by Rhonda J. Summey, Ed.D.
Despite my better judgment, I went to see the movie Won’t Back Down starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. As an educator, it has always been a rule to never see a movie about education because I know the issues first-hand, and sometimes I resent outsiders’ guesswork. Won’t Back Down was no different. It was Boston Public for the big screen. There’s the bureaucracy, bad teachers, good teachers, the administration, labor unions, class size, standardized testing, “teaching to the test” and on and on. The movie did not seek to solve public education’s problems, but what the movie did do was add another sordid reality-television flavor to an already rotten reality television pot. The issues faced in American education cannot be likened to the exploits of the Kardashian clan.
We know public education has its issues, but now what? How long will we be Waiting for Superman? We know what’s wrong. Now, we need to get down to the business of fixing the issues. The real problem is where do we begin? After much discussion with my movie partner and numerous educators, the decision was made. Begin with PASSION.
Where has the passion for educating children gone? Nona Alberts, played by Viola Davis, has lost her passion. What happened? Any educator can tell you that they do not do the job for the money. In a rousing speech to gain teacher allies, Alberts further alludes to the fact that most folks do not go into the teaching profession to be rich or famous. There has not been one time when I’ve exited the school, and throngs of fans and paparazzi rushed forward to take my picture. Indeed, it is understood that the point is to nurture young people, not seek acclaim.
But teachers are human, and they are naturally discouraged when they see the fight is too big for them to handle or they become mired in the mud of bureaucracy. For how many years can teachers sit by and watch systems balance their budgets at the expense of their salaries? How long do we try to teach 38 students in a class, or buy our own supplies? In addition to all of that, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) still exists, and in some school systems, pay is tied to how well students perform on ill-conceived state assessments. Systems are able to take advantage of teachers because they know we do it for the children, in spite of the cards we’re dealt.
Teachers have not forgotten why they entered the profession, but I think policy makers have forgotten that the welfare of students is the top priority. Overworked, underpaid and stressed out teachers will not help the problem. Once policy makers truly embrace that the conflict is not about the money but the welfare of children, then maybe their attitudes will change.
Intelligent people—and that should include politicians and bureaucrats—work to prevent problems, not intervene once a crisis is created. Is the idea that if a teacher can teach 30 students, then she or he must be able to teach 35? Well, we see that she can successfully teach 35 students then how about 40? When the teacher can no longer provide adequate instruction, then it is intervention time. Following the viewing of this film, it would be nice if policy makers actually felt compelled to do something about the current state of public education. Being proactive goes a long way.
Teachers don’t want to lose their passion for the children, but they can only take so much.
Rhonda J. Summey, Ed.D. is an educator in the Prince Georges County School system. She holds education degrees from Northwestern University, Harvard University and George Washington University.