American Teachers, How Can We Help Them Help Our Kids?

American Teachers, How Can We Help Them Help Our Kids?

In class we are looking at education and what makes a great school and how to get it. I watched a good movie that describes what is needed. The documentary, “American Teacher,” tells the story of four extraordinary teachers from diverse parts of the country. It examines the struggles of the underpaid profession. As we all know and is quoted many times in the movie is that without great teachers there is no learning and we fall behind as a society. We need great teachers is be rewarded for all their efforts.
It is narrated by Matt Damon. It has excerpts of many teaching professionals in various areas of the profession. Author of the book, “The Flat World and Education,“ by Linda Darling-Hammond is in the film. She says that teachers in the United States are routinely undervalued rather than looked at as a tremendous resource that we haven’t earned. It pushes the teachers out of the profession and into better paying careers. The teachers interviewed speak so highly of their love of teaching but cannot afford to stay a teacher. Another person in the movie is Bill Gates. He says that “How do you make education better? Having great teachers if the very key thing. Our teachers deserve better.” He is talking on TED ( talks about what he is doing. He is researching and providing “Measures of effective teaching” to help teachers. One of the teachers Jamie says what I have said that first grade is such a pivotal point in their academic life, teaching them to read. In her first year of teaching she spent $3,000. of her own money to set up her classroom. She just couldn’t imagine continuing spending that much. But she continued.
I liked to documentary because it showed real teachers talking about their needs to stay in the teaching profession. What do you think teachers need to stay in the profession? How do you think they are looked at in this society? What does the #1 country in education, China, do that we can do?


22 thoughts on “American Teachers, How Can We Help Them Help Our Kids?

  1. Hi Jen,

    Thanks for the documentary recommendation. I was interested to read in your summary that Bill Gates has an idea to provide measures of effective teaching. What might this look like, do you know?

    One thing that I find interesting about conversations around rewarding teachers or paying them more or providing more resources or any of the other ideas is that we tend to focus on exceptionally good teachers and we don’t focus on the teachers who may not be a good fit for their profession. While I think it is certainly necessary to do a better job of taking care of good teachers, I also believe it’s important to address issues around having the wrong teachers in place.


    • Megan, I totally agree with you. I think a lot of times we don’t look at the teachers who aren’t a great fit. When I was in high school, there was a science teacher who constantly belittled and discouraged students, and people didn’t like her or her class, didn’t perform well, and didn’t feel confident in their learning in her classroom. The sad thing was that she had been teaching there for a long time and there had been a long history of students feeling this way. I think it’s important to reward and support teachers who are great at their job and who inspire students, but I also feel like we need to address teachers who don’t support or facilitate learning and who make the school environment discouraging for students.

      • Olivia,
        When you brought up your own experience with an old high school teacher, it really painted a descriptive picture for me. What caught my attention is that you said she had been teaching at your school for a long time. I think in fields such as teaching have a “burn out” factor. I wonder what kinds of circumstances she was working under and if a more accommodating environment would have helped. I am in no way validating her behavior, because belittling students is never the answer. If teachers had more incentives and less stress hanging over their heads, would the things you described happen less often? Thanks for the post.


      • Olivia, I completely identify with your story. I can remember at least 3 teachers at my old high school who were notorious for being extremely ineffective at teaching; even the most high-achieving students would struggle to learn the material in their classes. What amazed me was that students and parents each year would complain to counselors and even to the principal about these teachers, yet they remained at the school until they retired. I think the fact that these teachers had been working at the school for so long was a huge contributing factor to the issue remaining unaddressed. I feel that at the very least those teachers should have been asked to undergo some additional training or take some workshops on new methods of teaching.

  2. Yes, Bill Gates is very involved in education issues.I am from Seattle, and he is huge there, always donating time and finances to improving the city….always. His plan with “measures of effective teaching” is to help the teachers teach better.The documentary says that there is no real way for teachers to be informed on how they can improve. They just get a “satisfactory” and that is it. I am going on the movie, and I have not asked my many teacher friends. He is analyzing ways to improve teachers abilities to see themselves teaching and to improve. He surveys 500 teachers and goes into classrooms. For instance, he uses videos. Each teacher sets up a video in their classroom, then analyzes it to improve on their classroom management techniques, teaching strategies and general communication abilities. Basically looking at teachers at public speakers, a business point of view. He looks at how effective they are at communicating. The better they can communicate with their students the better teachers they can become.

  3. It’s really sad how teachers are constantly having to defend themselves. The man in the movie having to work a second job at Circuit City (as well as his second job coaching) just to make ends meet – missing out on time with his family. And the woman in the movie who went to Harvard who had to constantly defend herself for wanting to be a teacher. She talks about how it’s not fair that teachers aren’t treated as professionals. This is absolutely true.

