I attended a private screening today of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman. I sat in the theatre alongside other teachers, heads of universities, candidates for school board, administrators of local charter schools. Afterwards, a panel made up of a recording star, a politician, and three school administrators answered questions posed by a local newscaster. Everyone on the panel said the right things about needing change and holding teachers accountable. Everyone on the panel agreed that quality education is a civil right.
The movie itself is an affecting look at the statistics of the failure of our education system in this country. It is a scathing indictment of lazy and ineffectual classroom teachers and the union that defends their right to a paycheck on the public dime. The film pulls heartstrings as it follows five children trying gain entry into charter schools so impacted that they must hold public lotteries to choose their incoming students.
My heartstrings were pulled. I’m not going to lie. I cried at the end. So many children languish in low performing schools simply because of the accident of having been born poor. It makes me sad. It makes me sad enough to make a life’s work out of closing the achievement gap one hundred thirty five students at a time in my high school English classroom.
In one of the most incendiary parts of Waiting for Superman we see a montage of the worst teachers in New York awaiting district hearings in a sort of holding pen for bad but tenured teachers. Some are accused of abuse. Others are there for more minor infractions such as never coming to work on time. The district pays them full salaries to play cards and take naps while they wait up to three years for their hearings. The upshot is that only 1 in 2500 tenured teachers in the country are ever fired from their jobs no matter how ineffective or dangerous they are in the classroom.
While Waiting for Superman highlights the damage wrought by bad teachers, the filmmakers did not focus enough on what good teaching looks like. They showed brief footage of one experienced teacher imparting math facts through rhymes and songs. There were a few classroom scenes in which all of the students sat in rows with their shirts tucked in, listening attentively to a teacher at the front of the room.
The documentary alluded to the great results possible in a classroom led by a great teacher, but spent no time in conversation with one of those high performers. I would like to see somebody talk to the energetic, innovative, results-getting teachers. I’m tired of interviews with people who go into administration after a few years in the classroom. I don’t want to hear anymore from the professors publishing studies about teaching. It is time to listen to the people who are engaged in education reform through a life’s work of. . . .good teaching.
Waiting for Superman would have been even more powerful if Davis Guggenheim titled it More Inconvenient Truths and interviewed a few teachers who are currently doing whatever it takes to help their students succeed. It is easier to call up egregious examples of bad teaching than it is to try to unlock the mystery of what makes certain great teachers so effective. One reason for this is because the truths of what it actually takes to help students succeed are mighty inconvenient.
One inconvenient and costly truth is that teacher salaries are so low that an excellent teacher's committment to her students is necessarily at the expense of her family’s finances. This unfortunate dichotomy between low pay and the tremendous workload that comes with doing the job well has created another kind of achievement gap. People who do not belong in teaching but are at least willing to be a warm body in the classroom can hide behind tenure policies and keep their jobs despite their lousy results.
Another truth is that excellent teaching requires good training programs that include unpaid internships and several weeks of observation time in high performing classrooms. It is also true that the quality that makes for an excellent teacher is hard to define, and often does not reside in the most high-powered college graduates.
Truth: To be an effective teacher, a person has to be inherently talented yet must also do the long hours of observation, reading and practice required to become great. Truth: Effective teaching requires uncommon courage and sacrifice.
One effect of Waiting for Superman is that teacher unions and tenure policies will come under well-deserved fire. Parents whose children have bad teachers will create a stink so inconvenient to administrations that we will begin to see some change in policy. Once parents and communities make themselves more of a pain in the butt to deal with than the unions, change will occur. Yet I am left wondering about the few excellent teachers left in the rubble when the dust settles, bent over student desks like always, doing the quiet, unheralded work of helping children. What of us?
Supermen and superwomen do exist. We are out here, doing the work and getting the results despite disgruntled colleagues, naughty students, video games, television, junk food, low salaries, bad parenting, clueless administrators and thoughtless bureaucracies. We are plowing through the detritus of excuses and making change one student at a time. We need the massive attention that a film brings too.
The true answers to education reform lie in the magic that excellent teachers make in classrooms every day. Find us. Interview us on panels and talk shows, not just our administrators and sympathetic politicians. Talk to our students and their families. Ask us questions about our methods. Most of the answers to rebuilding our public education system lie in the sacred alchemy that occurs between student and truly excellent teacher. As educators and those who care about education we must be as willing to look at what works as Waiting for Superman is to expose what does not.
Superman (and woman) wait for you too.