(Waiting for) Superman Returns
In 2010, battle lines were drawn between two groups of people with the same exact goal — making it possible for the “un-teachable” to be taught all that they needed to learn to succeed — but with very different views on how it should be done. One camp was represented by outspoken leaders like Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and Salman Khan and given national spotlight by Davis Guggenheim and Participant Media’s documentary Waiting for Superman. But the other side was less visible, and their voices were drowned out by celebrities like Oprah and Bill and Melinda Gates, a fact that was particularly frustrating because they were the actual subjects of the debate: teachers.
Public education in America had not been rocked nearly this hard since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and so it was about time to have a national conversation about how best to reach our students in the 21st century and beyond. But NCLB had the side-effect of taking almost all autonomy away from districts and schools and giving control of the curriculum and most other details of the school day to statehouses and the Department of Education. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative further distanced teachers and students from the decision-making process. And as Waiting for Superman, the Khan Academy, Scott Walker, and the iPad rose to prominence in the booming education industry, it seemed like the public needed to agree on one thing: teachers were irresponsible, unaccountable for their performance, capable of being replaced by a computer screen, and fearful of losing out on those glorious benefits that come with being a teacher (summer vacations and hardened protections against being unnecessarily fired, not sleepless nights and afternoons, evenings, and weekends spent calling parents, planning for the next day, and crunching student assessment data in order to comply with state and federal regulations).
Years passed and it became less fashionable to bash teachers publicly, or to even talk about education at all. And as the school year of 2013 began, there was almost no build-up to a moment that could finally have a positive impact on the teaching profession. Guggenheim was back with a new documentary airing on CBS and featuring a host of celebrities lavishing praise upon their former teachers. For an entire school year, camera crews followed four distinctly different teachers from very different environments and finally put them in front of the camera to defend themselves and to explain why they do what they do.TEACH was a much-needed apology for keeping teachers out of the conversation that Waiting for Superman provoked, and while it probably won't produce any tangible results, it gave me some hope that it is the vocal minority of American politics that resent teachers, not the actual stakeholders of the public education system.
That isn't to say that TEACH wasn't designed to tap into our emotions to create the kind of response that Guggenheim wanted; but every documentarian starts with that goal in mind, so he can't be blamed for that. Khan Academy wasn't even mentioned in the first forty minutes of the special, and most noticeably, there were no interviews with Arne Duncan, charter school owners, Khan, or either one of the Gateses. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rashida Jones, Anna Faris, and other A-list celebrities did make an appearance, but it was limited to their gratitude for the teachers they had in their lives and didn't delve into the kind of demagoguery that plagued Waiting for Superman. The real stars of the show were teachers and their students, and that was why TEACH succeeded. The start of the new school year is the perfect time to remind the public that no one gets into the teaching profession for fame, riches, or glory. No one demanded anything from taxpayers — yes, we could be paid more and sure, our schools need to be supported by something more substantial than lottery revenue and wildly unproportional property taxes — and the only “magic elixir” that TEACH promoted was an army of talented and passionate teachers supported by their administrators, community, and politicians.
Some of the most understated moments of the documentary were the ones that stood out to me the most. In one scene, Matt Johnson, a 4th grade teacher in Denver, CO, visited a bookstore late at night in order to pick up books for his students that were specially tailored to their individual interests: cooking, skateboarding, boogers, space travel, etc. Every teacher at the elementary level who is involved in teaching reading knows that one of the biggest obstacles to engaging reluctant readers is the mind-numbingly boring books that the curriculum provides students with. You can only read a pointless story about a dog burying his bone in the backyard and then taking a walk around town to find where he left it once or twice, at the most, before it becomes a chore and not a luxury or an activity worth looking forward to. But when Johnson hands out those books that he picked out for his students, you would have thought that it was Christmas morning and each of those 4th graders were being handed every item on their wishlist. Unsurprisingly, students were suddenly drawn into the world of reading and several of them showed impressive gains by the end of the school year.
