Friday, October 29, 2010

"Waiting for Superman" Tells It Like It Is

A few weeks ago I got a facebook message from a friend inviting me to see "Waiting for Superman." She had been telling a mutual friend that she wanted to see it, and he had suggested I might also be interested. Frankly, I had never heard of it, and I very rarely go to the movies. As the Mommy of a toddler, it's both time and cost prohibitive. But once I looked into it a little, I knew I needed to find a way to make it work. Did I want to go see a documentary about the state of public schools in the US? Yes. Yes I did.

So, I went. And I watched. And a lot of it was really painful. But not for the reasons many other current and former teachers are claiming. For me, it was painful because it was so very true. "Waiting for Superman" tells the story of public schools the way I experienced them as a teacher. I wish it wasn't true, but it is.

Now, before my facebook friends list shrinks to about half, (although I would hope my friends would be willing to hear me out) let me get a few things out of the way. I went to public schools. I was served well by public schools. My husband also went to public schools, where he was served well. Our daughter, even in a town where there is tremendous pressure to attend private school, will attend public school. (although, this is because we decided when she was just over a year old to move someplace where she could attend public schools. If we were still in NYC, we would make a different choice.) Both of my sisters, my mother-in-law, and two sisters-in-law (my brother's wife, and my husband's sister) have taught in public schools. And they were all phenomenal teachers.

But here's the part I don't talk about very often, especially not publicly. Of those six women (including myself) in my family who have taught, NONE remain teaching today. One retired as scheduled. (but, as I understand it, exhausted and frustrated.) One retired early. (because she was exhausted and frustrated) The other four of us just quit for a variety of reasons. But among the top of our list of reasons is the fact that the system is broken. (leaving us... exhausted and frustrated)

From the reviews I have read of "Waiting for Superman," (and I've read a lot) there seem to be four central ideas regarding the film that really have people pissed off. 1. That it suggests teachers are bad, 2. That it suggests charter schools are the answer. 3. That it suggests home life has nothing to do with student success, and ignores the fact that the students whose stories are told all come from loving families. 4. That the film itself is purely propaganda because it tells such a one-sided story. I don't think any of this is true, but let's look at each idea.

1. Teachers are bad

"Waiting for Superman" examines a lot of bad teachers. Or, as many reviewers would have us believe, it has the audacity to examine bad teachers. We can bury our heads in the sand if we like, but we need to be aware of the fact that there are many, many bad teachers out there.

I've hesitated- fingers frozen over the keyboard- for probably a minute now, still afraid to type these next few sentences. What am I afraid of? Hurting friends and family? Well, let me be really clear then. If you are a teacher, and you are my friend or family member, I don't mean you. You are all fabulous. So here goes.

I taught with someone who didn't care for one of his classes, and he didn't know what to do with it, so he made it a study hall and gave everyone an A. I taught with people who just fell into their positions who were in no way qualified, and, once there, were fully protected by the union. I taught with people who made racist and otherwise hateful comments regarding students, and when I complained, I was told I would get used to it.

I ALSO TAUGHT- in fact I MOSTLY taught, with amazing teachers. Teachers who cared about their students and were gifted educators.

But the fact remains, there are really bad teachers out there. And in any other field, they would be fired. But they are protected by the union, there is nothing that can be done. "Waiting for Superman" exposes the teachers union as a major lobbyist. When I was a teacher, I was often intimidated by the meetings, and we didn't even have anything major going on. But it was more than the intimidation factor. The contracts themselves seemed unfair. I worked harder. I was better. But I was still paid less than some of those horrible teachers who had been there longer.

2. Charter schools are the answer.

"Waiting for Superman" is not suggesting charter schools are THE answer. It's suggesting better teachers are ONE answer, and that the teacher's union is often standing in the way of improvement in teacher efficacy. The filmmakers suggest, then, that families who are dissatisfied with their local public schools send their children elsewhere- someplace where the teacher's union is not in control. One option is private school. The families we follow in the film do not have the option to go to private schools, but live near charter schools with proven success. So, they enter their children in the lottery to attend these better options. They are ONE option, probably the BEST option, for THESE FAMILIES.

3. What about the families?

"Waiting for Superman" does not, in any way, suggest that home life is not a factor in student success. It also does not suggest that physical, emotional, and metal health are not a factor. Or the economy. Or the political climate. Or the weather when it's really hot or really cold outside and students can't concentrate.

But seeing as there is little the school system itself can do to change home life and the economy and the weather, "Waiting for Superman" doesn't highlight these aspects. It focuses more on the parts we can change, which feels more helpful to me.

4. The film is merely propaganda, as it is so one-sided.

First, I would argue this one-sidedness. The film DOES state that there are fewer charter schools that are succeeding than public schools. You just had to be paying attention. And it DOES highlight successful teachers, and successful public schools. But anyone who has ever taken a script analysis class can tell you that trying to show two sides of a story is just not effective storytelling. And it is, after all, a movie. Constantly going back and forth between "the public school system is broken" and "but there are some great public schools and public school teachers out there" (much the way I am doing in this blog...) waters-down the message. We're supposed to leave feeling conflicted, our hearts breaking for the kids who most certainly are getting "left behind." And we're not supposed to have a clear answer. We're just supposed to know it needs to be fixed.

I have more to say. But I'll save it as answers to my hate mail.


  1. Not to beat a dead horse here, but you would *really* hate CalArts. Yes some teachers were awful and all that, but the most frustrating thing was that the administration was the same way. You can complain, but nothing will be done. Its all so incestuous and downright sad. Its one more reason I thank God for caring teachers like yourself :)

  2. it's like Brecht's plays; he wanted the audience to leave angry so they would be compelled to change the world around them. when i was in high school only 8 years ago, we wrote about public school as a prison complex, discipline trumping education. i was in a class of 700 students; there were 3200 students in my high school. people were left behind. do i want that for my future children? the odds are against any kind of survival in that climate, and if the powers that be are blind to these facts, then the system is doomed to be flawed in perpetuity. the national debate needs to be about the future, and the future is in tiny hands and innocent minds. if this film helps to initiate that debate, whether one is for or against change, whether one is considered to be a good teacher or not, then it has done some good. (end rant.)

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, bringing us back to reality. Obviously the film worked to make a point and stir action. There is no question we need to take action--one that ensures gifted teachers are attracted and stay in the profession. I think the film was clear about that. We all know the lemon dance as covered in the film.

    I was as much distressed that you felt you could not comment freely about your experience. That alone reveals too much about the state of teaching that needs correcting.