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NY Teachers Star in Film that Makes Case for Educators

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 By Mark Scheerer/Dallas Heltzell, Public News Service - NY, Contact
September 29, 2011

NEW YORK - "American Teacher," a documentary film opening in New York and Los Angeles and narrated by actor Matt Damon, follows four public school teachers, two of them from New York, as they do a job they love but find increasingly frustrating in the face of a lack of respect from all quarters.

As it profiles Jamie Fidler, Rhena Jasey and two other educators, "American Teacher" drives home the point that because of low pay and tough working conditions, almost half of all teachers leave the profession within five years.

Although he has yet to see the film, New York teachers' union president Dick Iannuzzi has seen the syndrome.

"That's sad, because it's going to take - not only going to, but is taking - some of the best and the brightest away from the classroom."

Iannuzzi says opposition to public workers contributes to the lack of respect public school teachers are feeling and the exodus of educators from the field.

"You take the difficulty of the job, you take the challenge of dealing with salaries and benefits in a difficult economy, and then you take the nonsensical, ideologically led teacher-bashing and you say, 'Hey - I'm going to pack it in and go someplace else where I'm going to be respected.'"

The film's co-producer, Ninive Calegari, a veteran teacher and author, says teacher salaries, low at the entry levels, don't rise enough during the course of careers - and that should be remedied.

"Everywhere that the salaries have gone up, either student test scores have gone up or teacher retention has gone up or graduation rates have gone up."

Raising teachers' salaries is not a "silver bullet" that will solve all the problems of American public education, Calegari says, but she believes it can be the tipping point.

"I think that if we can honor this profession, keep good - the good teachers that are there - keep them, allow them to be free from financial stress, allow them to not work second jobs, and then really make this an inviting profession for college kids, I think that then we'll be better able to tackle those other problems."

Many college graduates who have run up large school loan debts often view the choice of a career in teaching as a "vow of poverty," she says, adding that that must change.

The producers of the film, who include best-selling author Dave Eggers, have arranged a deal with Microsoft that will enable anyone who wants to host a screening in a school auditorium to borrow a copy and organize a free community-viewing event.

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