“Waiting for Superman” was a hard film to watch. In part because some of the cartoon interludes were irritating (who still thinks that teaching is about teachers pouring information into the heads of receptive, empty kid brains?), in part because it made me question my commitment to non-charter public schools (I don’t blame parents for wanting a better option, and I have to admit that teacher tenure without demonstrated classroom excellence seems insane to me), and in part because there is little that is as heartbreaking as watching a child’s educational (thus, life) opportunity determined by a lottery (unless that child is your own).
But mostly, a flood of grief washed over me as I watched. I taught for four years at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland Unified after graduating form college. I wasn’t a terrible teacher, but I wasn’t a great one, either. I tried harder than I ever had at anything in my whole life, but when the tests rolled around, my kids scored about the same as the teacher down the hall, who spent the entire day yelling at her students about how stupid they were. Sure, my kids liked me a good deal better than her, but that didn’t help me sleep at night. That didn’t mitigate the fact that they needed great, not ok teaching or that they needed a seamless classroom manager, not me, who caught so little of the rule-breaking that went on. The fact that many of them wanted to stay with me at lunch or after school didn’t stop me from reading with intense feelings of shame about my fellow Teach for America teachers who were so fantastic that they were profiled in newspaper articles or district and TFA publications. I couldn’t figure out how to be an excellent educator, no matter how many classes I took, no matter how many trainings I went to, no matter how many books I read, the pieces just didn’t fit together for me.
I failed kids who desperately needed me to be magnificent.
I have spent the six years since I left teaching trying to make sense of why I failed when my peers succeeded. Part of it was inexperience, perhaps, part of it was my inability to multitask well or be efficient in much of anything. Part of it, I am sure, was about being a white lady from the suburbs who didn’t really understand how my privileged identities would and did play out in the classroom.
Watching “Waiting for Superman,” I was reminded how critical great teaching is and how damaging not great teaching is (“A great teacher covers as much as 150% of required standards while bad teachers cover as little as 40%” — I was always behind the standards timeline). Kids with great teachers gain ground when they’ve fallen behind, and kids with mediocre or bad teachers fall farther and farther behind. I just can’t shake my knowledge of where I fall on the continuum of great to bad teachers, and it feels really crappy.
I felt as small and ineffective as ever. I cried for a long, long while. I am still forgiving myself for not doing better by the 240 or so students who I taught in my four years as a teacher. I loved each of them dearly, and did my best, and I know it wasn’t enough.
Note: I do recognize the self-centeredness in this piece. I watched this movie that is supposed to motivate me to work for educational equity, but I ended up triggered and absorbed in MY memories, MY experience, MY devastation, while not getting into the muck of the dire situation of my former students who were taught poorly more than they were taught well. I am looking for ways to get re-involved in the educational equity movement, and I must continue to process my teaching experience with honesty and compassion, so I can be of best service to the activism.