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Do Teachers Have It Made? Hardly, a New Film Says

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 03:24 PM

Like many teachers, Jamie Fidler does not end her day when her students go home, mainly because she cannot afford to, she says.

At 3:30 p.m., when the last class ends, Ms. Fidler, a first-grade teacher at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, heads to her second job where she tutors children until 5:30 at night. And three years ago, when she was first approached about being in a film about how teachers' meager salaries and diminished public respect push them out of the profession, Ms. Fidler had a third job and a child on the way.

"Every teacher I know has second jobs or third jobs, and that doesn't include working over the summer," Ms. Fidler said.

Ms. Fidler is one of four featured teachers in a documentary that will have its debut in New York City this Sunday and open to the public next week. The film, "American Teacher," is a rebuttal of sorts to the pundits and politicians who are eager to battle unions and write teachers off as the over-protected recipients of Cadillac benefits, extended summer vacations and low expectations.

It is in the same vein as Jon Stewart's "Message to Teachers," but earnest rather than mocking. That fact that teachers make little money has not struck these filmmakers as funny.

"American Teacher" is based on a book called "Teachers Have It Easy," which was written by Daniel Moulthrop, David Eggers and Ninive Calegari. The latter two who are also the documentary's producers. Ms. Calegari, a former teacher, and Mr. Eggers, the well-known author, are also the founders of 826 National, the nonprofit publishing and tutoring organization. The film was directed by Vanessa Roth and narrated by the actor Matt Damon.

In this documentary, as perhaps you have already guessed, teachers do not have it easy. The documentary asks a question the current education reform movement has yet to take up: What is the point of flooding American schools with rafts of young, highly educated people if the good ones can't afford to stay?

According to a survey by the National Education Association in 2006, and cited in the film, 62 percent of American teachers have jobs outside of the classroom. They coach local sports teams, tutor high school students for the SAT, run after-school programs, and otherwise try to cover their basic costs. Because of the pay and poor working conditions, almost half of them leave the profession within five years.

Most Americans understand that teaching doesn't pay: In a Time Magazine survey, 76 percent of American adults surveyed agreed that the country's top college graduates don't go into teaching because the pay is too low.

"It’s not the starting salaries, it’s that there’s no upside," said Ms. Calegari, who taught in various school districts for almost 10 years, in a phone interview. "Doctors don’t make a lot of money when they’re residents, but later in their careers they can do very well. If you’re a teacher, the problem is you can’t grow in that profession. You can’t save money and buy a house."

Ms. Calegari said she did not expect school districts to raise salaries without compromises from teachers. She said she also was not opposed to paying teachers more if they were especially talented (provided the evaluation system measuring that talent is not solely based on test scores), something that teachers unions have, until recently, resisted.

In New York City, teachers' salaries are higher than in much of the country, but so are their costs. While the average starting teacher salary in the United States is $39,000, in the city it is roughly $45,500. At the top of the pay scale, teachers can make an average of $67,000, while in New York City the maximum salary for a public school teacher is slightly more than $100,000. (In the suburbs around New York City, the average and top salaries can be much higher.)

Jamie FidlerNínive Calegari, producer, "American Teacher," a First Run Feature release.

Ms. Fidler, 35, the Brooklyn teacher in the film, has a master's degree, has been teaching for eight years and earns $75,000. That's the same salary her father, who taught in New York City schools for 35 years, was earning at the time he retired.

"When I hear about what teachers are making in Arizona or Texas, I think New York City is in a different place than that, and it’s the union that’s fought for us to be in that place," Ms. Fidler said. "At least for me, it’s something I’m grateful for."

"American Teacher," which was independently made, now has the backing of both major teachers unions, as well as praise from United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

NBC's "Education Nation" program is hosting a closed screening in New York City this weekend. The film will be released to the public on Sept. 30 and run until Oct. 6 at the AMC theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

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