Frontline: Teacher, Teacher
Like such recent books as Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren and Samuel G. Freedman’s new Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students & Their High School, this edition of Frontline is concerned with the dismal state of the American educational system and the heroic, unheralded efforts teachers often make to overcome its problems.
Teacher, Teacher concentrates on a school district in Shakopee, Minn., a small middle-class community 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis. At first, the film seems to be a profile of three teachers: Judi Tomczik, a beguiling, resourceful high school English teacher, and Barry Kirchmeier and Sharon Boyden, who have been team teachers in the town’s elementary school for 20 years.
These educators are shown to be thoroughly admirable: Tomczik sparks students’ interest in great literature with imaginative lectures and assignments; Kirchmeier and Boyden use their own time to tutor a child hopelessly behind in multiplication and division.
But then Teacher, Teacher becomes something more. Shakopee, like many communities today, is short of money, and when the town government proposes to increase property taxes to help fund the schools, some citizens revolt.
Suddenly teachers like the ones we’ve seen are blamed for everything from low SAT scores to a complaint from the owner of the local doughnut shop, who says the teenagers she hires ”can’t figure out how many doughnuts are in a dozen, can’t do simple addition and subtraction. There’s a lot of wasted money in our schools.”
The vitriol of the tax-revolt committee shocks and frightens many of the teachers, who, with their contracts nearly up, are hoping for raises in their average $33,000 annual salaries. As Kirchmeier, who’s also a negotiator for the teachers’ union, says, ”In the present atmosphere, fat chance.”
The show celebrates the hard work of these teachers. But by placing the pllght of education in an economic context, producer Robert Thurber is doing more than praising poorly rewarded professionals; he’s showing us one reason the situation is only getting worse.