“What do YOU think about Waiting for Superman?” People know I am a teacher and they are curious. I tell them that I’ve seen it. Twice. And then I ask what they think, because I know they want to tell me and I want to know. This movie incites passion. Conservatives love it. Liberals love it. People, like Davis Guggenheim (the movie’s director), who drive by public schools to take their children to private school, love it. Charter school people love it. Even people who have nothing to do with schools love it. Maybe especially people who have nothing to do with schools love it. After all, they are off the hook. Broken neighborhoods filled with poverty? Not their problem. The schools did it. The movie says so.
Did I love it? Not so sure.
I first heard about the movie last year at a John Legend concert. Except it turned out not to be a concert. It was John Legend punctuating a long talk about charter schools with some of his music. He talked about a movie that would be coming out called Waiting for Superman. I looked around the Concert Hall. People seemed okay with this. I wasn’t.
I thought about this as I attended a free showing of the movie at the Westhampton Theater last Thursday. This screening was sponsored as part of a “Courageous Community Conversation” series organized by Leadership Metro Richmond and followed by a discussion that was hosted by the University of Richmond. I learned some things from the movie, but I learned more from the conversation that followed. The event was perfect lesson design. Information was presented in a way that was not slanted towards one culture or learning style. We were given time to process in small groups. We shared in a larger group. Time limits were honored and we stayed on track. We were then given time at a reception to interact with each other on a deeper level and play with new information. And guess what… there wasn’t a test at the end of it. I don’t know if I loved the movie, but I really liked the experience.
The movie was hard on teacher unions (we don’t have those in Virginia) and hard on tenure (we don’t have that either). And the movie was hard on teachers. The movie ends with Superman coming to save a school bus full of children.
But Superman is not coming. Saving the children on that school bus is our job. Now what?
School reform is not a spectator sport. The good teachers I know became teachers as an act of school reform. The people who make the real difference are the parents, teachers, volunteers, and administrators who have worked and sacrificed to be part of the solution. Day by day they renew their commitment through action to work to provide excellent education for every child — whoever they are, wherever they come from. Sometimes it is messy and complex work. But we are willing to stand in the complexity while we work out what to do. School reform is an inside job. Standing outside and pointing a finger is not reform.
Superman isn’t coming. We’re it. And we do have some superpowers. Fortunately, hope and love and imagination and knowledge are combustible superpowers, and it is amazing what we can accomplish together. Like Superman, we have to watch out for the Kryptonite. Remember that stuff? It was the one substance that could take away Superman’s strength. When he was around it, his powers and resolve seeped away and left him debilitated and helpless. Derision, disdain, and disrespect form Kryptonite that enervates teachers and school communities.
I am so lucky to teach in a school where teachers, parents, administrators, and volunteers really do work together: we celebrate success and we are honest about failure. We crowd out the Kryptonite most of the time. I learned a lot this week by talking to people that I don’t necessarily agree with. I could hear where they were coming from. And I’ve added “Courageous Community Conversation” to the list of valued superpowers. Superman isn’t coming… so we need to know, name, and value our superpowers. Are you in?