On Waiting for Superman by Carl Chew

The following thoughts are penned by a recently resigned (school district’s point of view) or retired (my point of view) public middle school teacher.  I left teaching because I no longer felt I could be a great teacher.  Large class sizes, a non-supportive and at times hostile principal and administration, dwindling funding and opportunities for students, and the crazy testing culture of NCLB had taken their tolls on me.  I am not the sort of person who will settle for second best, so after 10 years of teaching I “retired.”

I was pretty apprehensive buying my ticket for Waiting for Superman.  I entered the theatre thinking that I was about to see a one-sided body check to face of anyone who didn’t support standardized testing and the “No Child Left Behind” education act.  Surprisingly, this flawed-by-omission documentary Waiting for Superman left me with the insightful feeling that we are all culpable in one way or another for the continuing failure of our public schools to successfully educate every child in America .

Realistically, Waiting for Superman can’t ask every challenging question or attempt to investigate into every locked door in an hour and a half.  In fact, it can and does barely scratch the surface.  Even so, it points out succinctly the complexity of the problem at hand, a complexity that ties all of us, powerful and powerless, into a web of failure.  And even though Waiting for Superman tries extra hard to stigmatize teachers in this morass it has to admit repeatedly that a good teacher is one of the only remedies that has been effective so far.

I left the theatre feeling that if we as a nation could come together to understand our collective failure we might just possibly have a shot at changing course and creating schools that truly do make a difference for every child.  Our collective failure is much bigger than ten thousand failing schools.  It is much bigger that a teacher’s union.  NCLB is a speck compared to our collective failure.  Our failure is rooted in continuing racism and prejudice, injustice, war mongering, and an inability to agree on, even for an instant, what is important for children and the human race.

Here are some inconvenient reflections of mine:

(1) In a society locked in class struggle and hostage to injustice (yes, it is), the cost of educating at-risk children is staggering, and collectively we have been unable to face this reality.  These are children and young adults who need even more than a lot of hand holding, tutoring, positive role models and attention to succeed. 

Let’s look for a moment at the cost of educating children who come from families where success and education are positively connected and appreciated.  Parents lucky enough to send their children to a private school know that a good education costs a bundle.  For instance, Seattle ’s University Child Development Center has tuition of $20,000 for elementary school.  Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences has tuition of $23,800 for middle school.  Seattle ’s Northwest School has tuition of $27,400 for grades 9-12.  Among other things this money pays for small class sizes and individual attention, numerous opportunities in the arts, and community building through events and class trips.  Generally, these are not children at risk, but their families are still willing to pay what it takes for a great education.

I hope we all know in our hearts that every child in America deserves a quality learning experience.  Chronically low or inadequate spending for public education dooms us to maintaining the education gap between the haves and the have-nots.  So, how do we begin paying for quality education for all? 

  • First, we will have to agree that quality learning requires a lot more money than we have ever put into schools. 
  • We will have to prioritize spending to improve every aspect of public education from the infrastructure of collapsing buildings, to the training of excellent teachers, to supporting the families whose children we are educating.
  • We should Make Education Not War.

(2) Everyone is important in educating children, not just teachers.  Waiting for Superman touts the super teacher as the one thing that can truly make a difference in a child’s education, but behind every super teacher is a super principal and school administration, involved parents and super role models.  Unfortunately, many of those “bad” failing teachers are super teachers too, they were just never given the chance to be super.  A great teacher with a super administration and super involved parents can move students through a curriculum with joy and success.  A great teacher with an ineffective or hostile administration, with parents absent from their children’s lives, and with a few students who challenge and disrupt them on a daily basis can become a failing teacher quickly and tragically.

Our teachers, clearly the frontline in educating our children, must be treated more respectfully and positively by everyone for them to succeed.  At the moment so much negativity has been heaped on teachers by the press and politicians that it is no wonder unions have circled the wagons to fend off the onslaught.  The public has been deceived into believing that bad teachers are the root of all evil in the public schools, and the media has so deluged them by this notion that they now believe almost all teachers are failures.

Teachers need support to do their jobs well.  When they are badgered, threatened and humiliated by principals, administrations, and politicians they can not function at their best.  When they are isolated in classrooms with upwards of 35 students and expected to move every single child forward at the same clip their frustration can overwhelm them.  When they struggle in their private lives financially because their pay is minimal they can become depressed.  When doing their jobs properly requires every waking moment they can become utterly exhausted.  (This last point is most clearly understood by an example:  If a middle school teacher sees 150 students each day and places an emphasis on their writing as a key to learning, and each student writes one four sentence paragraph each class period, that teacher has an immense amount of work to accomplish outside of their paid school day.  If the teacher spends only one and a half minutes reading and then writing one comment on each paper, the total time required to do this without a break is 3.75 hours.  Imagine teachers who along with every other out-of-school responsibility—family, chores, R&R—actually try to accomplish this!  The teachers who attempt this are high performing super teachers, but they can only manage it for so many years before they become completely exhausted.  How would you feel about an extra 3.75 hours of unpaid work each evening?)  Here is a short list of a few ideas that would help teachers be successful:

