Waiting for Superman (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five kids from disadvantaged districts across America hoped that they would be lucky enough to be chosen, lottery-style, to attend charter schools. Such schools were considered as public schools but they were independent from the many bureaucracies, like how much money should be spent on a child and the amount of material that needs to be taught in a year, that directly impeded children’s ability to learn as much information they possibly could. Directed by Davis Gunnenheim, “Waiting for Superman” was an eye-opening look at how public schools have gone from good (1950s), to bad (1970s), to inexcusably terrible (2000s). I was moved to tears when these kids looked into the camera and said that they just wanted to go to a good school so they could have a chance at a promising future. Odds were against them because four of them lived in dangerous neighborhoods which meant that they didn’t have many role models with whom they could look up to; their families didn’t have much money so even if they were sent to private schools, their possibility of finishing was slim; and despite being motivated to go to school, some teachers simply didn’t care.
Out of all the reasons the film cited involving why public schools have turned out the way they have, teachers who gave up teaching was what bothered and angered me most. In high school, I remember having some teachers who proudly said, “I still get paid even if you don’t learn anything.” They would just sit behind their desks and we were left to do mind-numbing “busy work,” completely detached from the reason why we were there in the first place. If we had a question, they purposefully (and vindictively) ignored us or they would order us to put our hands down and “just do your work.” How could we possibly do our work correctly if a teacher, who was not teaching, wasn’t willing to offer us any guidance? We might as well have stayed home or had a free period. We could have gone to the library and read something we were interested in. I didn’t go to the best high school (obviously), but I didn’t go to the worst either. We were known for our sports, color guard, and the debate team. Academics just wasn’t the main priority. But that was high school. By that point, I already knew the importance of education and I had a laser-focus plan. Despite such “teachers,” I was going to get the best grades, get solid scores on whatever standardized exams they threw at me (which, really, doesn’t measure anything significant about a person–don’t get me started on this issue), and I would go to a four-year university. My mind didn’t have any questions or doubts. There was no “back-up plan” that teachers so enthusiastically recommended “just in case.” Not being admitted wasn’t an option. I knew I was smart and I wasn’t afraid. My parents busted their ass, pardon my French, to save a bit of money so that I could get a college degree. I did. I graduated. And I was lucky. But most people aren’t lucky. Imagine the same apathetic teachers I mentioned but in extremely disadvantaged elementary schools. The damage they could wreak is irreversible. Kids absorb all sorts of information. If teachers don’t care or have given up trying, children can turn that way, too.
With the help of a hidden camera, even though I had a first-hand experience with those kinds of teachers, the videos this film showed us was still horrifying to watch. Millions of dollars of taxes are spent on teachers not doing their job. The film had its flaws, like not defining what makes a “good teacher” and not putting enough weight on internal motivations, but it was very informative. The statistics were mind-boggling (aided by fun animations that were easy to understand) but I never knew that tenures could be a weapon used against kids. Up to this point, I was led to believe that tenures were inherently good because it protected good teachers from being fired. In reality, it protected all teachers. It didn’t matter if they just sat behind their desks all day playing solitaire or looking at pornography or trying to hook up with strangers to meet on the weekend. They were set for life and they shirked their responsibilities with impunity. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, made an astute statement that some teachers felt that their position was a right and not a privilege. It shouldn’t be that way. Teachers should be agents of progress instead of parasitic impediments.
I’ve had experience in teaching kids and the trends I noticed were staggering. For instance, I would have kids in the same grade, assigned the same worksheets, yet there was a huge difference in their abilities. I could have five kids who were in the fourth grade but three of them could barely spell words like “announcement” and “scholar,” let alone apply rules of grammar and punctuation. How could they progress to middle school, then high school, then college if they didn’t have the basic skills? Lastly, I wished the film had acknowledged the division between “Honors Kids” and “Regular Kids.” There were times when I would teach a child and she would say, “I just don’t get it because I’m dumb.” When I asked, “Why do you think you’re dumb?” She responded, “Because I’m not in GATE. So I don’t get it. I’m not smart.” (GATE: Gifted and Talented Education) I was one of those “Honors Kids” so I’ll speak from that perspective. Yes, it made me feel special. It gave me a lot of positive attention. It made me want to perform above and beyond what was expected. In a lot of ways, it made me a very competitive person. But I think school districts should reconsider this divide because “Regular Kids” can’t help but feel defeated. The label can possibly stick with them forever. The first time I heard that response, it broke my heart. All I could say was, “You’re not dumb. You don’t understand it now. But you will understand it later.” After hearing that, the look she gave to me was like the very first time someone told her that she wasn’t dumb. I’ll never forget that moment. To say that it’s really difficult for one to fully understand how bad it’s gotten without first-hand experience with children is an understatement. We should be ashamed that education is failing in America. “Waiting for Superman” may have been a flawed mirror but it still reflects something to us so that we can see what changes we need to implement.