Bianca sits nervously in the grey folding chair in the gymnasium of Harlem Success Prep in New York City. She is waiting. Waiting for the administrator to roll the little cage full of ping-pong balls and pull out a ball with the number that matches the ticket in her hand. Or waiting until all of the open spots at Harlem Success Prep are filled and she returns home without fanfare. She’s waiting for someone to be her hero.
The documentary Waiting for Superman won the audience award at Sundance and sent ripples through the world of education. It follows the experiences of several young students in New York City while also narrating this decade’s surge toward charter schools as an alternative to the nation’s failing public education system. It’s a bleak film. While one of the students in the film wins a lottery spot at the charter of her choice and has a rigorous, engaging, and bright future ahead of her, all the rest, like Bianca, are left dejected in school gyms, destined to return to public schools where teachers are burnt out, administrators are negligent, and half of the students won’t graduate.
If these students are waiting for Superman, it means someone has to be the villain. A hero doesn’t exist without a villain to battle, right? So who’s the bad guy in the world of education?
The media is eager to help me out in this quest to discover the root of all evil in education. In my two years as a teacher, it’s been striking to realize how harsh the scrutiny on education is. Which other profession or field of society is studied as closely as education? I would argue maybe only politics or medicine. Teachers are held under a microscope that can sometimes suffocate. It can feel like us vs. them, heroes vs. villains, teachers vs. everyone who doesn’t understand how hard it is to explain DNA or the present participle to kids who can barely read and have unmedicated ADHD and a single parent and no breakfast.
The media portrays schools as battlegrounds where teachers fight administrators who fight politicians who fight the opposite party. While the nation certainly deserves to hear how schools, the farms for future generations, are run and whether they’re succeeding, I think the hyper-examination of teaching can be counter-productive.
Case in point: I kept a list of all the stories I read or heard on the internet or radio in the past week and was taken aback by the diversity and detail with which education is covered. I heard or read about: teacher attrition rates in high-poverty schools, the battle over what to call “non-academic skills,” improving graduation rates across the country, why KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program, a popular charter) students often don’t succeed in college, whether diagramming sentences is important or useful, teachers moving to East Asia because they’re burned out and unappreciated in their western schools, teaching the humanities to low-income adults, and several more. I should have tallied how many stories I saw about other professions, but they were few and far between.
These stories, while not all necessarily negative, sometimes put a bad taste in my mouth. It’s discouraging to read about teachers leaving the profession after only a few years. It’s disheartening to find out that a program for underserved schools that seemed so promising has proved ineffective. Sure, good teachers are highlighted and new ideas are propagated in some of these stories, but the vast majority seem to be political quibbles or tales of students who don’t succeed.
So who is the bad guy? Who’s the hero? I’d like to propose the cliché answers: the media is out to get us down, and the everyday teacher is the hero of her classroom. Those are cliché because they’re often true. But I think the answer is more complicated. I think the media should back down and let teachers have room and time to grow. I think teachers should step up and tell more positive stories about what happens in the classroom. I think we should be more gracious and patient about what happens in education, one of the most precious and complicated systems in our nation.
I’m not sure if the documentarians of Waiting for Superman know of the song, but The Flaming Lips have a track called “Waitin’ for a Superman” (notably covered by Iron & Wine, which is where I first heard it). Regardless, it makes a strong point about what we should expect from our heroes.
Tell everybody, waitin’ for Superman
That they should try to hold on the best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift
The truth is, it’s not just going to be Superman who saves our schools. It’s going to be Superman and Batman and Catwoman and the Hulk and the president and the businessman and the teacher and Bianca sitting in that chair waiting for a brighter future.
 At least, I don’t think so. Feel free to disagree with me in your theme post this month.
Photo 1: parents and students wait for the results at the Harlem Success Academy lottery.
Photo 2: over 3,000 people gather for the lottery each year.