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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/01/2011

A movie that tells a real story of American teachers

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This was written by my colleague, Washington Post education reporter Michael Alison Chandler.

By Michael Alison Chandler

At a moment when bad teachers have been targeted as the biggest problem in public education and lawmakers are scrambling to find different ways to evaluate and fire them, a new movie now being shown in previews and premiering later this year takes a less punishing view of our 3.2 million public school teachers, focusing instead on the need to support and pay them better.

“American Teacher ,” co-produced by author Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari, previewed to audiences in Washington D.C. and New York City last week. Unlike “ Waiting for Superman ,” a film about the failures of traditional public schools and the virtues of public charter schools, this movie does not hinge on the work of a few high-profile school reformers and entrepreneurs. It follows a handful of smart people who work long hours in front of the classroom and deal with resoundingly common problems.

The teachers talk about what inspired them to go into the field (moments of discovery, teaching someone to read, the intellectual challenges of translating one lesson to 35 different learners) and what burns them out (low pay, little support from management, 65-hour weeks, the overwhelming task: “I feel give everything I have, but it’s never enough,” one teacher said).

A history teacher from Keller, Texas, works a second job at Circuit City to make ends meet.

A popular San Francisco teacher spends down his savings to support his “teaching habit” and ultimately leaves the classroom to sell real estate and support his family.

A Brooklyn teacher returns to work after just six weeks of maternity leave because she can’t afford to stay home longer.

And a fourth teacher in New Jersey describes the stigma attached to teaching and how her friends at Harvard were puzzled when she told them she wanted to pursue education. They said, “Oh, Like Teach for America?” and she said, “No, like, as a career.”

Teaching is still priced as a traditionally female occupation, an optional second income, experts in the film explain. And while most people think public school schedules look breezy, the typical teacher works in many hours of over-time to get grading and planning done.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, the documentary’s producers – who are also the founders of the 826 National tutoring centers – say that real salaries have dropped for 30 years in a row.

The average starting salary is $39,000 and grows to $67,000 after 25 years in the profession, they write, yielding paychecks that price them out of the housing market in 32 major metropolitan markets.

The film offers more in the way of storytelling and explaining than a clear path forward — but urged the kind of political will that found money for three concurrent wars, the bailout of investment banks, or the project that sent Americans to the moon.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, during his introduction of the film at George Washington University last week, agreed with the sentiment that it’s about time teachers earned a “real living wage.”

“We have a once-in-a generation opportunity,” he said. “We can do things as we always have, or we can do them in a very different way.”

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Correction: An earlier version said that the movie premiered to D.C. and New York audiences. It was actually a previewed screening, not the movie’s premiere, which is occurring this fall.

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