Waiting for Superstudents?

I’ll admit it: I had to struggle to watch the documentary film Waiting for “Superman” with an open mind.

I’ve had the privilege of working with many dedicated and intelligent educators, and if the systemic challenges of public education could be solved in a 90-minute film, the solutions would already have been found. Others have already picked holes in the arguments of the movie, so I am not going down that road.

What the movie did offer me was a snapshot of a group of educators who believe that all students can achieve at a high level. Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the teachers at the schools featured in the film came across as having a fundamental belief in their students’ capacities. As a result of this belief, they are willing to make changes to their practice in order to enable student success.

I found myself inspired by these educators—not because they want more charter schools or fundamentally changed unions, but because they are willing to look at their own practice rather than blaming students.

The makers of the movie (or at least the group that maintains the movie’s official website) see the Common Core as a solution to inequity in public education. If every student is taught the same rigorous curriculum, every student will have a chance. That’s a step in the right direction—but if teachers don’t believe that their students are capable of learning the objectives articulated in the Common Core, students will not succeed. If I don’t believe students will succeed anyway, why bother changing my professional practices—ones with which I am completely comfortable—in order to integrate the Mathematical Practice Standards of the Common Core?

I have never met an educator who didn’t care about kids. When we believe in a student’s capacity, great things happen because we are willing to make difficult changes to make them happen. The film gives great examples from charter schools, but other public schools (with the support of teachers’ unions) have similar stories of inspiration.

The education community is spending a great deal of time and money developing necessary standards, assessments, and instructional materials to support student achievement. But all of the time and money in the world can’t buy faith in our students—and without it, it seems the rest is wasted.

4 thoughts on “Waiting for Superstudents?”

  1. I have taught teenage special education students with mild to moderate disabilities for over 7 years. My kids can be ED or SLD. They can exhibit defiant behaviors, and some are diagnosed bipolar, ADD, ADHD or ODD. Some are fetal alcohol or drug babies. Some have been sexually, physically or mentally abused. Many have a number of these issues stacked upon them. A large number have been removed from their homes and have probation officers. All but a few are severely behind academically. At times, what they do not know when they enter my classroom shocks me. The spectrum of behaviors they exhibit varies wildly, and there are days when I feel a success just getting through half my lesson plan. Students come stoned. Students have a hard time maintaining focus. Students get frustrated and swear, or shut down, or try to argue, or walk out

    I have to be honest, I have not seen the movie.

    I do work hard to try and do the best for them I can with what I’ve got, and have spent my own money when my class was lacking. I owe my students my best. I never lose my cool, never swear, never talk down, don’t get into power struggles, and maintain high behavioral and academic standards. I let them know I expect them to do what I ask, but I am willing to help them do it. I speak to them as I would have wanted my teachers to speak to me; with respect, honesty, and intelligence. This, apparently, is unusual in many of my peers. Amazingly, special educational students in Non Public schools often get the short end of the stick when it comes to educators and staff.

    The results of my efforts? Drastically fewer behavioral issues in my class. Oh, they may grumble about my assignments, and they may not do so well. Then again, I hear them telling each other, “she’s one of the few TEACHERS out there.” I’m not patting my back-it makes me so incredibly sad that I am somehow a minority, because, really, it isn’t hard. Despite their issues, their outbursts, their drugs and their academic laxness, they are wonderful, interesting people.

    HOWEVER, I would be lying if I did not say I also understand my student’s limitations. I have to be realistic about that-otherwise, I would fall into the trap of those who can’t understand why “these bad children don’t want to learn.” These kids have more going on in their lives than I could possibly fathom or want to experience. “Wanting” to learn is not always the issue. Those who speedily approach adulthood and realize just how far behind they are always exhibit the “Exceptional Student Terror and Meltdown” It’s frightening to realize how much one has missed. An 18 year old with less than a hundred credits feels the future is bleak indeed, and often it is then they careen out of control and off the radar.

    These are the children we need to reach out to, somehow. Yes, they have issues and sometimes criminal pasts. No, they will probably never make it to Harvard, or community college. They can, however, become a very useful part of society. A college degree doth not always a benefit to society make. We MUST keep trying our hardest to give them all we can. If they make poor choices, if we lose some-that’s no excuse to stop trying. For every 10 kids lost, there is one who will become important in many people’s lives. I honestly believe that.

    We must try our best.

    These are our children.

    1. Diana D makes a good point. The students she works with are already at the back of the pack and by putting in just a little more effort, she can make the difference between someone who becomes a drain on society or someone who makes at least a modest contribution to society. Everyone else has given up on these kids. When someone actually tries to help them, they respond. This is an arena where simply keeping them out of jail is a triumph.

  2. Special education teachers (and students, for that matter) are asked to not only help students overcome significant life obstacles, but achieve academically. Education policy has always struggled to accommodate special needs students. I would love to see someone try to solve the challenges of special education in a 90 minute film. I am curious to see how special education students are accommodated (if at all) when NCLB comes up for renewal in the next Congress.

    Diana’s response shows the same commitment and inspiration I found in the film. Rather than blame students for what they cannot or will not do, she adjusts her practice to find the giftedness in each of her students. The $64 question policy makers are trying to answer is how do we help all teachers bring that hope and commitment into the classroom?

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