Another segment of the special focused on the snowball effect that teachers face at the beginning of every year, when they realize that a majority of their students are significantly behind in math or reading. Shelby Harris, a 7th grade math teacher in Idaho, began her year with a class of 12 and 13 year-olds of varying ability; two-thirds of them scored below grade level, and some were even three to four years behind. As a teacher, it’s difficult to not look at that as an insurmountable challenge. How can you possibly fit 720 days of instruction into just 180? Another math teacher, Lindsay Chinn, faced the difficult decision between choosing to move on in the curriculum in order to meet all of the standards for the year, or to slow down and teach the material that students were still struggling with. As she and her principal (who supported her decision to teach less material in thecorrect way) looked at test scores at the end of the year, students obviously scored lowest in the areas where she did not cover the material. But in a (not so) surprising twist, Chinn’s class scored 15-20% better than the rest of the district in those areas where she did focus her time and attention.
For many students, past and present, the classroom is the first place where dreams meet reality.
TEACH was most effective in communicating the significance of a teacher’s impact on children throughout their entire lives, not only in the nine months that they are present. In a brief interview with actress Rashida Jones, she pointed out that her home was full of great artists and brilliant thinkers, but the most important influence on her was a teacher she had when she was younger. “The greatest honor you can give someone is to call them your teacher,” she said, tears gathering in her eyes. And when speaking to Joel Laguna, a high school AP History teacher in Los Angeles, CA, Guggenheim asked him if he felt like he had these kids’ lives in his own hands. “I really do feel like that,” he agreed after some hesitation, further illustrating the similarities between an emergency room doctor and a great teacher. We would not doubt the ability and dedication of those people responsible for rescuing our children from bodily harm, but people are quick to minimize the effect a good teacher has on rescuing our children from emotional, mental, and psychological harm.
When the documentary did veer into the divisive territory of Khan Academy, it actually did so with less than favorable praise. Harris began using Khan with her students at the beginning of the school year, but soon saw that the initial excitement wore off and students were becoming less and less motivated by it. The real kicker came when Harris received some district test scores from her students that revealed that there weren't many performance gains as they expected. “I feel like I wasted months, trying to figure out how to use this program and how it works in a classroom. I may have just failed these kids,” she said, facing a familiar disappointment that plagues teachers when the latest educational trend fails to make the waves that it promised and is abandoned for whatever the new fad is. Often, it seems like the art of teaching is an endless cycle of learning and unlearning how to use the latest technology or instructional practice.
I recently began one of the most difficult experiences of my life, teaching 1st through 4th graders at an alternative school in southeastern Ohio. The students who came into my classroom this past week are faced with challenges that I will, fortunately, never dream of experiencing for myself. Some were brought on by nature or less than responsible parents or guardians, while others are simply the unfortunate result of a growing socioeconomic gap in this region and beyond. But I've yet to find a single one of the thirty students in our department that isn't worth fighting for.
I have almost endless reserves of patience for children and their behaviors, but it’s the adults invested in their education that provide me with the most frustrations. And when I started watching TEACH, knowing that it could be just one of Hollywood’s latest attempts to appear well-intentioned while simply promoting a lucrative business opportunity, I was prepared to be offended, angered, and demoralized. As the teachers profiled in the documentary said goodbye to their students at the end of the year, though, I was filled with the hope and motivation that I was looking for at the end of a very long week. This job will never become any easier for us, but the people who deserve to survive as teachers never came into this profession expecting anything less than a series of daunting obstacles.
Harris had one of the most poignant quotes in the entire special, though. While talking about her school’s plan to integrate Khan Academy into the curriculum, she remarked on the role that technology plays in effective instruction. “Tech is important in the classroom. I believe it is powerful in the classroom. But I think that when you're not in the classroom, it’s easy to tell people what it should look like.” It’s time for teachers to be given the professional courtesy that we deserve and to be brought to the table when talking about the future of education here and abroad. It’s the least that a lawmaker, who once was a student themselves, can do for the people responsible for getting them to their current positions in life.
Photos courtesy of Don Holtz.