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The Independent Critic

Erik Benner, Jamie Fidler, Rhena Jasey, Jonathan Dearman, Amanda Lueck, Matt Damon (Narrator)
Vanessa Roth
80 Mins.
First Run Features
Bonus Scenes; More Interviews

 "American Teacher" Review 
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Sister Marian Ruth Johnson.

She was a kind, older nun winding down her teaching career when I first encountered her during my first semester at Martin University, an urban university in Indianapolis that targets the adult, and on a certain level, the "second chance" student. I had always been an average student, having moments of brilliance often over-shadowed by even more moments of mediocrity and even academic failure. I graduated high school with a 2.5 GPA, but excelled on the speech team and even participated in the "Brain Game," a variation of an academic bowl, during my senior year.

I was fortunate in the sense that I was one of the few students with disabilities who didn't have to languish away in a special education classroom. It seemed as if everyone knew that I had a brain, but it also seemed as if everyone accepted that mediocrity would be my norm.

Sister Marian Ruth Johnson was different. During that first semester at Martin University, Sister Marian facilitated a course I was in that would end up giving me credit for my life experiences. It was during this semester that Sister Marian silently observed that I was a deeply experiential learner, a "doer" in every sense of the word with a mind that often not only worked "outside the box" but also simply could not work inside the box. Sister Marian also discovered my previously acknowledged but never really explored creative side, and without my even realizing it she began tailoring her teaching to how I needed to learn.

Oh, and she called me smart. "Smart" - a word I had most assuredly never heard come from the mouth of any other teacher. By the end of that first semester, a miracle had happened - straight A's.

I was amazed. Sister Marian wasn't. Once she discovered how I best learned, she shared this knowledge with others and it seemed as if the professors of Martin University became deeply invested in my academic success in a way I'd never imagined possible.

Straight A's. Straight A's. Straight A's...and on and on and on. I would eventually graduate from Martin University with a B.S. in Counseling Psychology and a minor in Drama, perhaps recognition that it took creativity and a willingness to think "outside the box" for this once mediocre student to become a 4.0 undergraduate student and valedictorian of my graduating class.

Indeed, teachers matter. A lot.

Directed by Oscar winner Vanessa Roth, American Teacher is said to be the answer to Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, and was inspired by the New York Times bestseller "Teachers Have It Easy." The film is endorsed by teacher's unions from around the nation representing millions of teachers, both because it stresses the importance of well paid and respected teachers and, of course, because the film counters any arguments that teachers are actually part of the problem. Roth centers the film on the stories of four teachers in different areas of the countries, ranging from an urban instructor to a Harvard-educated young woman whose friends and family are flabbergasted when she announces that she plans to use her Harvard education to become a teacher.

Roth kicks off all the proceedings by noting that within 10 years almost half of America's teachers will have reached retirement age, and a profession that was once respected and even revered has become one to be avoided and disrespected. The right-wing media regularly goes after teachers as actually being overpaid and definitely part of the problem, while the left-wing media has begun to lean more and more that direction and seldom invests any energy in defending educators.

There's no doubt that American Teacher presents a one-sided argument, but where it becomes a compelling and involving film is in the way Roth captures the stories of her film's subjects and the reasons they've taken the path they've chosen and why they choose to persevere despite so many obstacles along the way.

Ultimately, American Teacher is an entertaining but light documentary that isn't about to change anyone's minds on the subjects at hands. While our stories are presented quite movingly, they will be most effective with those who already possess an admiration for the teaching profession or who, like me, fondly recall the ways in which an educator influenced their lives.

The film is well narrated by actor Matt Damon, who has spoken out passionately about this issue with an energy and enthusiasm that is largely non-existent in this film. Perhaps, I might suspect, Roth feels so strongly about this issue and considers it so obvious that her certainty has drained the film of a needed sense of conflict and intensity. It's also noted that while the film is considered the answer to other films with differing ideas about education, it also falls short exactly in the same ways as those other films in that it presents a one-sided discussion (it's too light to be called an argument) and barely mentions opposing ideas and theories. It also fails to delve into those issues that may bother some who question just how underpaid teachers are given that many of them don't work a full year and most have an income either at or above America's median income.

While American Teacher is flawed, it's still an important film for anyone who is concerned about the fate of the public school system and the future of education and teaching. While it doesn't necessarily add up to a solid argument pro-teacher, American Teacher is still an entertaining, inspiring and occasionally heartbreaking film about the state of the American teacher.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic