Thoughts on "Waiting for Superman"

      I just finished watching “Waiting for Superman” and decided I’d write a couple of my thoughts.  My first thought was “how did I ever survive growing up in the ghettos of Dunbar?” (note for my international readers, that’s a middle-class neighbourhood in Vancouver.  It’s a joke you see… because it’s not a bad neighbourhood, and as the more I explain the joke, the funnier it will get!)

      Actually one of my first thoughts was, how did I manage to avoid all those horrible teachers the film talks about?  I’m sure I had some teachers that weren’t spectacular and I was a very average student up until grade 10 when I decided to take things a little more seriously.  Actually, my Dad told me I couldn’t play any sports until I showed that I could maintain a “B” average.  I went from a lifetime “C” student to “B” student in a month.  Did my teachers all of a sudden get better?
    I have a thought here but I’m having trouble deciding how to express it…  I guess it’s that while I certainly agree with the thesis of the film that great teachers can make a difference, students also need to be self-motivated.  I remember lots of classes where I would walk out of the class (especially math, sometimes physics) and have no clue what we just did for an hour but I’d go home, read the examples in the textbook and do the problem sets, and eventually after some serious mental anguish I’d get it.  Of course sometimes I wouldn’t be able to do it and I’d call a classmate for help but more often than not I’d struggle with it until I figured it out.  So, part of what I’m trying to say is that while it’s fine and dandy to point the finger at teachers, learning takes effort.  The teacher cannot learn for you.  
     STOP! I just had a revelation:  I’m old.  Ya know how I know?  Cuz in this next paragraph I’m going to bemoan “kids these days”.  Seriously, kids these days want everything to come easy.  Everything is too hard.  Boohoo.  It seems everywhere I look, this is the attitude of the times.  Can I say the zeitgeist of the times?  I like that phrase and don’t get to use it often enough…It seems the kids want all the success and wealth with none of the sacrifice and hard work.  They only want to do what they like to do when they want to do it.  Ok, I know it’s not every kid but I seem to encounter this attitude a lot.
     This kind of leads to my next point about the movie which is they don’t ask what are the 20 something other countries’ education systems that are out-competing the US doing differently?  Well, as someone who has taught high school kids in Japan I can tell you that the difference does not lie in the quality of the teaching.  In fact, given my experience teaching in Japan, (and I’m sure anyone else who’s taught in Japan can back me up on this) if we extend the “it’s the teachers’ fault hypothesis” to Japan I’d say it’s a freakin’ miracle Japanese kids can tie their shoelaces.  Oh! Little Johnny can’t learn because his teacher doesn’t make learning FUN! He doesn’t encourage him enough!  Really!?  Try sitting in a Japanese high school class.  Johnny’s class will seem like a field trip to Disneyland with all the candy he can eat with his own cheer-leading squad (Mmm…cheerleading squad……)  
      You know why the other countries are out-perfoming US students? As a world renowned expert I will tell you:  1.  The students do their freakin’ homework;  2.  Those societies still show some modicum of respect for teachers so when a teacher disciplines a child, the parent backs up the teacher not the student; 3.  It’s not “cool” to be a failure and/or ignorant in those countries;  4.  The culture values education (unlike the US where science is chased out of the classrooms in place of religious superstition) 5.  Again, the teachers know that the parents back them 100% so if a kid is being disrespectful/not doing their work the teacher can enforce discipline rather than what happens here, i.e. the parent thinks their kid is perfect and how dare the teacher be “mean” to their child.  6.  The kids are expected to work hard and do well.  7.  The teacher is not expected to be a cheerleader for the kids, praising them for every minor thing they do well.  Here’s a wacky idea…you’re supposed to do your homework and do well in school–that’s the norm!  Why should we praise people for achieving the norm?
    Despite all the reasons why these other countries are out-performing the US, US culture is not going to become like Japan’s.  The film makers are correct to say changes need to be made in how education is carried out in the US, especially in the inner cities.  We’re going to have to accept that maybe the teachers will have to act as cheerleaders and will have to make leaning “fun”.  The fact of the matter is that what works in one culture might not work in another and that current educational policies aren’t working.   We (or just me, I’m fine with that) can blame the kids until we’re blue in the face but it’s actually the adults that failed them long ago.   …the children! save the children! (I probably shouldn’t make light of these things but how can I pass up an opportunity to use a cliche)
     One important idea that emerged from the film was that teachers’ unions are a major part of the problem.  This relates back to how I started this post, wondering how it is that I magically by passed all the “lemon” teachers.  It could be that in Canada the education system and socio-economic circumstances are quite different, or at least they are at the 1 elementary and 3 high schools I went to.  I find it hard to believe that the amount of crappy teachers out there is so great as to so greatly negatively effect the level of education.  Were there no crappy teachers in the US in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when the US was leading the world in education?  
     Also, the amount of education required for someone to be a teacher now is significantly greater than what it was back in the golden age of US education.  Tonnes of research has been carried out on effective methods, which teachers learn as part of teacher training.  So, how can poor teaching be such a problem if teacher now has at least 2 extra years of education specific to teaching methods?  It just doesn’t add up.  The film hinted at one possible explanation, which was that the US did so well comparatively because the other nations didn’t have education systems to speak of.  Ok, that would make sense but when you compare 1960s US metrics to current US metrics,  the 1960 students performed much better.  Did all the extra teacher training lead to crappier teaching?  Unlikely.
    Getting back to the crappy teacher hypothesis, I felt that there was a compelling argument for at least reducing the facility with which teachers attain tenure and for allowing better performers to be better paid.  To be sure there are problems with changing these things but I think some flexibility on the part of the teachers union might be helpful–if a teacher has been proven to suck definitively he should be fired just like in any other job.  
     Regarding granting tenure to teachers after only 2 years, when compared to what university professors have to go through it seems a bit easy.  A university professor must endure on average 10 years of post secondary education, writing, researching, and publishing articles (for free), and working on committees (for free).  At the end of it all there is not guarantee of tenure.  I do however feel that tenure is important because if someone is going to invest 5 or 6 years of their life getting an education for a career path that pays very little, they deserve a little security.   How else are we going to attract any talent?  Also, it is very easy to imagine a situation in the US and A where a good biology teacher in the South wants to teach evolution but can’t because he knows he’ll get chased out of town with torches and pitchforks.  
     Furthermore, there will be complications with performance based pay because the demographics of your school have a significant effect on student abilities/behavioural problems/parent support/etc…  Nevertheless, I don’t think these problems are irresolvable and remember we are doing it for the children! How can you argue with that?
     All this bickering of educational policy and methodology…tsk tsk.   The solution is sooooooo simple.  Haven’t you read “The Power of Now” or “The Secret”?  These kids are failing because they are not willing the universe hard enough to give them “A”s.  Clearly, they and their parents just don’t want it badly enough.  It’s all their fault.  Those silly inner city kids.  If they just wanted it badly enough the universe would conspire to give them A’s.  To quote Hansel, “it’s so simple”.

Anyway, I’d love to hear what other people think about this…

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on "Waiting for Superman"

  1. Everyone has a uniquely distinct set of values/priorities that they either consciously or unconsciously live by. If you can't see that the lesson being taught in class matches your highest values, you will have attention deficit problems. If it matches your highest priorities, you will have attention surplus. That's why you can get an A in Biology, and an F in English at the same time. The best teachers are able to know their students so well that they can communicate the lesson in terms of the priorities of the students and make it relate to them. In your reference to the \”inner city\”, where a great deal of the kids priorities can be simple survival of poverty and conflict– learning math and English won't be a high enough value unless the child can see that learning these things will get him social status, credibility, and earn him more money than participating in the \”socially unacceptable\” things a typical inner city kid might participate in. Everyone behaves and acts in ways that will get them more rewards and advantages. We can judge and label and say it's a tragedy, we can poke fun of spiritual teachings that say that our innermost dominant thoughts become our reality– but the truth is– Unless these kids can be shown that an education is a means of getting their actual goals met, they will never be motivated to learn. They're already living by the principles of manifesting what's most often on their minds.There's countless examples of kids overcoming their inner city background and achieving amazing things– they found a way.The only reason why you are deciding to get your PHD now is not because it's what's socially acceptable– it's because of an inner calling or dream you're following now. Why now in your mid 30's and not before? Because before, you saw more pains than pleasures, more disadvantages than advantages, more risk than reward in going back to school. Whether it was because you wanted to travel, or you didn't want to be impoverished—you weren't willing to endure the pains it would take to attain the degree back then. Now you see more reward over risk, more advantages than disadvantages in going back to school– and that motivation is driven because you perceive that your highest values/priorities/desires are being met by having a degree. You are either conscious of it or unconscious. Along the way, you will have either good teachers or bad teachers. Either way, the books are there, and as you pointed out– it's not the teacher's responsibility– it's yours. The value of a good teacher– if he shows you how a particular lesson will get your ultimate needs met– you'll ace it. There are a few teachers like that– but if they are truly that smart– they've figured out how to communicate their lessons in the values of other in a much grander scale— they're out of the school system making the big dollars (because that's what they value). They become entrepeneurs lecturing on the circuit selling their books. (I hope you get to that point some day when you figure out how to make your lessons simple and applicable to the masses).I agree with you 100% that it's not the teacher's \”fault\”. Good teachers, bad teachers, good doctors, bad doctors, good students, bad students. At the end of the day– if you have a purpose/mission and it's strong enough, you'll do whatever it takes, travel whatever distance and pay whatever price in the pursuit of it.


  2. Great comment Nima, thank you. For the most part I agree with you but I disagree with one implicit assumption. Your basic assumption is that people make rational choices most of the time but this is demonstrably false. Why do some people chronically poor dietary choices? Put off working out? Procrastinate on writing an essay? I could write a book on my own poor choices I knowingly made. Bringing the discussion back to education: if I know (and after a semester or two it will become apparent to any moderately self-reflective person) I have a natural weakness in math, for example, it is up to me to put in more effort/time and/or seek out help. I agree with you concerning inner city kids they have to overcome so much more just to make it into the school let alone pay attention and study. Clearly they are at a disadvantage from the beginning and in schools in these areas there need to be more resources helping kids with non-school problems so they can at least have a chance to focus on their school.If guess most comments are directed at mainstream kids who come from relatively stable homes and good neighborhoods. I think these kids have few legitimate excuses for poor performance and we should be taking a closer look at the culture of entitlement and praise for mediocrity that is emerging. Also, parents need to turn a critical eye on themselves and what values they are teaching their children as well as the education system.


  3. \”Rational\” is a value judgement. People who value health will make healthy choices in diet and exercise. People who put health as number 72 on their hierarchy of values won't eat fresh organic fruits and vegetables and sit on their ass. They would see more pain in a healthy lifestyle than pleasure. They would rationalize their choice using a different set of priorities than someone like you or me. Only by changing our values and beliefs will there be a shift in our behavior, without it, you always go back to old ways. \”Rational\” depends on the observer. Since our values and priorities come from those things we perceive as being missing, we can't really judge the choices of others. For example, when I was a kid, I would get headaches like a mofo, go to one doctor after another, one specialist after another– one prescription after another… Then, I go to a chiropractor, and my life literally changes after I receive my first chiropractic adjustment. No more headaches, increased energy, etc… I now have a new \”void\”: How the FUCK DID THIS GUY DO THAT? I want to change lives in the same way. Suddenly I have a purpose.Probably the same thing happened with you. You read some discourse on someone arguing the validity of a point (against \”altmed\” or \”woo\”) and breaking down an argument and dissecting it. You felt that you wanted that kind of critical thinking and to seek \”truth\” and learn how to do the same, and put an end to altmed the way the AMA tried to get rid of chiropractic. So you find it fulfilling to do so. \”Fulfillment\” = filling full the mind (ment) of that which we perceive is missing.Nobody procrastinates on what's truly important to them.Every choice you make is rational and right for you. You only will label them \”poor choices\” if you were injecting the values of another authority in your life. In truth, if you truly valued something, you wouldn't procrastinate on it.


  4. response from my fah-jah, a middle school teacher of over 20 years:Saw WFS last week and so enjoyed your take on it. You make many strongpoints that I agree with. The one that's saddest, because I experiencein my teaching, is your reference to parental attitudes, and how dareI be mean.In elementary schools, the least intelligent/rational parent cancontrol what or how I teach by complaining to admin. It's such amiserable state of affairs. There's an interesting generationalperspective on the experiences of my students' parents. That isthought to account for their overprotectiveness. Anne was at a pro-don this, and I'm sure she would be delighted to enlighten you more onthis topic.As far as weakness in your entry go; there's a glaring omission of thecliche \”the children are our future.\” Also, I must call you on yourbigoted view of parents in the southern U.S. and A. They would neverchase an evolutionist out of town with such antiquated implements.They employ automatic and semi-automatic guns, just like the rest ofthe citizenry. AND they use Facebook to organize.However, you redeem yourself with that last paragraph about The PowerOf Now and The Secret.Well done.I think you might be interested in a related part of the DVD calledFreakonomics. They research if you can motivate grade 10 students byoffering what they value most…money, limo rides…


  5. Also wanted to report another excellent point that was made by a friend of mine that has been a middle and high school teacher for over 12 years in both California and Japan.The charter school are not a random sample. The children that go to charter schools by definition have parents that place high value on their children's education thereby giving the children (and teachers) the necessary support for success. The charter schools are proof once again that educational success comes down to the attitudes of the home and social group, not a very small minority of weak teachers.


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