Sunday, September 15, 2013

Watching "Teach"

I set aside two hours on Friday evening, September 6 to watch the CBS movie "Teach."  (I wonder if anyone besides a teacher watched this mea culpa by Davis Guggenheim, atonement for his teacher-bashing "Waiting for Superman"?)

It was as much a romantic whitewash of the teaching profession as Waiting for Superman was a scorched-earth review of public schooling. (Just look at the image that accompanies that movie -- a child at a desk in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.)

But, hey, if you're trying to attract young people to the profession, you certainly don't want to focus on the all night paper-grading marathons, the pointless professional development, the hours spent collecting data to prove your worth, the flat nature of the career, or the paltry pay that means many teachers can't afford to live where they teach or send their own children to university.

But for selling the "feel good" aspect of teaching, it was a hit.  I felt good.  But I already love my job and think teachers are the greatest human beings on the planet.

I also LOVED the commercials where comedians come back from the future to tell a young person that they will "lead a group of small aliens into a better future."  Fun.  I hope it makes some of our young people consider the career.

For those who did not see it--and I suspect there are more of those than not--the movie followed four teachers through a year.  All four received some collaborative help in improving their teaching.  All four "saved" at least one student before the end of the year.

Happy ending.

Also, at commercial breaks famous people came and sat at a student desk in a generic hallway and personally thanked a teacher for changing them.  And Queen Latifah also made a pitch for teachers. Her mom is/was one.  Subtext for teacher wannabes:  You, too, can have a famous person thanking you for your thankless task one day.  (Another message I despise: why bother giving if there's nothing in it for you?)

I felt pretty good about my job after the movie, and yet....something has nagged at me for weeks about what I saw.

And it wasn't the fact that teachers are being sold as superheroes again. That was clear the first time through.  Teacher as superhero is an unsustainable, if not impossible, reform idea.  We can't build an entire profession on the idea that selfless giving--to the exclusion of your own health and wellbeing--is the only way to rescue kids.

And it wasn't the accepted premise throughout the movie that student test scores are a true measure of what a child has learned. From the beginning there was no counter to the idea that high-scoring kids will be successful in our crazy, ever evolving world.

Both the idea that teachers must be superheroes and that test scores are unassailable were presented as truths.  I agree with neither of them.  There is little evidence that those who are strong academically will be successful later.  Bad premise.

However, what had me considering and reconsidering the movie over the following days were the faces of the students we followed. I was particularly affected by the little girl in Matt Johnson's fourth grade and the struggling boy in Shelby Harris' 7th grade math class. When the camera rested on them there was so much pain, loss, and confusion in their faces that I found it hard to watch.

Throughout the movie these students were referred to as "behind" and "below grade level."  These children had been labeled failures and losers from the very beginning of their school careers (until they met the superhero).  And they knew it.

Even the Algebra student, who had completely disengaged from schooling at the beginning of the year by exhibiting behaviors that any classroom teacher has seen time and again--putting his head down, answering with a dismissive "I don't know"--clearly saw himself as a loser.  The only real way to save face when you live with this label is to show the world that you do not care about the label.  It's all "stupid" when schooling reminds you time and again that you are a complete and utter failure.

It is very painful to watch.

It was the teacher's job to bring them up to grade level and thus save them from failure.  Get them to "catch up" with their peers.  Help them re-imagine themselves as a "winner" rather than a "loser."

This is what haunted me.  We still live inside the factory-model that forces kids through an unyielding  "system" attempting to stamp out lookalike products.   The system presumes that all children progress at the same rate.  It presumes that we all enter with the same experiences, grey matter, and motivation. It presumes that we can all learn at the same pace based on an arbitrary calendar made up in a vaulted office somewhere.  I noted that the Algebra teacher had better success with her students when she ignored the overcrowded curriculum map and slowed down to match the pace of the students who were trying to learn the material. That smacks of a problem with the map, the test, the curriculum, etc. -- not the kids.

When a child is placed in a grade level (arbitrarily based on a birth date) the inability to keep up is deemed the child's fault.  And this message is sent to the child time and again.  Hence the pained expressions on these children's faces throughout the two hours.  Hence my discomfort.

It is a poor system for bringing out the best in our children.  One that should be ditched.

As for the movie, outside of the *revolutionary* notion that teachers need time to collaborate, and a twenty-minute add for Kahn academy, (does Guggenheim own stock?)  it offered nothing new to the education world.

I hope young people decide to become teachers, and I hope they bring with them a new age of learning that revolves around the student and not outsider's measuring sticks.

But Davis Guggenheim is not a visionary.  He's just a salesman who uses images to great advantage. And the product he's selling is both short-sighted and simplistic.