calegari and Daniel Moulthrop. It is also part of a wider effort called the Teacher Salary Project, which is trying to increase respect and compensation for the profession.

Calegari, who also worked with Eggers as producers of the film, said in an interview from her home in the San Francisco area that she has spent much of her life in education, either as a classroom teacher or working for non-profits that support improvements in schools.

She said she wanted to make a film that highlighted the difficulties but also the absurdities that teacher have to face, such as buying own supplies or holding down second jobs, all the while they are entrusted to making thousands of little decisions each day that show how wrong that old saying is: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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