Volume 16 Issue 2
Interview by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
We caught up with co-writer and co-producer Ninive Calegari, a former teacher and CTA member who now lives in San Francisco with her husband and two young children. Here’s what she had to say about the movie, teachers, and public education in general.
What do you want viewers to take away from “American Teacher”?
When I taught public school, I didn’t believe the public at large really understood how important my work was. I’m hoping that after seeing this movie, viewers will gain a much deeper appreciation of how sophisticated and complex being a teacher is. I’m hoping they will have a deeper appreciation and greater respect for the profession.
Do you think the public is aware of how difficult it is to support a family on a teacher’s salary?
When people learn that 62 percent of teachers have second jobs and 92 percent of teachers buy their own supplies, they tend to be pretty surprised. A lot of people believe teaching is a “cush” job and that teachers are off work at 3. They don’t understand that delivering a good lesson plan requires meaningful preparation time and that teachers work incredibly hard grading papers, giving students feedback, offering extra help and working after hours.
How did you obtain funding for this movie?
We had an incredibly hard time finding funding for this movie. You have no idea! When we told people that we needed to change American culture around how we value this profession, we had a hard time getting support. A lot of foundations turned us down and believed the project did not have merit. At the end of the day, most of our funding came from individuals who gave what they could. Many contributed just $200. We did receive support from the Isabel Allende Foundation, the Fledgling Fund, The Reveas Foundation, Hellman Fund and other philanthropists who believed in our movie and pushed for it to be made and were generous.
When qualified teachers leave the profession because they can’t afford to teach, what kind of impact does this have on students and society?
I think there is an immeasurable impact on kids when they don’t have continuity with adults in their schools. Also, it takes a couple of years for new teachers to hone their craft, so if you are constantly putting brand-new teachers in front of kids, it has a negative impact. Research shows that low-income kids are the most likely to have inexperienced teachers. In urban settings where you have one-fifth of the faculty leaving every year, it’s incredibly difficult to create a positive academic culture. A principal can work hard to build a team and then have to start all over again. It’s difficult to build any organization when you have that kind of turnover.
How can we, as a society, change things so that teachers are valued and compensated fairly for their expertise and hard work?
I think the first step is having a more sophisticated understanding of what the profession is. We have to help Americans see how unbelievably intertwined our democracy and our economy are with the teaching profession. I believe our future relies on the strength of our teaching force. We have to make teachers a priority. Some people said it was too expensive, but this country worked hard to become disabled accessible. America did it because it was the right thing to do. The same has to go for education. There will always be people who say it’s too expensive to fully fund education, but we need to say, “We’re Americans, and we need to do it anyway.” We need to make a compelling argument to make people understand this. I firmly believe that Americans have the capacity for doing the right thing. It’s not about being liberal or conservative — it’s about everyone wanting a positive and healthy future.
Can teachers unions play a role in this?
Yes, and they already are. I have seen lots of positive leadership in teachers unions when it comes to exploring recipes for how we can pay teachers more. Teachers within the structure of their unions need to go out in front of their communities and say “This is what excellent teaching looks like” and “This is why we need to pay teachers more.”
What would you like the film to accomplish?
I hope “American Teacher” sparks discussions among those who teach and people who don’t teach. It is worth seeing, and I believe that people won’t regret having made the effort. We are organizing community screenings of “American Teacher” all over the country for organizations, union members and others. And educators can stay up-to-date by following our project on Facebook and Twitter, or by signing up for our newsletter via our website. It is our hope that “American Teacher” will engage, challenge, and inspire audiences to be part of an urgently needed positive social movement, resulting in a real and lasting impact on the lives of our nation’s children.
Follow the “American Teacher” project online via Twitter at www.twitter.com/teachersalary and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TeacherSalaryProject.