  • A commitment to a 1:12 student to teacher and or classroom assistant ratio.
  • A commitment by principals and school administrations to be in classrooms observing and helping multiple times throughout the year.
  • A requirement that principals, administrators, and district officials be polite and responsive to teachers and their needs.
  • A commitment by school districts to mentor beginning teachers and assist older exhausted struggling teachers.
  • A commitment to making teachers a part of the education reform conversation, not just seeing them as troops in the trenches following orders from above or the enemy.

Parents are another incredibly, absolutely, totally important ingredient in a child’s education.  Several of the parenting adults in Waiting for Superman agree that it is their commitment which is making a huge difference in their children’s educational lives.  One of those adults talks so honestly and candidly about her own parents’ ambivalence toward her education, then her ambivalence toward her own and her son’s education, and finally her insight into how important it is for her not to be ambivalent about the grandson she is raising.  It took three generations for this epiphany to occur!  Parents who struggle daily facing poverty, racism, and injustice, cannot be expected by themselves to immediately come to the insights of this wonderful grandmother.

As the Harlem Success Academy so clearly understands, their families and the surrounding community have to be welcomed into and required to be part of the education process for their students to succeed.  All public schools must be given the wherewithal to require this as well, wherever and whenever possible.  This should include but not be exclusive to:

  • bringing parents into schools and classrooms
  • parenting education
  • continuing education
  • drug and alcohol counseling and treatment
  • family support
  • free universal day care

(3)  Truly committing ourselves to successful public schools will mean turning over every possible rock to examine what lies beneath.  It will be confusing and painful.

  • It broke my heart to see one of the little boys in Waiting for Superman playing a violent computer game.  I could not imagine ever letting one of my children do that.  In fact, our family made a decision not to have a television or play violent games.  We read and talked, played board games, and worked on homework together. The results were beyond amazing.  When as a teacher I suggested to parents that each night they keep the TV and computer games off until they had checked their student’s homework and played a game or had 30 minutes of conversation with their children they would react to my request like I was crazy or they were powerless to do so.
  • Currently in the Seattle School District there is policy to not hold children back if they are failing or lack the skills to move on.  There was also a not so subtle pressure from my school’s administration to never fail a child in a subject.  Both of these policies come from research that shows holding a child back and/or failing them leads to a greater chance of their dropping out of school.  I will not argue with the research, but passing children along is no solution either.  Imagine how much harder it gets for a teacher to reach these children as they are passed through the system year after year, ever farther behind their peers.  A solution might be to end the structure of grade levels.  Students come into elementary school and exit when they have mastered the skills they need to be successful in their next school.  There is no 1st or 2nd or 3rd grade, just a continuum of great teachers, educational resources, groups, and curricula intended to get them ready for their next school.  Classes would be multiage and fluid, students would come and go when their teachers felt they were ready.  Elementary school for any particular student might last 4 years, or 5 or 6, but there would be no stigma attached to how long it took an individual to work through the system.
  •  How many trillions of times have teachers said to a student, “I want you to learn this so you don’t have to work at McDonald’s”?  I repeated that a bunch of times early in my career until one day I realized it was an utterly unfair, mean spirited, and privileged thing to say.  What if the student I was talking to did have a mom or brother or uncle working at a McDonald’s?  What was I saying to that child, your relative is worthless?  We will always, always need people to work at McDonald’s, in parking garages, as gardeners, and laborers.  We need to start respecting each person’s choice to work where they want by making pay for each job be a living wage.  When those parents or parents-to-be feel they are secure and valued they will be much more likely to be involved, attentive and super parents.  How many latchkey kids did I teach over the years, children who never saw a parent at home because they had to work two or even three jobs to pay the rent and put some food on the table?  How can this be remotely good for that child’s education?  How many parents who feel devastated and disgusted by jobs that keep them locked into poverty influence their children negatively about education?  A living wage, meaning a wage that would allow a parent to pay for those goods, services, and shelter we all require to be healthy and happy, would go a long way to help close the education gap in our society.

Waiting for Superman will not be the last documentary attempting to help us focus on our educational dilemma, but I think it is a great wake up call.  If the movie makes you angry at one specific group, please broaden your response to include your political party, your community, your entire school district, and yourself.  Reflect on how and what you could do to help, because we are all in this together.  Remember the old sport adage? No Pain, No Gain.

Carl Chew

©2010 C T Chew