ONE OF MY FAVORITE FORMER STUDENTS asked me recently what I thought of the documentary, Waiting for Superman. It was some time before I had a chance to watch it. When I did, it made me mad. Parts of the film are good. Geoffrey Canada, creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, features prominently and Canada seems like a dedicated educator.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie creates a flat and one-dimensional impression.
Producer Davis Guggenheim starts with five youngsters whose parents or guardians want them to get a better education than the nearest public schools can apparently provide. We follow five wonderful children and their families through the lottery process to get into “better” charter schools.
If they don’t, of course, their dreams are crushed.
A lot of people who saw the film came away with this impression: the people doing the crushing were sack-of-crap unionized teachers.
Brent Staples, writing for The New York Times, warned readers who planned to see the film to take along a handkerchief. Who exactly plays the role of villain? Staples makes that crystal clear: “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”
My reaction to that statement? Apparently the Times does a poor job of screening writers and lets idiots pen editorials.
Guggenheim focuses on the famous “rubber rooms” in the New York City Public Schools, where 700 teachers are pigeonholed. These 700 face termination for various reasons, but the union makes it hard to fire them. So they wait out the time till their hearings, often months, in some cases years, collecting their pay—and oh-those-damn-unions!
SEVEN HUNDRED TERRIBLE TEACHERS sucking up tax dollars. God, if only we could get rid of teachers’ unions!
Here’s what real teachers know (or at least this real retired teacher who had time to check it out):
First: The New York City Public Schools employ 80,000 teachers. To focus on 700 is an insult to the other 99.125%.
(Just because Guggenheim made a terrible movie, for example, that doesn’t mean we need to criticize John Ford or Orson Welles.)
Second: A recent article in the Times noted that in one year 140,000 students in the system missed more than a month of classes. If you’re a teacher, you think: that’s a lot of parents shirking their responsibility.
In fact, if I do the math that’s 200 bad parents for every single bad teacher tucked away in the rubber room.
Third: Not all children have good parents. If you want to form a clear understanding of education you have to look at dysfunctional families, too. That’s where most of the intractable problems begin. At my wife’s old school, for example, a mother stopped by the main office one afternoon and told the secretary she wanted to see the principal.
Exactly the kind of parent Guggenheim had in mind when he made his film. The concerned mother! Only this mother was more than concerned. She informed the office secretary she was “tired of being followed.” The secretary did a double take when she noticed the woman was carrying a butcher knife. When the principal overheard their conversation she stepped out of her office and mom lunged at her with the knife, missed, but chased her down the hall and out across the parking lot.
Fear made the principal fleet and she got away. But the question none of the “experts” ever ask—or even know they should ask—is how do we help the child in a case such as thhis? With a lottery system to get him into a better school?
Really? Does anyone believe this mom was going to have her wits about her to enter her child in a lottery to begin with?
For two years, I’ve been working on a book about what it’s like to be a teacher. I assure you: I loved teaching. I’m just sick of all the criticism being laid at the feet of America’s teachers. At a New Years’ Eve party a few months ago I asked a probation officer for Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, how many cases of child abuse and neglect Children’s Services handled every year.
He said about 8,500.
So, yes, there are bad teachers. (I even knew a few.) You should try being a teacher, though, and see how many bad parents you run into.
Maybe some of my former students will read this and comment: I think they’ll say I gave every kid a lot of chances to pass. Unfortunately, even a good teacher can only do so much if problems at home are severe. One year, I had a boy named Mike in my history class.
Mike stayed home “sick” 106 days.
Two weeks after the school year ended, mom called me at home (I gave my number to parents and students). She wanted to know if Mike could still pass seventh grade. I told her, sorry, he had failed my history class and every other class, including gym, and it was too late.
That’s the kind of parent, a minority in every community, maybe 10%, that makes problems for every public school and every public school teacher in America.
THAT’S JUST PART of what you don’t see in Waiting for Superman.
If I had to grade the film, I’d give it an F.
|Guggenheim, pictured with Courtney Love.|
You figure he spends most of his time with celebrities
and not much time rubbing elbows with the regular folk.