    Michelle Fine (author of the awesome article, “NOT Waiting for Superman: A Memo from Lois Lane”) co-wrote another great article with Pedro Noguera about this very subject – “Teachers Aren’t the Enemy”.

    On the topic of teacher layoffs, they state:

    “It’s hard to think of another field in which experience is considered a liability and those who know the least about the nuts and bolts of an enterprise are embraced as experts.”

    I’ve been working at James John and had a quick opportunity to talk to one of it’s teachers. I asked him how long he’d been at James John. He said him and a group of other teachers had been there for something like 14 years, with only a few of the group relocating elsewhere. The kids love this teacher! When he comes into the room, they all smile and joke around with him and laugh. It’s clear that a good teacher is hard to come by – and it takes many years to develop this expertise. Protecting and supporting teachers – especially ones who are extrememly experienced, is so necessary.

    When one of the teacher’s in the movie, American Teacher, leaves to sell real estate, his students are heart broken. You count on your teachers to be there for you and they aren’t able to without draining themselves of energy, resources, finances, etc.

    • It is so interesting to me how true it is that teachers are beat down so much more often than lifted up, even in a world where this is already a norm. I do understand, however, that when it comes to ones children, the bar can never be set high enough, and as such, there is always room for improvement.
      I am working at James John as well, and have noticed how good of a connection the children and their teachers have. Each time I have seen a teacher net the room, even if only for a moment, all of the children great that teacher and want to show/tell them something about what they are working on-and in turn the teachers light up and greet them back. It’s great to see these kinds of connections and positive environments in schools.

  4. I think that acknowledging and adequately compensating teachers for the amazing work they do is a huge issue. You make a great point about teachers not being able to afford to stay in the profession.The endless work, lack of respect, small salaries, and lack of support are not appealing at all. These issues definitely had a huge impact on my own decision to look for different career paths, despite my love for teaching children. I currently work as a preschool teacher and am passionate about the work i do. However, I am looking into other careers because the wages available for teaching are just not adequate for the amount of work that the job requires.

    • Hi Alisha,

      It really is astounding to think about the low wages that teachers make, including preschool teachers who are responsible for curriculum and caretaking! In jobs like these, you really have to find the right person who is passionate and caring but it is difficult to keep great teachers around at the salary level they are offered.


    • Alisha, I am totally feel you on this! “The endless work, lack of respect, small salaries, and lack of support are not appealing at all.” Perfectly stated! I would add “job instability” to the list as well. I have been on the career path to become a teacher for so long. It has taken me a long time to get back into school to get my education so that I can be a teacher… problem is… after reading and hearing about the problems teachers face with budgets and politics involved… I am afraid to. I am conflicted. I want to make a difference and I love teaching. I can volunteer, and mentor, but how is it fair to ask someone to have a career like that, and be happy about it? To spend money that they shouldn’t have to in order to do well in their job when it is money they might need to take care of their own family?

      I found this article about teacher turnover rates in Oregon:

      It costs Oregon about $45 Million a year!!!


      • Yes, Sasha, is it fair to have a career like this? I have volunteered in the schools since my two kids were in preschool. I can’t continue to volunteer- it would be nice to be employed in the schools. But it is better pay than my last career-hair industry. Hair stylists make nothing much unless they are at place for a long time.
        Anyways, next quarter I will work in the schools. But what happens to the schools that need volunteers, like the SUN programs? Income vs. volunteering.

    • I find it so interesting that the U.S. is a leader in education spending, yet our teachers and students are still struggling! I found this infographic that compares U.S. spending and performance to other countries and thought it was very interesting:

      Another article states that, “In the U.S., teachers earned less than 60% of the average pay for full-time college-educated workers. In many other countries, teachers earn between 80% and 100% of the college-educated average.” (Read here:

      What is the money we’re spending in this country going towards? It seems that it could be used more wisely!

      This article (last link, I promise! includes a video on educational models that will increase teacher pay without adding to the overall budget. What do you guys think about the proposed models?

      • Wow Rocielle, thanks for your insightful links! The infographic comparing US with other countries in education spending is interesting. I’m amazed that the US invests (about 800 billion) lots more than other countries and produces significantly lower test scores. This simply doesn’t equate. There must be something obviously wrong with this picture. I also noticed that Finland invests only 10 billion in education and is able to produce the top leading performances compared to other countries identified. I wonder what their education system is and how can we influence similar tactics? In addition to your post, the video on increasing teacher pay without adding to the overall budget is intriguing. I specifically liked the multi-classroom leadership and the remote teaching approaches. The multi-classroom leadership may be a better way of mentoring teachers to adapt and strengthen the best teaching strategies for apt learning. Our technological savvy future can definitely utilize the remote teaching approach because it allows the best teachers to influence more classrooms. I would like to know how these proposals are working in specific schools and if they are actually reliable.

