Friday, May 13, 2011

Why I Had to Write This Review -- Reflections on "Waiting for Superman" (2010)

Still waiting...
I watched Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s excellent documentary about the failure of public education in America, a couple weeks ago and decided I didn’t want to write about it. Since I am a teacher, I’m too close to the film. It held a mirror up to my profession and made me look closely at how ugly my profession – and I, myself – have become. It’s hard to write about that sort of thing without either becoming defensive or sounding pathetic. So, I walked away from the review.

So, what brought me back, you ask.


As an educator, I’ve seen a lot of very awful things. I remember being a first year middle school teacher, full of ideas, hopes and goals, only to be told that I was too ambitious by veterans. In my second year, I was “pink slipped” despite having excellent evaluations and being awarded Teacher of the Month, because of a petty difference of opinion between the Principal and myself. As a fourth year high school teacher, I was “awarded” my first Honors class, which angered other vets in my department, so I wasn’t presented with the required materials for an Honors course – reading lists, early assessment tests, etc. Eventually the vets in that department, dubbed the “English Mafia” by the students, made my life at the school impossible and I left. And these are only things that happened to me, not merely things I’ve witnessed.

I do not wash my hands of this, though. I am now a veteran, too, no longer that young buck full of ideas, energy, and an “I can save the world” attitude. I like being an island, for the most part. I get to work with my kids, teach the curriculum my way, and leave work each day on my terms. There’s comfort in this.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve always taught my students, it’s this: comfort is the enemy of education; if you’re not struggling, you’re not learning.

Yesterday, I had a situation in which one of my former students wandered into my class during sixth period, having been kicked out of class by her teacher. Apparently, I am one of her favorite teachers, so she thought I’d harbor her like a truant refugee. As expected, she claimed she was kicked out due to no fault of her own (If I had a penny for every time…). Unconvinced, I called her teacher and was given the reason: talking back.

When I asked the girl about the situation with her teacher you would have thought I’d lit a firecracker. She began recounting stories of not being allowed to use the restroom, forcing her to take matters into her own hands by leaving the room without permission; being yelled and snarled at, and mocked. The worst thing, she told me, happened during a time she tried to turn-in some late work to improve her failing grade. The teacher took the work from her hands and threw it in the trash. When the student tried to retrieve it, the teacher grabbed her hand and said, “Don’t. It’s just going back there anyway.”

In The Shawshank Redemption, there’s this line about how everyone is innocent in jail. Well, in a high school, your bad grade is always because the teacher doesn’t like you. So, when I hear stories like these, I’m usually skeptical. There’s always another side to the story, and I tend to believe most teachers do this job because they like kids and want to see them succeed.

The way my student related this story was in such a way that I could see counseling her to work it out with the teacher wasn’t going to fly. There was too much anger, and a little fear. She had never taken her complaints to a counselor, or administrator. Or, apparently, her parents. Her reason: “They don’t do anything.” She was resigned to take an ‘F,’ serve out the rest of her time this year with the teacher, and try again next August.

I told her I’d sit down with her and the teacher. Certainly, having another faculty member in the room would bring calm to the situation. The other teacher wouldn’t behave unprofessionally in front of a colleague, right?

The teacher was obviously not interested in the discussion. Immediately, she was sitting at her computer, distracting herself as my student tried to share her feelings about the situation. As my student talked, the teacher continually rolled her eyes and occasionally offered sarcastic responses. When I asked the teacher to share her feelings, my student was so offended, she kept interrupting and trying to defend herself, even calling the teacher a liar. “See what I have to deal with,” the teacher said, laughing sarcastically.

I could see. But what the teacher couldn’t see was that this was a 16-year old child. She is supposed to be immature, loudmouthed, and frustrating. Adults who work with these children every day should know this and be the bigger person, setting an example of how to be mature and respectful. It starts by showing the kids respect.

I was appalled by what I experienced. I’ve had bad days with kids, too, and I have also done some things that I regret. Maybe this was just a bad day for the teacher. Maybe she is usually kind, loving and fair. This is not an indictment of a professional’s career or ability as an educator. It is a window to the world Guggenheim paints with very dark colors in Waiting for Superman.

The world he documents exists, is cancerous, and makes me feel ashamed. I feel sorry for the kids out there, like my student, whose futures are being destroyed by a system that seldom seems to have their interests in mind.

This experience compelled me to write this review because it forced me to recognize that the problems Guggenheim exposes are in my backyard. Instead of ignoring them, I need to shed light on them. We need to change how we educate our kids. Throwing their work away isn't just unprofessional -- it's symbolic of the greater problems facing our schools, facing our children.

Basics: America’s public education system is failing. Students at elementary levels seem to do well, but by the time they hit high school, they are grade levels behind and getting progressively worse. Many schools have become “failure factories.” Part of the problem, according to Guggenheim, is a tangled system involving administrators, educators and unions that has changed the focus of our system from children to adults. Meanwhile, some excellent educators are looking at alternatives and creating charter schools that have shown significant positive results; the downside is the demand for these charters far exceeds the supply, requiring the schools to hold lotteries for families. The film follows the lives of five different families as they head for lotteries that will determine the educational future of their kids.

Tradition is the Problem: Guggenheim spends a lot of time showing how education operated in the early 20th century to make a point that the needs of children in the 1950s is not the same as the needs now. We used to have a tracked system in order to allow students who were interested in vocational education to pursue those interests and have marketable skills. Now, it has almost become essential to have a college education if you want a quality job. Hell, you can’t even get accepted into the military without a high school diploma anymore, and the military used to be the refuge of dropouts all across the nation. As educators, we are still trapped with tradition – in curriculum, in techniques, in legislation. If we don’t move forward, students will suffer, and teachers are supposed to be advocates for kids. Aren’t we?

Are Charters the Solution? Guggenheim doesn’t try to make charter schools seem like the solution to our nation’s academic problems. He sees them as a side effect of a sick academic industry. They exist as an alternative to a way of doing things that hasn’t been working. I’m inclined to agree with this, especially since charter schools can only service a limited number of kids. For every kid getting a quality charter education, we no doubt have thousands of kids trapped in public schools, getting treated similarly to my student yesterday. We need to look to charter schools for guidance on how to offer the best educational opportunities in the classroom. We need to look at how they schedule their school days, evaluate teachers, assess students, and motivate their kids. As the movie constantly points out, the solutions aren’t that difficult – it just requires a lot of sacrifice from adults who don’t want to give an inch from their own agendas.

Where Are We Headed? If I wanted to be flippant, I’d just say if you want to see what the future will be, rent Mike Judge’s hysterical film Idiocracy. But I don’t think the future is that bleak. If we continue the way we are, spending obscene amounts of money on an educational system that isn’t working, expecting unrealistic results with methodologies that worked best with our parents and grandparents, we’re probably doomed. After all, an uneducated society is one primed for destruction. But I tend to believe that there is hope. As the newer generation ages, angry about this system, the old ways will be revised and modified to benefit our kids. As the United States continues to rank poorly academically in comparison to other industrialized nations, we will eventually rise to the challenge.

I am concerned about education in America. As much as Waiting for Superman perturbed me, I see that as a sign that I am still alive, still involved, and still motivated to help students achieve. After all, when looking back at the situation with my student and her unprofessional teacher, the one thing to remember is that I was in there, too, advocating and trying to make a difference.

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