EDITORIAL: A teacher's reaction to Waiting for "Superman"


I recently saw two high-profile documentaries on the education system, Waiting for "Superman" and Race to Nowhere.  Because I myself am a school teacher, I found that there was no way to write a movie review for either documentary film without wanting to jump into the first-person to share, analyze, and discuss my own impressions along the way.  Still, I wanted my reviews to stand on their own as objective and with journalistic integrity.  For that reason, I kept my thoughts and feelings on the topics out of the reviews and separated them for a follow-up editorial column after each review.


When I eagerly went to see Waiting for "Superman,"  I went with a group of fellow educators of vastly different positions.  I, myself, am a third grade teacher in a very large suburban and union-based school district in Bolingbrook, Illinois.  Prior to that, I worked on a startup year for Chicago International Charter Schools and EdisonLearning at a new charter school in the Altgeld Gardens housing project on the far south side of the city.  With me was my then-girlfriend/now-fiance who also worked at that same charter school last year and now works for Daystar School, a non-denominational Christian private school in the South Loop.  We were joined by a CPS elementary teacher and his wife, a former public school teacher who now works in the private sector at a hospital as a counselor .  Between the four of us, we covered the rainbow of backgrounds and perspectives (city, suburban, private, and clinical).

All of us came away from the documentary stirred, inspired, and provoked in some way, both good and bad.  For me, I simply put it to them that I felt both "proud and ashamed at the same time to be a teacher."  I felt proud that I was in this rewarding profession, in it for the long haul with no desire to quit, and have overcome hard years, position changes, and personal mistakes.  Waiting for "Superman" spotlighted several hard-working teachers who were making strides and differences in their situations.  I couldn't help but feel empowered that I can maybe be at their level some day, because I am far from perfect.

However, my shame kicked in when I saw the system that I work for.  For as much as I can tell people that there are good teachers out there that care and work hard, the film was quick to remind me and everyone else of the many bad teachers that are out there too.   Many are rooted with tenure and nearly impossible to fire.  Their antics and stories ruin it for the good ones.  It is with that torn and split sense of pride and shame that I find myself on the fence about so many topics and issues from Waiting for "Superman." I see both sides on so many things and can't decide.


I've worked for a charter school and I've seen the way they educate and do business.  While I was a budget cut casualty after just one year, I could easily see the academic growth their situation, design, and program created.  I clearly experienced the high level of accountability and data-driven instruction that is not present to that extent and level in public schools, and admire them for it.  I can't argue that their model doesn't work.

However, that competitive, results-driven environment can create and overwork kids to become drones to the tests because, in the end, to the people in charge, the results are all that matter.  As a teacher who came up in the profession with the ISAT and a school district trying to climb out of low scores and AYP, I was used to that pressure and embraced that environment.  It was hard and, at times, ugly, but I didn't mind it because of the growth being made and improvement on results.  On the other hand, their lack of a teacher union can create zero job security, an unnecessary competitive workplace, and powerful, corporate-centered administrators that squelch teacher input.  When teaching for a charter school, one has to raise their game and motivation to match that nature.  You better love it, because hating it won't do you or the students any good.


I'm on the same fence about teacher unions.  I have been in situations to experience how unions protect rights and are helpful, but I have also seen how they can be a hindrance too.  I've said this since I've been teaching (in my ninth year now): I would gladly cross a strike-line for two reasons: 1) to have a job over not having a job, and 2) for a kid to have a teacher than not have one.  To me, and maybe this is forgotten somewhere, but it should be about the kids and not my perks and paycheck.  The grievance that causes a strike better be about something bigger than money to leave a child at home and a school closed.  Call me wildly or naively unselfish, but it would take a lot to make me walk out.  I'm going to go teach because that's more important.  The union can sort out whatever is wrong while I go work.  Let me know how it turns out in the end.

Yet again, I see purpose of unions and what they have given me in my career along the way.  Who would I be to deny the positive working conditions they create?  I'm a person too and wouldn't mind actually having a real lunch break and a prep period for myself, because I've been in a situation when I didn't have them.  I can't deny that it would be nice to be paid as a professional and not a hired hand.  The stresses of the job itself are enough that one shouldn't have to work another job to not have more stress in life and at home.  That stress will follow you to work eventually.  Teacher unions enable those things and fight that fight.


Tenure is on that list too.  I was a tenured teacher before I went to the charter school, and I can't deny that it lowers your job stress and creates an aura of relief and job security.  I do think the average time of five years in Illinois school districts is enough time to decide whether a teacher effective and can earn the right of tenure or not.  However, I've witnessed enough complacent, yet protected, bad teachers in my time to make me question its use and necessity.


As I said in my review of Waiting for "Superman," the film is very liberal, reformist, anti-union, and anti-tenure.  In that way, I found it to be a very one-sided story.  The filmmakers push it to sound like the only way of success is the charter way or the non-union way.  The film grossly forgets to mention how many hundreds, and even thousands, of successful public school districts that are out there, including ones in bad neighborhoods.  Sure, you're going to find harsh situations in areas of low poverty and a high jobless rate, but not all of them are bad.


Yes, the education system in America is broken in a lot of places.  Yes, the broken system can limit and hold back even the best teachers out there.  But, to me, there are two things that the broken education system cannot control that more directly create the success of any student, no matter where they live or how much money is spent.  Those two things that rise above any system or environment are supportive parents and hard-working students. 

I think renowned education author Jonathan Kozol is full of sugar-honey-iced-tea when he says children are a product of their environment.  I don't believe that at all.  If that were true, I would be milking cows and still living in the house I grew up in, having never went to college.

Education is still a way out of a bad situation to something better and different, but you have to work to get it.  To make that happen, it takes supportive parents that become a stakeholder in their child's future.  Every single one of the five families shown in Waiting for "Superman" had supportive parents/guardians that busted their tails to be involved in bettering their child's education.  Even if they were unemployed, school mattered and their child mattered.  They didn't give up and turn to drugs, alcohol, or other vices.  If education isn't valued at home by the adults, it won't be valued by the kids.

That's where hard-working students are the next part.  I don't care where you come from or how poor you are.  If you apply yourself, work hard, pass your tests, and make your grades you will graduate and earn the same diploma as that well-off kid in the suburbs. Waiting for "Superman" also had that going for it the right way.  The kids were just as dedicated to make their life better as their parents were.  That's something special.  At the end of the day, the only person that can do the work it takes to pass is the student himself.  They have to bring their motivation and make their own commitment.  Dropping out of school is a choice, not a condition that happens to you.  If you don't take it seriously, quit, become lazy, or turn to illegal activity, then you will be another Jonathan Kozol statistic.