Waiting for Superman?

Last night I saw “Waiting for Superman.”  I have read the reviews.  I have read multiple educators trash the film.  And so the film started and I patiently waited to watch the film, so that I could leave the theatre and also write a post trashing the film.  I waited…and waited …and waited.

But…I walked out inspired.

I got the message that I can make a difference.

I have taught at schools just like the ones that were in the movie.  I did watch kids suffer at the hands of the “lottery” system.  I did watch kids suffer at the hands of teachers who had no business ever being hired…or kept around year after year.  I did see no change year after year and a constant flow of administrators being shuffled into positions that they had no business being in.

I don’t know if I have the right to say this…but I get “Waiting for Superman.”

I really empathized with the folks in the film.  I get trying to find fault in the teachers and teacher’s union.  I get trying to find hope in the charter and magnet school system.

I get “Waiting for Superman” because many of the “supermen” that school systems bring in are usually bringing Kryptonite.

Yes, you may disagree with the evidence that the movie uses, but the raw hopelessness of the victims is real.  If I lived in the neighborhood that fed to my old school, I would rather have my child a KIPP school, or the most regimented test prep charter school in the county.  I would choose safety, respect, and happiness over a “drop-out factory.”  Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for your kid.  It would be a better use of your time to try to get your kid out, than it would to try to change things while they are in.  I think before anyone trashes the movie, they should simply stop and consider why it was made.

I know we all want to support teachers.  We want to put blame somewhere else.  We want to blame the managers without taking shots at the players.  Recently there was a tweet that asked “Please tell me one good thing about the educational system.”  The number one response that I saw while I was on was “the teachers.”  What I don’t understand is if we are so great, and the kids only spend time with us…then why are there problems.  The kids are not in class with the administrators, the superintendents, the board of education.  They are not spending every minute of their day with the State Department of Education officers, or any Federal Education Department members.  They spend their entire day with teachers…and somehow we should be totally free from blame?

If a survey was given to a random sampling of teachers, not folks who read this or other blogs…what do you think would be the top five things they would change in their school?
Discipline policy?
Dress Code?
Standardizing curriculum?
Scheduling concerns?
Prep period infractions?

How many of the top five would simply be procedural changes?  How many of the top five would be things that occur outside of student/teacher contact time?  How many would come up with a list that would actually change the culture of the school?  Change how teachers and students actually interact?  If a stranger sat in a class before and after the changes…would they see difference?  Or would changes be made to simply solidify adult control of the building.  Go ahead…name one change in your school that gave kids more control and responsibility over their lives…over their education.  One change that was made that allowed them to figure out who they were, instead of telling them who to be.

I just don’t get it.

And regardless of what the problems are within the system, there is one wild card that is never seems to be mentioned.  The parents.

Maybe this is where I am a bit nostalgic.  Maybe this is where my love of the underdog and the rebel in American history cloud my judgment.  I have seen a single parent who knows how to work the system make a difference.  I have seen a small group of parents who have stayed persistent and used the right words to the right people make a difference.  But most parents stay silent.  One parent once told me that they just kept quiet because they knew it would be over in a year.  As they told their kid, “Just put up with it for a few more months and hopefully it will be better next year.”  It seems the more parents I talk to aren’t concerned with the child’s education being the best…just as long as it’s not the worst…and when it is, just wait it out until next year.

How many parents out there are just always waiting for next year.
How many teachers are just waiting until the current “change” fails, so we can move on to the next?
How many of us are just waiting for superman?

The movie ends with some simple text.  I believe the last line was something like:
“Great schools come from great people.  Great schools come from you.”  Are we great when we simply wait?  Hide? Voice our concerns on blogs and twitter but not at staff meetings or at our own kid’s parent conferences?  Are we great when we only worry about our kids…whether it be our own children or own students?
“What is our obligation to other people’s children?”

Are you waiting for superman?  I am…but after twenty years of teaching, I am finally, slowly, finding out that after all this time, I was actually wearing a tight spandex suit with an “S” on it under my clothes all these years.  I am slowly finding out that I have super powers.   And I am slowly chipping away at my kryptonite, the one thing that has kept me waiting, instead of acting.

