But what about the rest of the kids?

October 1st, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Since I moved to the Netherlands in July, I’ve not kept up with much of the American news cycle for the mere fact that I can’t. We have CNN International over here and BBC in terms of televised, English-language coverage, and they both do a great job of making you realize America isn’t the center of the universe. But there’s something I haven’t been able to avoid and nor do I think I should even if I’ve moved to another country and that’s the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” While I should be thankful I’m not teaching in America at this vitriolic moment, I’m actually sad that I can’t stand strong alongside so many of the public school teachers I know who are standing up for students facing incredible odds.

I debated with myself whether I should even join the fray with a post about the documentary, which to be honest I’ve yet to see, though I plan on catching a screening while on a trip to America next month assuming I’m up for handling some teacher-bashing on the big screen. I read post after post by teachers and educators I follow on Twitter – nearly 30 heart-felt essays in less than a week on what it means to be a teacher and why Oprah, NBC, and others have got it all wrong. Some were angry in their tones and carried battle cries. Others threw their hands up in cynicism and recommended just closing the door and teaching. And some were defeated, wondering why, with everything they’re up against each day they walk into school, they have to defend their very existence to corporate America and celebrities. People have said so much already – why should I bother? But as Chris Lehman put it, I had to find the strength to write about this one. It’s important.

I’m a new teacher and my experience is limited, but if you spend just a week in the shoes of a teacher you will quickly realize they are not in it for the money or the summers off as some like to shamefully accuse. I’ll save a rehash of the plot of “Superman” since you can easily find reviews and summaries online, but while the director David Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame says he didn’t try to be pro- or anti-anything in the film, most analysis concludes that the film makes teachers and particularly teacher unions out to be a selfish iron wall in the path toward educational reform. Guggenheim is a great director and in filming the cruel lottery system of some charter schools, he succeeds in riling up his audience. You can’t help but be pissed off after watching even the trailer for the documentary.

Now, while not everyone has a memory of a teacher that changed their lives or truly inspired them, everyone seems to have a memory of a “terrible” teacher, one that was far past her prime and “should never have been teaching.” Maybe you’ve even worked with one of these teachers. The sort of teacher that is clearly burned out from working and grading and calling parents and confiscating cell phones and addressing dress code violations and seeing her students’ mug shots in the papers for hours on end only to be required to attend a “professional development” session on how to teach to a test, the scores for which will determine her employment. I don’t want to make excuses for mean or inappropriate teachers, but I feel that deep down most of those cynical, veteran teachers that have lost the spark are a result of the culture of our educational system that seems to snuff out creativity with every chance it gets.

I worked with a funny teacher last year who was on her way to retirement. It was her last year and she was quite vocal about how sick of the whole system she’d become (a luxury of being on your way out the door). She had wonderful lesson plans and ideas that she happily shared with the new teachers in the department and she told me once that “This is what I love to do and if they actually let me teach I’d do more of it.” At a going away party during the last week of school, this teacher, whom I considered one of the most cynical in the office, cried as she gave a short goodbye to our department. I can’t imagine the emotions she must have felt, the many students she taught over the years running through her mind, but I’m sure she wasn’t thinking “Damn, that was an easy gig and I got summers off!” There are people who really do enter teaching just as any old job after college, but most of them have run from the building screaming within the first few years. Teaching is a test of emotional and physical fortitude each and every day. Ask any new teacher like myself how many times they cried their first year and you’ll see what I mean. So to be accused of not caring enough about the future of our students to actually prepare them for the world ahead, of treating it like just another paycheck, is an incredible slap in the face. Oprah, you’re breakin’ our spirits over here.

Everyone is blogging and tweeting about this documentary and one of the few upsides to it all is that we have a chance to speak out and reach a larger audience. Of course if major news outlets chose to interview teachers alongside the wealthy business elite and celebrities that they seem to treat as experts on education our voice might be heard, but that’s yet to happen. The battle cries are good and well, but when debate reaches a fever pitch like this the details are often left on the floor like sad, post-parade confetti. And never have the details been more important. The problem with documentaries like Guggenheim’s is that they try to tackle an incredibly large and complex issue through a medium that can’t even begin to shoulder it properly. The last thing we need to simplify is the debate over educational reform as if one solution is the answer. There’s not one answer and even if there were it isn’t privatizing the public school system and handing it over to Silicon Valley.

Teachers aren’t napping during their planning periods (if they have them) and dreaming about summer vacation. They’re calling parents and counselors and planning lessons and giving thoughtful feedback to students – and they’re doing it all knowing they may never see the fruits of their labors. My mother told me once when I came home crying last year from a tough day of teaching that as a teacher I may never see the life I’ve changed or the spark of inspiration I planted in a student – that my impact might not bubble to the surface for years after that student leaves my class. So you see, teachers do all of this for a future they may never know. This isn’t our future we’re talking about, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, but the future of our children. We won’t be there to see what they build upon the foundation we lay, but they will and it’s important that we try to get it right.

