A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 25 2011

“American Teacher” and Why Teacher Compensation Matters


“Why do we value people who can shoot a ball through a hoop, or hit a baseball with a bat, or kick a soccer ball, but we don’t value our classroom educators?” Education Secretary Duncan posed this question before a screening of American Teacher, a new documentary that attempts to present, to the public, the realities of life as a public school teacher in the United States.

The questions the film sought to answer: Why don’t we as a society value our teachers more? And, given the epic rate of teacher turnover, what is it that drives those in the classroom out?

(You can find a summary and review of the movie here. Brad Jupp, who was featured in the movie and was also at the screening, provides a thoughtful preview here.)

American Teacher is the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari, co-founders of creative writing non-profit 826 National (which, coincidentally, just opened a branch in my neighborhood in DC). They’re a dynamic pair that has also drawn recent attention for a (compelling) New York Times op-ed, “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries.”  The documentary, directed by Vanessa Roth, focuses on the work of those in the trenches of education through several sketches of dedicated American educators.

Unsurprisingly, the overarching theme of the documentary is that teachers aren’t paid enough. The film, after all, is part of the Teacher Salary Project, whose goal it is to pay teachers more. By showing the reality of life as a teacher from the perspective of diverse educators–Rhena Jasey, a Harvard grad who taught elementary school in New Jersey before transferring to The Equity Project in NYC; Eric Benner, a Texas history teacher and athletics coach; and Jonathan Dearman, a San Francisco high school teacher turned real estate investor–the film bears out this theme.

I found Eric Benner’s story particularly moving—and symbolic of the problem that we face with the way we value teachers in society today. In short, we don’t pay them enough.

One might argue that Benner is, in many ways, the archetype of the American Dream. He grew up in a trailer in Texas; was the only one among all his brothers and sisters to graduate college; landed a job as a teacher, something that he’d wanted to do; married a wife and had two kids; and eventually purchased a beautiful home for his family. What more could he ask for?

Yet, somewhere along the way, part of his dream collapsed. His marriage ended. He lost a job (explained later). His home was foreclosed. The cause? His teacher salary.

I’m oversimplifying—but only a little. You see, Benner started out as a history teacher and athletics coach at Trinity Springs Middle School in Keller, TX making $27,000 a year. Early on, this posed no problem. In fact, to someone who had been making $5 an hour, he appeared to be making a killing. Yet, as his family, and all the financial burdens that came with it, grew, $27,000 no longer cut it. This financial reality forced Benner into a second job, an evening shift at a Circuit City warehouse. This, of course, was on top of his post-school coaching duties.

For a while, this arrangement worked. But, eventually, the whole set-up crumbled. His marriage dissolved because he was always working and was, therefore, never at home. To make matters worse, he got laid off from Circuit City. In spite of these setbacks, he continued to teach—it was his calling. Yet Benner’s is a story of a dedicated breadwinner eventually having no one for which to win bread.

Benner still teaches today, 15 years after first entering the classroom. But he is still on weak financial ground. He makes a hair over $50,000 and must still work a second job (this time at Floor and Décor) to support his children.

If only teachers were paid more.


American Teacher is a truly captivating documentary, not least because it shows, through gripping portraits like Benner’s, why we must value our nation’s educators more by paying them more.

While increased pay is certainly not sufficient to solve the complex “problem of education,” it is one policy that brings with it a host of positive side effects that do much to improve the status of teachers. As Zeke Vanderhoek, founder of The Equity Project–a new school that pays a $125,000 starting salary to teachers–explained, money, beyond being something that increases the financial possibility for a person, has a “catalytic effect” on other things such as happiness and status.

In thinking about increasing pay, though, I’d like to suggest that not all forms of increased pay are of equal merit. An across-the-board salary raise within the systems of compensation that prevail in districts nationwide, for instance, would do nothing to solve the problem that teachers like Benner face. That is, bumping up salaries at every step in the pay scale by 10, 20 or even 30 percent would not be enough, simply because the pay progression of the average public school teacher is very shallow.

And this leads to my biggest qualm about the way we pay teachers today: there is no variation in compensation and there is no prospect of a high end salary. Without differentiation, and without the potential to earn substantially more than the $50,000 that Benner earns after fifteen years of service, I just don’t see how it is possible to attract more talent into the profession of teaching, let alone retain them. We need to address this fundamental structural issue of teacher compensation, more so than merely increasing quantity at each step. Making this shift will produce the “catalytic effects” that might eventually boost the status of teachers and hence make them more valuable in the eyes of the general public.


I think I was particularly attracted to the film because the theme of teacher compensation resonated with me. The rather meager earnings outlook of a public school teacher was one of the reasons why I knew, when beginning teaching through TFA, that being a life-long classroom educator was not a realistic career option.

While money certainly isn’t the only thing that matters to me, I do want to know that I can live in a comfortable home, sustain a family and indulge in a nice vacation every once in a while. This doesn’t seem particularly feasible given the salary prospects of a public school teacher.

Here, the cynic will scoff at me and claim that I just don’t have the dedication or commitment to students and education. A “real” educator would do the job just the same. Money is no carrot to her.

But, is it so unbelievable that so few “top college graduates” (or whatever you want to call them) aspire to become teachers when the long-term financial picture leaves little room for error? At the end of the day, financial uncertainty and distress was what drove educators like Dearman out of the classroom, and what tattered part of Benner’s dream. In other words, am I not just being a rational individual? Try to convince me otherwise.

I have many more things to say about the evening, particularly the panel. But, in the interest of time and length I’ve chosen to leave that out. All I will say is that the teachers featured in the movie were surprise guests who sat alongside several other education commentators featured in film. Here is a photo of the panel:

Anyways, go see American Teacher. It plays in NYC tomorrow and hopefully will come to theaters nationwide this fall. And push for teacher compensation reform in your communities. It matters.

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2 Responses

  1. Candice Jones

    Two of my children have had Eric Benner and what a fabulous man who LOVES what he does! Teachers deserve more, they are shaping America. I love my kids, and the one person who can influence their lives more then me…..their teacher. That makes them important to me!

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on an inspirational teacher! I hope you’ve had a chance to see the movie. As you can probably tell, I think it was wonderful.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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