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November 11, 2010



Carolyn, I often read your blog and I really respect you, but I hope you will be discerning toward the message of this documentary. I work in public education, and the problem with our education system is NOT the protections offered to inept teachers, but that is an easy scapegoat for those on the "outside" who don't see what goes on day in and day out in the school system. At my school, I can think of two or three out of nearly 100 teachers who might be considered "inept". On the other hand, the vast majority of our teachers are hard-working, dedicated, intelligent, and incredibly giving and self-sacrificing. Their servant spirits would be a good example to many Christians. The jobs we have are difficult, exhausting, frustrating,and overwhelming. Government regulations and mandates add hours of work and hoops to jump through, and the emphasis on testing ties teachers' hands and frustrates students. We could all make more money in other industries, but we stay because we care about students and believe in what we are doing, and yet we are continually blamed for the ills of society. Our students show up with every kind of disability you can imagine, not to mention the baggage of difficult home lives. When is this ever taken into account when teachers are being judged?

Carolyn McCulley

Jenny, I am glad you posted your comment. On every subject imaginable, there are multiple viewpoints. And I have no doubt you have offered an extremely valid perspective. As I understand it, each school district is different from the next, but this documentary was trying to analyze problems from an overall national perspective -- not easy to do. Not being a teacher, though, I am happy that you have added your experienced voice here.

One question: I wasn't sure if you had seen the documentary yet. If you have, I'd appreciate hearing further from you. If not, I'd appreciate hearing again from you after you have a chance to view it. Your specific critique would be helpful to hear.


Carol Moore

Carolyn, appreciate your telling about this film. I don't know if it addresses another breakdown of the system: because the government pays more for special needs children, in our local school system, at least some administrators prefer to have educable children STAY in the "special needs" category, rather than to use teaching methods that would make mainstreaming possible. My daughter tutors in a fantastic phonics program, but a friend's bright child is presumed to have "special needs" because he adopted. The class does not teach phonics. The teacher made several errors in spelling and grammar in a note to parents, but the principal attributes his problems to his background, not his educational experience. The school will get more funds if he can keep the child in "special needs" than if they TEACH him.


Thanks, Jenny! As a high school English teacher in a large urban metropolitan area - at both regular and charter schools - let me say that parents and students create just as many roadblocks to academic success as the other "adults" do. I've lost count how many times kids have refused to work - muttering obscenities, pulling tantrums, you name it - even before class begins. Kids choose to act out, kids choose to refuse to do homework, kids choose to not ask for help when they need it. Especially where the family speaks another language at home other than English; they're too busy working multiple jobs to monitor or discipline their kids. And with many of these kids, no amount of in-class engagement can compete with the lure of street life. As well, freshmen who've failed their way through junior high suddenly discover that they can't do the same thing in high school. They think it's easier to drop out than to attempt to make up the four classes they've failed.

Charter schools have long been touted as the real solution to low-performing schools. Yet there are plenty of charters that coerce teachers to change grades in their rollbooks or face firing, and a host of other unethical practices. Better "schools" doesn't necessarily mean better students are enrolled, or that they're the better option. Teachers work their tails off, only to get shafted by administrators who care only about numbers. Ultimately, these kinds of schools end up being either some kind of fantasy reinvention of the American dream, or simply an altruistic business venture, rather than being a solid educational choice.

I'm very interested in watching the film when it is available on video. However, I find it appalling that nobody ever puts the onus of learning on the kids. Why is that? (Now, that would make for a fascinating documentary.)

Carolyn McCulley

(This is a letter Melissa sent directly to me and I asked her permission to post it because I thought it was an informative and valid perspective to consider.--CM)


I always enjoy reading your blog, and I have enjoyed your books as well, so I was really interested to read your take on "Waiting for Superman." As a Christian serving as an urban public school teacher, I eagerly awaited this movie, as I feel that our public education system does grave injustice that needs to be exposed, in particular to our neediest children.

However, I was disappointed in your comment that "we all have a vested interest in changing an educational system that offers job protection to inept teachers-job protections that workers in other industries don't enjoy, either. It's not good market practice and it certainly doesn't equip the next generation."

I feel that "Waiting for Superman" gives the impression that bad schools are a direct result of bad teachers, but the truth is that it is not possible to identify one stakeholder as the main cause of problems in an extremely complex system. Yes, there are "bad" teachers. Just like there are "bad" students, "bad" parents, "bad" school administrators, "bad" superintendents, and "bad" policies. I think we would agree that “bad” in the world is a direct result of sin. But when it comes to judging our school system, it is important to realize that all of these factors contribute to its failure to provide adequate education to students living in poverty.

Your review seems to suggest that the blame for this lies at the feet of so-called "inept" teachers who enjoy unfair job protection. And that is simply untrue. Most of my colleagues and I are as frustrated at our broken system as the parents portrayed in "Waiting for Superman." We go home each day frustrated and feeling unvalued and disrespected by students and by our administration. To illustrate this, I’d like to share some notes about my week: this past Monday, I had the "f" word spoken to me in one way or another 12 times. I had a student throw a pencil at my head when I asked him to start his assignment. I witnessed a parent curse out a colleague and call her a "b" in front of a roomful of teachers and students, because the parent felt the teacher (who is an excellent teacher, in my opinion) didn't like her child. An administrator told me that I wasn't qualified to decide how to make adaptations to an assignment to help students understand it better, even though I have a Master's of Education degree in Urban Education and five teaching certificates. And this was, overall, a good week!

And after five years of being treated in this manner, I’m starting to get burned out, frustrated and tired. That doesn’t make me inept; it makes me human. I don’t receive the training and support I need to do my job to the best of my ability. So really, I’m waiting for superman, too.

Media such as “Waiting for Superman” popularizes the idea that getting “good” teachers fixes problems, because media typically oversimplifies complex issues and seeks out antagonists. But the truth is that in most cases, teachers have no control over curriculum, materials, class size, and a whole host of other factors that contribute to our unjust system. Research suggests that it takes teachers five to seven years to become experts at their craft, and that’s under the best conditions. It takes time to develop teachers, which is why it is important that their jobs are protected as they are developing.

I agree with you that the education system doesn’t always engage in what you term “good market practice;” this is certainly the case in many, many ways. But we don’t run our homes on free market principles, and I think that our schools should look much more like homes than they should corporations. Children, and their teachers, are not commodities to be improved upon and traded; they are human beings with souls who work hard every day and don't deserve to be unfairly portrayed or judged.

It’s important that the public be given a balanced, fair view of the complex issues surrounding school improvement, and I think that we as Christians need to try and prevent fair views, whenever possible.

I write to encourage to continue sharing on a variety of topics but also to request that you reconsider your views on the role of teachers in the public education system.

Melissa Lake

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