Today, take a peak under your shirt.   I bet there is an “S” on your chest too.  But hopefully… you’re not wearing spandex pants 😉

1/25/11 Why did Waiting for Superman not get nominated for an Oscar?


  1. @ Paul
    Thought provoking post. I had mixed feelings on the film. Not fond of all the teacher bashing but you bring up a great point. Teachers possess more power than the realize in pushing for change within their building or district.

    As a building principal I clearly have to listen to different perspectives. I hear all day the concerns of parents, the central office, but who I listen to the most are my good teachers. The ones who get it. The ones who are their for the right reasons and aren’t racing the kids to the parking lot at the end of the day.

    When they muster the strength to fill me in on areas I need to pay attention to I listen and I look. When they get together and have an idea to make the school better then we give it a try.

    Believe me your principal would rather hear from you than a parent angry about a grade or another administrator worried about the minute details of a policy. Teachers are superheroes and any administrator who is in it for the right reasons as well would welcome the chance to work with their best teachers on changing our schools into the organizations our students deserve.

    1. I do wonder if admins would want to hear from a teacher… It seems so many can only imagine something one way, and so many have so little teaching experience. The top two in my district have less than five years. When they are presented with an idea that might have taken a teacher 10-20 years of exploring and developing they seem to just want to rule it out as impossible, or just simply wrong.

  2. Well said. I haven’t see the film yet as I am in Indonesia, but I appreciate your honest look and time to step away from the hive mind echo chamber and say what needs to be said. There is such a thing as a bad teacher and schools are filled with them.

    I think I had about 20 of them growing up and I described my school in The Bronx and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. There were people there who not only shouldn’t have been teaching, but should have been institutionalized. totally insane, but “teaching” in the system for 30 years.

    I guess my point is that the school system in the US, particular in low income areas is broken, it is too big, and in my opinion designed to fail, because let’s face it Wall Street does not want to see a large percent of angry, educated minority kids banging on their doors asking for their share.

    As long as a small percentage of people control all the wealth, the rest will be distracted an under educated. So we cannot wait for some Superman, or Superschool to save us from the bureaucracy.

    We, the teachers, can look at the S on our shirts and teach the kids we teach to question the system and get an education despite of whatever their school district is dong that year.

    I’ve taken enough space here, as always great post.

  3. Okay, Paul. I get it. I am one of those parents who keep telling my child to wait until next year (now I say wait until college). I tried and tried and tried to change her teachers, to no avail. And I work every day, every year, to change the system in my own working district. I work within the system, sitting on every committee possible, and outside the system, closing my door and doing what it right.

    But, as my last blog and my tweet showed, that is getting harder and harder. In an effort to make bad teachers good, the admin and the government has created a one-size-fits-all teaching protocol. Follow the script. As we know, one-size never fits all, doesn’t fit most, and often destroys those who don’t fit.

    I haven’t seen the movie, I know there are bad teachers, but I also know the wrong people are being given the power to revamp the system. Teachers do often know best. Not all of them, but enough of them to try.

    1. I would never write this if I had not met you…
      But do you think that sometimes when teachers try to make change in their school, or especially in their kid’s school that they are simply too nice about it?

    2. Remember that idea that teachers are like islands, they just close their doors and *poof* there all by themselves, cut off from everything and everyone. Are parents cut off from one another?

      One parent trying to change something might not work, but would many?

      1. Yes, parents are cut off from one another…found that out last year when dealing with something at my kid’s school. Seems as though parents believe the problems their kid is going through are unique to their kid, and not a shared experience.

  4. I agree with what you said about parents; however, sometimes I fear the parents who get this message are the ones who are stirring things in the district simply because their student was being coddled in a way they believed appropriate.

    Are there changes that need to be made? Absolutely. Do I know what they are? Still working on it. Frankly, I think until we come together with some sort of unified purpose for education, we’re never going to see eye to eye. What, exactly, am I expected to do as an educator?