An upsetting result of the Oprah effect on the education debate is that people questioning the main points of “Superman” are seen as the “old guard,” or worse, as people threatening the future of our children to prop up teacher unions. Some say we should speak out and fight for a seat at the table, others speculate that joining a fracas that will no doubt be old news in a few weeks just distracts us from the truly important job of educating our students. Somehow we have to be heard while not losing focus. Good thing teachers are skilled masters at multitasking.

My biggest question right now: What about the rest of the kids?

What about the rest of the kids that don’t find a spot in a fancy charter school, as “Waiting for Superman” documents? What about the kids that don’t have parent activists at home to speak on their behalf? What about the kids who don’t have parents at home at all? What about the kids that have never used a computer? What about the kids that don’t know how to read? What about the self-contained kids in special education departments? Who will advocate for them?

I know we mythologize and romanticize teachers as heroes for our children and that sometimes there are just plain bad teachers with poor, ineffective methods out there that need to be reckoned with. But for the most part teachers are there for a reason other than the paycheck and the well-deserved perk of having part of the summer off. They’re there because they know that there are children out there for whom no one will advocate. They’re there because they see their communities faltering and children joining gangs in an attempt to be a part of something resembling a family.

I worked with a teacher who had a great rapport with my students, especially the many boys I taught. He would often joke with them “You guys are never absent ’cause your parents don’t want ya’ll at home!” And we would all laugh and the students would trade jabs with him, but the truth of the matter is this: school was the only place they had to go. Sure, a few of them had a home life we would consider normal and well-adjusted, but for the most part there was something other than education driving them to that school building every day. The comfort of a friend group that is like a family and the strange comfort of a teacher who disciplines them, believes in them, and pushes them because she knows – absolutely knows – that they can do better. That’s what public education affords those children – the ones left behind after charter school lotteries and private school enrollments.

Charter schools are not the silver bullet or the superman we need. Neither is merit pay. Teachers need more support and relevant professional development than ever before – they need room to grow and learn with their students. Teachers need administrations that will support those efforts and work as allies and not as adversaries carrying test scores and breathing down their necks.

I’m just one voice among many trying to be heard in this debate. I encourage you to read some of the pieces that inspired me this week. You can do so by checking out my RSS feed of Superman-related links.

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7 Comments on “But what about the rest of the kids?”

  1. 1 Amber said at 4:02 pm on October 1st, 2010:

    Thank you for standing up on behalf of the teachers and kids who are trying the hardest to make a difference. I grew up the daughter of a teacher who put in long hours, never saw the inside of a teacher’s lounge since she used every spare minute to connect with a student… I’ve seen more teachers like her than not. Teaching is a calling, one that people take on because they feel the need to make a difference, not because of the sweet sweet paychecks and summers off, for crying out loud. Well said, Mary.

  2. 2 Kim Hilton said at 4:22 pm on October 1st, 2010:

    Hi Mary,

    I saw this post through Amber’s Twitter feed. As a fellow teacher, thanks so much for posting this.


  3. 3 Erin said at 5:13 pm on October 1st, 2010:

    sorry but like you said..you haven’t actually seen the movie. Hard to review a movie you haven’t seen. This movie doesn’t bash teachers (and I am one) it bashes THE SYSTEM…which sucks. The reason we all can think of a crappy teacher, one who was past their prime..was because they are allowed to be in the system. No child should be able to think of a crappy teacher…if you are burnt out or past your prime you should quit or be fired. Raises and keeping your job should be merit based…as it is in EVERY other job…you suck…you are out and someone else will do it..end of story. I worked in the DC area and LOVE the chancellor of schools there who came in and kicked but and fired crappy teachers and crappy principals. I wouldn’t want to work with them and I sure as hell wouldn’t want my kid in their class. Why do you need some union to guarantee you tenure?? If you think you are a good teacher who cares about the students you have nothing to worry about. Oh and the movie makes the point that charter schools are not the end all be all..many fail..but the ones that succeed we should be doing what they do. Longer school days, longer years, no guaranteed tenure, teacher putting in time after school to work with kids on thier homework.

  4. 4 Mary Worrell said at 10:45 am on October 2nd, 2010:


    Thank you for replying and sharing your experience in the DC area. I meant for this post to be more of a reflection on the national debate going on and questioning why teachers seem to be left out of it rather than a movie review. I’m sure there are other teachers with your opinion – ones that believe in a merit pay system. Others who don’t believe in it, like me. People in between. But why aren’t we being asked about it? Why aren’t we on Oprah sharing our stories and experiences? Or on Education Nation?

    I encourage you to check out the posts I’ve linked to at the bottom of this piece, particularly the recent study completed by Vanderbilt on the ineffectiveness of merit-based systems. Carrots and sticks don’t work with our students and they don’t work with teachers. A more scary side effect of a merit-based system is that it would push teachers away from working with learning disabled students and English language learners – ones that we know aren’t going to score highly on the bubble tests. The study is just a short look at how merit-based systems aren’t effective, but if you’re interested in a longer read about motivation I encourage you to check out Daniel Pink’s new book “Drive.”