      • I am really glad you posted those links. Fascinating! I wonder though about the spending comparisons… I don’t understand if it is comparing the student population as well. If they showed how much was spent per child… I would be really interested to see that, and how it measures up. It is really interesting to see the differences in how teachers are valued as well… because a measure of how much someone is valued in their position is how much they are payed… at least one way to show value… I don’t understand where our spending priorities are. Teachers must suffer burn out a lot quicker because of the lack of support as well. Lack of support= turn over= wasted money… right?

      • Hi Sasha! Yes, money per child is definitely what we should be looking at. The U.S. is considerably larger than most of the countries on that graphic, so really we should be spending more money overall. The graphic includes dollars per child and the U.S. outspends the other countries by at least 2k.

  5. I remember one of my high school teachers saying that if they were to be paid like baby sitters, which is kind of true, they would be getting paid over 1000 a day. Teachers need more support and an increase in pay to stay in the profession. The impact that they can potentially make on children early effects how well the student does later on in life. They are the first to inspire the future leaders of our country. I really don’t know much about the education field besides being a student but I do see an importance in having good teachers for the younger generations. It seems so wrong that a teacher has to use money from their own pocket to set up a classroom. There needs to be a change with out education system.

    • I definately agree about teachers getting paid more. No teacher shouldn’t have to pull money out of their pockets to buy supplies for their students. It is actually quite sad that some teachers are forced to get a second job because they are getting paid low for the hard work they do in teaching kids.

  6. Hi Jen, Thanks for posting the info about this film. I am going to check it out! Have you seen/read Freedom Writers Diary? I met Erin Gruwell a few years ago and heard her speak of her experience in the classroom, and what she did for those teens is amazing. All 150 graduated high school and went to college. She inspired them, and she is an example of an amazing teacher to me. She inspired me to work to become a teacher. I would like to make a difference, but I get scared seeing what teachers have to contend with in a system that doesn’t support them and then expects more from them than they can actually do. I guess I have to keep looking at these examples of great teachers that seem to make miracles happen in what seems like impossible situations. We can do it…. right?

    • My sister’s husband was a Special Ed teacher in the North Seattle area for 10 years. He would show me mugs that his “kids” (18-23) gave him, and cards, etc. I am always impressed by him! Yes, he has 3 degrees and could work in different areas, but to choose to work with kids with special needs is inspiring. He is 6’4″ and needs to be to help these kids out, physically. My sister works in the corporate area making the money so he can do this. But he had to work 2 others jobs just to be a SPED teacher, in the school system. Back 13 years ago, I told her she better marry him or I would be upset. 🙂

    • I think the story of Erin Gruwell and how she helped and inspired those teens is a great example of an amazing teacher who loves what she does. I believe it is teachers who can become an inspiration are the ones who you can tell care about what they do and who is impacted. Seeing amazing stories like this one and then looking at the average salary ($35,672) that teachers make is just flabbergasting. I definitely think teachers should earn a higher salary because they do so much for the students and even at times their communities, I also believe that school systems should show more support towards teachers for what they do.

  7. Jen,

    I’m really happy that you recommended this movie because the other day I was looking for the documentary “The Lottery,” that Megan recommended during her presentation in class and saw “American Teachers” as a related film on Netflix. Now that I know more about it I will definitely be watching it.

    I think you bring up a number of really great points in your post. What I find really interesting is one of the questions you pose at the end– what do you think teachers need to stay in the profession? Many people have generated a number of great responses as to what teachers need– more support, more funding, more education, etc. However, I wonder how deep change needs to happen within our society for these kinds of changes to happen. I think about how our own educations are funded and how many of us have to go extremely into debt just to purse a higher education. If students who are going into teaching are going into debt to do so, and on top of that having to spend out of pocket money on their classrooms, then how does the teaching profession in general sound to prospective teachers? What kind of rewards does a student get for becoming a teacher? Should she or he be entitled to more benefits than say someone who is going to school to become an engineer?

    Thanks for your post.

  8. Thanks for your thread Jen! I’ve been wondering why many important and influential jobs remain underpaid for many years now. I’m glad to actually discuss the topic. This capstone experience has broadened my view on several areas of the education system and is quite shocking. Volunteering at PYB specifically, has given me a first hand experience of what it’s like to be a mentor and it’s definitely not easy. Teachers deserve a lot more recognition for all that they do. On that note, a person must be really passionate to be a teacher considering the irrational tasks at hand for one individual. I think a heightened pay rate would be an influence in keeping teachers in schools. I also think it would help for teachers to have mandatory continuous workshops and critiques throughout their careers to ensure that their teaching standards are staying fruitful. This could also be another opportunity for better teacher placement in particular subjects and environments.

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