  5. When my husband was dying of a brain tumor , growing medical expenses forced me to move in a cheaper apartment located in an inner city, Passaic, NJ. Poverty, gangs and drugs problem are rampant in Passaic. From my third floor apartment I had a view on school parking lot where every night gangs member s openly did drugs. At night, frequently way after the midnight, the streets were full of children playing and there was no a parent in sight. I always wondered how these children will perform next day in school. Of course the public schools were branded as “failing” schools which Obama, Duncan, Guggenheim and others want the public believe it is because of teachers. IT IS A GREAT INJUSTICE DONE TO THE TEACHERS.
    Look, I send my son to one of the failing Passaic school and he thrived there, passing state test as advanced proficient. I trusted public school teachers with my son because I knew they are better that teachers in my local parochial school. They better educated and honestly if they can teach such a tough immigrant population they must be more dedicated and hard working than the other teachers. As I was fighting to keep the roof over my family head the public schools teachers educated my son well.
    My son continues to be a successful student in public schools. We were able to move out of ghetto into a neighboring town. The all public schools in this small town are branded “excellent”. They are local little gems and parental involvement is high. My son continues his successful education in public school. He passes all state test as advanced proficient , reads well above the grade level and wants to be a doctor.
    I wish Guggenheim could do a movie about my son who thrives and do extremely well in public schools THANKS TO PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS and free Public Libraries.
    WFS is a injustice done to the public teachers. If I ever win the lottery I will share it with Passaic public school teachers. They are my heroes.

  6. I think there are successful “failing schools.” The failing schools in the movie meant more than just test scores…deeper than that. Your kid was in a school that was obviously failing according to the state, but was successful nonetheless.
    The other thing to consider is that some kids succeed despite the system…and normally they have parents just like you. I think maybe you are not giving yourself enough credit. Not to read too deeply into what you read, but you sound like the type of parent that would have had a successful kid no matter what school they attended.

  7. I’ve read the post, but not the comments, so here goes:

    A small group of teacher from my school got together and went to go see the film. The next day our administrator asked if those ofus who went to see it would put together some of our thoughts and share them with her for further discussions at our building. Here’s what I shared…

    Some conclusions I’ve drawn from the film:
    1. Tenure is increasingly a tool to protect poor teachers. Good teacher wouldn’t need this type of protection. With test expectations rising higher and higher good teachers would not be let go just because of disagreements or differences in ideals. A teacher that produces results won’t get tossed aside.
    2. School reform is so difficult because there are too many hurdles, and once you’ve overcome one hurdle, the next one says to go back to the beginning and start over. To bring about change we need to streamline the system.
    3. There are parents who care about their children’s future. And we as teachers can’t ignore them just because there are so many who might not. Too many times there are teachers overlook or passover the parents who care because it seems like a lot of work to do for one parent, but is that fair to the one parent? And what if providing the opportunity for all your parents sparked something inside of the others?
    4. There are children who care about their future. And we as teachers can’t spend all our time complaining about the ones who don’t.
    5. Neigborhoods are reflections of their schools. Schools set the tone for the neighborhoods. ANd changing neighborhoods now will tkae a long time because we’ll have to wait till our students are leaders of those homes.
    6. Teachers need to talk to parents. When teachers don’t, we are telling parents we don’t care about them or their children.
    7. Be the kind of teacher you want your own children to have or wish they would have had. Every child, no matter what they say or do, no matter where they come from, deserves nothing but your best. All those moments when we say it’s not worth it or there’s not enough time, aren’t acceptable. When we let those moments go we tell kids they aren’t worth it, that we’ve given up on them. I would accept that for my own children, I shouldn’t accept for other children either.

    Some conclusions I did not drow from viewing this film:
    1. Teachers are the only problem.
    2. Charter schools are the only solution.
    3. Teacher unions are the only problem.

    Now I’m going to go read the other comments and (re)comment accordingly….

  8. “Good teachers wouldn’t need this type of protection. ” The issue I have with that Steve, is that I think in the future “bad teaching” will be the norm. Most of the things I think are “good” are considered increasingly considered “bad.” While right now at this moment it might protect “bad” teachers, I think in the future removal of tenure will be used to get rid of “good” teachers who are seen as obstructing “bad” policies.
    I just heard my admin say it the other day, you are basically only a good teacher if you are doing what you are told and using their methods, if you are not, if you obstruct…see ya.

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