    As for longer school days and longer school years, many of the higher-ranking school systems in other parts of the world by which America tries to measure itself don’t in fact have longer school days and longer school years. In the Netherlands where I live, currently ranked third in the world for its education system (last time I checked), students attend school for around 200 days a year. In America it’s 180. I can’t see how an extra 20 days makes a huge difference, though in the Netherlands there are more holidays and students don’t have to endure long stretches without a break. Finland, also ranked high on the list, attends for 190 days. Basically the year is broken up a little more as vacations are given a top priority in Europe. There are large-scale social issues at work here that can’t be measured by these sort of tests but that should play a big part in our educational reform discussion. Many of the charter schools that succeed do so because they work in partnership with social and neighborhood programs. I would really encourage you to check out the post from Dan Brown (I’ve linked to it at the bottom), a teacher from the SEED school featured in Superman and his opinions on the film. He explains many of the reasons he’s able to do well and help his students and it’s not because he’s some sort of Superman – it’s because he has an administration that supports him, among other factors we should consider copying in our public schools.

    I do agree with you that we should take what works from charter schools and try to implement them into the public school system, but I have to disagree with you that teaching should be treated as any other job. It’s not and we can’t apply the norms of corporate America to it. And to be frank, in corporate America if you don’t finish a project the fault is yours. In teaching you can try your hardest and do everything you can to help pull a student out of his or her situation only to see that student end up in jail or dead or pregnant at 16. We can’t ignore the fact that parents, other teachers, neighborhoods, welfare programs, learning differences, governmental policies, etc., all play a role in the development of a child. To tie that success to the pay and future employment of a teacher just doesn’t seem fair or logical. I’m all for holding teachers accountable, but in a way that is fair and that makes sense. We have to admit that our profession is very subjective and difficult to measure and, as I said in my post, we may never know what effect we’ve had on a child for 10 or 20 years down the road.

    And I think people are giving teacher unions more credit than they deserve for the educational problems in this country because it’s easy to blame teachers through the filter of a big organization. I come from a state without unions and we have many of these same problems.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts about the film. I’m hoping to catch a showing next week when I’m in America.

    – Mary

  5. 5 Ali Yee said at 12:40 am on October 19th, 2010:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet (but want to), but I have read reviews, and none of the reviews mention that teachers just want a paycheck and summer vacation. Actually I would think that teachers would want more funding and a raise! I do think that the current American education system is flawed. I do think that the nation needs to rid itself of 3 month summer vacations and short school days. I read a really good article in Newsweek or TIME that mentioned that the 3 month vacation is actually detrimental to a child’s learning since much of what was taught is forgotten over that period. I would say to get rid of Unions. I don’t really see the benefit. I was a part of one at AT&T and it was bullshit. I would bust my ass, but it didn’t matter since I wasn’t senior. Before we were all laid off, there was talk that maybe the company would only let go of 2 people. So even though I was the highest scored employee in the department, I would be let go since I was in the bottom two. You ask who would be the advocate for the children that can’t read or don’t make it into charter schools….Well, I think that is the point of this movie. It is hoping that it will spark a national debate to better the system so that way children who are typically left behind, or part of a lower socio-economic families, or ESL, or disabled, etc., will have a “Superman” in the viewer. I am looking forward to seeing this movie. And although I am not a teacher, I do have a lot of respect for the teachers out there that care, and who want to find new and innovative ways of engaging with their students. I believe most teachers are those kind of teachers- because who else would deal with sometimes bratty kids, crazy parents, no funding so a person can’t even decorate their classrooms, or an administration that is more worried about budget and test scores who breathes down a teacher’s neck and won’t let a teacher be creative. I read today an article about Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, who doesn’t believe charity will solve problems. He said, “There is a saying that we should leave a better country to our children. But it’s more important to leave better children to our country.” And I agree with him. Once our nation realizes that, and realizes that children become better through education, then our problem will start getting solved.

  6. 6 Mary Worrell said at 4:37 am on October 21st, 2010:

    I love that quote from Carlos Slim! Thank you for sharing your experiences with unions. I’ve never been a part of one, but it is true that states with unionized teachers also have the best performing school systems. As for the comment about wanting vacations and fatter paychecks, I guess I should have been more clear. I meant the new programs that have popped up on U.S. networks and other debates have portrayed teachers in that way. The movie may not, but the resulting debate has veered into that territory at times and that was distressing.

    It seems that we talk a lot about how important education is, but that we falter when it comes to what’s the “best” method. Pushing kids to perform on bubble tests isn’t going to prepare them for the future. And charter schools are a small blip on the overall picture. I think if teachers were respected more as professionals rather than just people that are hired to follow a strictly laid out curriculum then we would be much better off. People are always demotivated when their incentive is taken away and I think that’s where we’re headed – removing more control and creativity from the teacher.

  7. 7 Ali Yee said at 12:38 am on October 26th, 2010:

    I agree wholeheartedly. If the position of “teacher” were to be regarded with respect, then it would be a start in the right direction. As far as education, I think we should start with grammar and spelling. The amount of poor English that I hear and read (on the internet) is unbelievable.

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