The economic forecast for the Midwest, and Nebraska in particular, is sunny with a chance of profits. For many metro area teachers, this means more choices for a second job. For others it may provide an impetus to exit education altogether.

The money rebound hasn’t made its way into the pockets of local teachers. Last year, Nebraska’s Governor, Dave Heineman, signed a rob Peter to pay Pal law that to provide $70 million per year for road construction and signed a budget that cut $409 million annually from K-12 schools.

Film Streams Theater was packed Wednesday and Thursday nights, February 22nd and 23rd for a special screening of “American Teacher” a documentary film about the Mother Hubbard status of classroom cupboards.

“We worked on bringing this film screening here for a year,” explained Dr. Nancy Edick, Dean of the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Education. Seated in the darkened theater, educators related to the portrayals of teachers who picked their own pockets to purchase paperback and other books for their classrooms.

They laughed, sighed and identified with educators who worked second jobs and took on extra duties to translate effort into earnings. Narration by Matt Damon provided insight into just how the United States puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to education.

The attrition rate of teachers in the United States is comparable to the divorce rate -approaching fifty percent. But chilly Finland has only a one percent teacher attrition rate.

Tiny Singapore, one of the smallest nations in the world, retains ninety eight percent of its teachers. South Korea loses only three percent of its teachers annually.  All three of these countries fund teacher training, offer competitive salaries and teaching is respected in those countries. Teachers in Finland, Singapore and South Korea experience a professional work environment.

In fact, Singapore’s world class education system is so well recognized internationally that leading education institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business have set up centers of education and research in Singapore.

Director Vanessa Roth, who specializes in documentaries centering on peoples lives and ones that have controversial social issues, concentrated on finding the stories found in American Teacher.  “When I was approached about making a film about the educational crisis that we are having, I didn’t realize that it was so heated around teachers. The real challenge in making this movie was getting the funding to make the film. We thought we’d have an easier time with finding the financing because we were saying that we just want to value teachers more. I really learned the ins and outs of what’s really going on around with teacher value/teacher pay.

“That’s a topic that people are very vested in how they feel about it. Because funding was sketchy, we would film for a while and then I would have to work on another project until more money was available to continue the work on this project.  In the end, it took four years to get this movie made. Although this movie took a very long time, to make, I feel that we are getting it out in the world at exactly the right time. Now we are ready to put teachers front and center in the dialogue.

“I am very proud that we finished this film because we had lots of obstacles. I’m also proud that we were able to tell the stories of real people and my hope is that when you walk out of the movie that you feel like you know them. The people whose stories we told were generous with us and opened up. I know that they feel we told their truth. They were, after all, real people, not characters in a movie.

“Another goal that I have when I make a film is that the film can be a tool to start discussion about their views. I hope to challenge those views or raise public awareness of things that perhaps they haven’t thought a lot about. In the end, hopefully, this will be a catalyst for some good change around the county.”

Comprised of educators as well as business people, the audience engaged in a colorful dialogue following the film. “Right now teacher pay is tied to property taxes,” remarked one woman who identified herself as a businesswoman. “I’m wondering what other sources of revenue streams there are to pay for any increases in teacher salaries, especially with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce wanting to cut teacher salaries by fifteen percent.”

“American Teacher” makes the point that increasing teacher salary decreases teachers leaving the profession and increases the graduation rate. But living paycheck to paycheck, or paychecks to paychecks in the case of multiple jobs, wasn’t the only concern expressed by teachers. Barb Stratman, lead teacher for the Teen Literacy Center, expressed concerns about analyzing the support structure in classrooms.

Dan Coffey, an instructor from Omaha South High Magnet School related how he had taught at both a private school, Brownell Talbott as well as a public school. Along with Gretna School Superintendent, Dr. Kevin Riley, all agreed on one prevalent theme in the film – they all went into education because they love to teach and feel they were meant to be in front of a classroom. Along with the film, they also expressed a concern for the future.

Forty years ago Finland identified schools as a prime factor in its economic recovery plan – and transformed them. Finish students are now the best readers in the world and they lead in math as well. Finish schools are publicly funded and a child in Finland gets the same high quality first class education whether the child lives in an icy remote rural village or a thriving university metropolis. Equality in education is important in frozen Finland.

“At $9,500 per student, Nebraska rates 49th in state spending per child,” advises Dr. Riley. However, the National Center for Education puts Nebraska’s spending of $11, 023, at 16th in the nation when adjusted for regional costs.

According to the Federal Education Budget Project, Nebraska’s 247 school districts served 291,562 students and funding was $10,045 per student, compared to a national average of $10,499. Omaha schools spent $9,620 in 2009, only 95% of the state average and less than 92% of the national average in education spending per student.

The University of Southern California compared world education spending and found the United States as a whole spends more ninety three percent more annually on education than South Korea, $809.6 Billion compared to $61.6 Billion. If money talks isn’t the only answer, then what is? “We need more teacher leaders,” says Dr. Edict.

No one in the audience seemed eager to head out of education as a career, or consider heading into sunnier economic circumstances on Nebraska’s shiny new roads. Instead they seemed as hopeful for an answer as a student looking for inspiration on a very hard pop quiz. “Every child has a gift,” says Dr. Riley. “It is a teacher’s job to find that gift.”

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