October 31, 2010

My Response to Waiting for Superman

...Or, "Waiting for Parents who Care, Streamlined Teacher Education, and Clear Expectations for Teachers."

A few weeks ago I saw Waiting for Superman, the highly anticipated documentary about the ways that public schooling is failing our nation's youth.  Here is the trailer in case you haven't had the opportunity to see it:

As anyone who knows me personally will tell you, I am a passionate person and have very strong opinions and beliefs.  I am also fairly vocal when it comes to those passions and those things I feel strongly about.
Now, I don't pretend to be an expert on politics, the education system, or public schooling.  But, as a teacher, I do know an awful lot about what goes on in MY school on a daily basis.  And watching Waiting for Superman, I was frustrated (but not surprised...) by the glaringly one sided view of public schooling that was presented in the film.

Now, I'm not a robot.  My heart sank when I saw the learning conditions in many of the urban public schools shown in the film.  I grew irritated when I saw the many teachers being paid to sit in the "Rubber Room" in the New York City Public School system because their tenure prevented them from being fired.  And I cried, actually cried when Daisy and Fernando (two of the students followed in the film) weren't picked in the lottery to attend the vastly superior charter schools in their areas.  It was heartbreaking.

But, at the same time, I wanted to scream at the filmmakers, "You are missing SO MUCH INFORMATION!!!"  Here are my biggest frustrations with the film:

1. Many subjective and generalizing terms are thrown around, especially "Good Teacher" and "Bad Teacher."  Seriously.  Those are the descriptive labels attached to teachers by the clearly knowledgeable film makers and interviewees.  Good and Bad.  Yet, at no point in the film is it explained what MAKES these teachers Good and Bad.  An example is given in the film of a tenured teacher who read newspapers in class.  Okay, I'm with you there.  That's clearly a bad teacher.  Then, later, a teacher is shown using raps and chants to help her students learn measurement conversions.  Okay, that's a great idea, the kids are really getting it.  Good teacher.  But...what about the rest of us?  I'll admit it, I don't use raps in my classroom.  It's just not me.  I'm sure they work great for SOME teachers and SOME students.  But...it's not going to work for me.  Does that make me a bad teacher?  I don't read newspapers in the classroom.  I love my kids, care about them, and literally would do anything for them.  But, at the end of this year, let me tell you, a few will still be horribly behind in reading, some will have learning disabilities that remain undiagnosed for a variety of reasons, and some will not meet on state tests.  Does that make me a bad teacher?  If so, how can I improve?

2. Which leads me to my next point.  The film is incredibly anti-union.  Now, I'm not exactly Miss Union 2010, but I greatly value what my union does for me.  In a profession when I am left alone with 24 minors during the day, when I am in parentis locus from 8:35-3:00 Monday through Friday, and when, if I give a student a detention or a C- that student just MIGHT, out of spite, go home and tell their family a dirty lie to get back at me, I thank my lucky stars that I have that union on my side.  I know that my union will protect me if I am wrongly accused by parents or administration of something I didn't do.  I know that my union will make sure I am not expected to take calls from my principal at night or stay at school late (or later than I already do) just to show I'm doing my job.  What a scary thing it would be to go to work knowing that there is no one to protect you if Susie goes home and tells her mom that you threw a chair across the room because she is angry you called her out on talking back in class.  I am thankful for what my union does for me, and that does not make me a lazy, bad teacher.

3.  Speaking of unions, point three I'd like to address about the film is its attack on tenure.  The film is absolutely correct that there are many lazy, burnt out, tenured teachers out there.  There are incompetent, inept, and poorly trained and supported teachers out there who have survived through the four years necessary to acquire tenure.   My question is, what principal LET those teachers keep their jobs long enough to earn tenure?  Or, why weren't they given additional training or coaching to help them grow from inept teacher to excellent teacher?  I am of the belief that most teachers are born with both a talent and a love for teacher that cannot be taught.  You have it or you don't.  But even if you are born with this gift, it does NOT a  teacher of the year make.  Practical training, coaching, mentoring, and regular constructive evaluation are just as critical.  Imagine being plopped into a job in the medical profession, being given 24 patients to "cure," and then just checked on 2 or 3 times a year.  At the end of that time, if your patients lived, congrats!  You're a good doctor!  But if not, oops.  Bad doctor.  That would be ridiculous.  Why is it, then, that in many of our schools we expect teachers to learn on the job with very little support and evaluation?  And if incompetent teachers do survive, why are principals allowing them to be tenured?  Incompetent teachers should be identified within the first few years of their careers, supported and coached, taught the skills they need, and be cultivated into the excellent teachers they have the potential to become.  And if for some reason they do not blossom into these excellent teachers, please, administration, find them another line of work.  It's not tenure that's evil.  It's the fact that teachers are being tenured in some schools and districts without appropriate support, training, and evaluation.

4. In the film, it is particularly heart breaking when the mother of one child, Fernando, describes the way she has been working tirelessly with her son.  She has been taking him to after school reading support programs, hiring tutors, and reading with him at home.  Yet still, she receives reports from her child's teacher that he is not progressing and may be retained.  However, when the mother calls the teacher again and again, she is never called back.  The teacher clearly does not see the value in communicating with her about her child.  So, this mother works to get her child into a charter school.  Sadly, his name is not picked in the lottery.  Tears are shed by all.

This is incredibly sad, and I feel for Fernando and his mother.  It irks me, though, to think that the audiences nation-wide watching Waiting for Superman are seeing only this representation of a public school teacher.  Ladies and Gentleman, I am here to tell you that, while this may happen, it is NOT representative of every public school teacher and student.  Fernando is blessed to have a mother who cares about his education, and even though he will not be attending the charter school, I know that his family will make all of the difference for him.  Because it comes down to this--teachers can work tirelessly during the school day, but at 3:00 children go home.  Some go home to families who value their education and have the time and skills to work with them outside of school.  Some go home to empty houses, or parents who don't speak English, or to parents who just don't care.

In my personal opinion, one of the reasons why charter schools are so successful (one of many), is that they tend to have tremendous support from families.  Parents have worked tirelessly to enroll their children in these schools.  They have filled out applications, sat through lotteries, and traveled with them for miles to attend the schools.  These parents are committed to their children's educations.  As a teacher, I can tell you that when a parent calls me, I call back.  But I can also tell you that there are times I want nothing more than to get in touch with a parent and I find lines disconnected, voice mail boxes full, or phone numbers incorrect.  I had 6 families not show up for conferences this year, and I teach at a suburban school, hardly comparable to the inner city schools shown in Superman.  Why wasn't this side of education shown in the film?

Well, that's all I have to say.  There was a lot of truth in this documentary, and it was well made.  But it had an agenda, and was very one-sided.  What I think frustrates me most is that so many Americans already believe that having ATTENDED public school once upon a time makes them an expert in public school.  This film will arm them with another reason to attack teachers, unions, and the public school system.  I invite anyone who thinks they have it figured out to come to my classroom for 1 day and attempt to solve all of the problems.  There ARE problems with public schooling, and I'm not saying I have all of the answers.  But the problems cannot be reduced to tenured teachers and teachers unions.  Anyways, that's all.  Just my thoughts.

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