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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.


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