I'm No Superman
I realize Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman wasn’t
intended to bash teachers. In fact, most viewers probably left the
theater impressed by the educators he documented, the ones who cared
enough to fight: the Michelle Rhees, David Levins, and Mike Feinbergs of
the world (all fellow Teach for America alums). I’m here to argue that
glorifying these teachers and the schools they’ve created undermines our
end goal of fundamental change.
If we want to make real, long-term progress in schools, we need to create a system that’s beneficial to students AND sustainable for educators.
At best, the unrealistic expectations set forth by the TFA world and acclaimed by the mainstream media drive competent, passionate teachers to other careers; at worst, it drives them to ill health, cynicism, and crushed morale. I knew dozens of teachers who fell into that first category. I, unfortunately, fell into the second, until I picked myself up by my bootstraps and moved to a small private school in Silicon Valley.
Trying to turn 65 fifth-graders into model readers, writers, students, and people is an enormous challenge in and of itself; when you tack on poor academic foundations, troubled home lives, and a slew of emotional and behavioral problems, you get a picture of the miracle expected by charter school teachers.
No one ever talks about what it takes for schools to achieve the kind of success that’s plastered all over the media. I’ll tell you; it takes the blood, sweat, and tears of every teacher on staff. It takes waking up at 5 and traveling on a bus to a school that smells like urine; having to shell out money for basic necessities like drinking water; working 12-hour days, Saturdays, summers. It takes being a teacher, counselor, warden, nutritionist, coach, friend, and parent wrapped into one very exhausted package. It takes a school run by naïve 20-somethings with no dependents and no obligations outside their work lives.
A friend of mine recently moved to the Bay Area from New York, where she taught for six years in a renowned charter school. Over the course of her last year, her principal took leave for a mental breakdown, and the dean was hospitalized twice for kidney problems stemming from exhaustion. Is this what we now expect from our educators?
Though I literally worked nonstop for the entire school year, the founder and CEO of my former school, Deborah Kenny, refused to write me a letter of recommendation upon my resignation. To add insult to injury, I only received a few hundred dollars of a prospective bonus because the students’ test scores fell short of perfection. Students, keep in mind, who had entered the school reading three to four grade levels behind, 90% of whom had improved to at least a fourth grade reading level by the end of my year with them. Students who consisted of those who wanted to learn, those who didn’t want to learn, and those who threw chairs at me. My colleagues, who had also sacrificed their lives at the altar of charter school education, were dealt the same blows. Yet Kenny, made famous through the efforts of her teachers, didn’t cut into her own paycheck; the New York Daily News reported she paid herself $400,000 in 2009, making her the highest-paid charter school executive in New York City.
Through Teach for America and the charter world, we have placed the burden of failing schools on the backs of privileged 22-year-olds. Not only do we expect them to be miracle workers, we make them feel extremely guilty when their efforts fall short of the miraculous. Why do we expect nothing from our community? Our parents? The students themselves? Why is no one held accountable but teachers?
I am a teacher. Some might even call me a good one. I make a fraction of what my peers make in the worlds of law, business, and medicine. No one expects my lawyer friends to be freeing innocent prisoners from death row, though they make at least four times my salary. But since I am in a helping profession, I must defend myself from the sanctimony of people like Davis Guggenheim, Wendy Kopp, and Deborah Kenny – all of whom know the solution to public education, none of whom currently teach. As Stephen Colbert said to a humorless Kopp on The Colbert Report, do as I say, not do as I do, right? That never goes over well with my students.