Waiting for Superman

Last night a friend of mine rented “Waiting for Superman” – a documentary about the state of education in the United States. We don’t live in the U.S. so it’s an interesting perspective for us as teachers to see another system. I know a bit about the American system, as I have a lot of extended family in various states (largely in the midwest), so some of the statistics didn’t exactly shock me. What shocked me was the lottery system for the charter schools and such. That was a big eye opener. As well as the idea of the “lemon dance” or “pass the trash” in which each year, principals and administration try and pass off their bad teachers to another school, in the hopes that maybe this year will be the year they get all “good” teachers.

A champion of education?

Now, speaking as a teacher, I don’t always agree with the way the system is set up – and I’m even now a part of it. I am not a fan of unions – I’ve sat at home twiddling my thumbs through 2 different school related strikes during my schooling. I think unions had a purpose when they first materialized, but now they’re a bit out-dated. There is a lot to be said for collective agreements and everything else that goes along with it but honestly? If you don’t like your job, quit – don’t walk out on strike. I have no doubt there are some very overworked and underpaid teachers out there, I will grant you that, but teaching is not a job you should go into for the money. Teaching is a job that you have to go into because you want to be there to make a different to the kids. If you can’t do that anymore, you need to get out.

Unfortunately, with the way the system is set up, it is damn near impossible to get rid of teachers who fail to meet the job expectations, as they have effectively been granted automatic tenure the minute they sign their first contract. This is unheard of in any other job! If you weren’t producing results in any other job, you would likely no longer have a job. Not so with teaching. As a result you end up with a lot of teachers who are in the system who don’t teach.

The other problem that is inherent in the system is the fact that the rougher schools and non-university prep level courses, are often taught by new teachers or teachers who can’t do it. If anything – those are the classes that need the experienced teachers! I grant you, there are some teachers who come into the system and they will do well in those classes because they want to be there and with those kids. I like to think I’m one of those teachers – I also know if I end up teaching in the Arts full time, my classes will be open level so I have to be prepared for that.

In my opinion – any one can teach a university prep class and anyone can teach in a “good” school. You know why? Because for the most part the kids will shut up, sit down and learn. These are kids who have the opportunities in life – they play sports, participate in the arts, go on trips with the family…the list goes on. (Granted, you will get spoiled little rich kids, but that’s not the point of this.)

Things I think all education systems should seriously look into are the following:

1. Increased emphasis on co-curricular and cross-curricular activities – field trips (especially nature related), athletics, the arts, showing the links between subjects. Students need to be able to experience the world around them – kids don’t have those opportunities anymore. Even since I was a kid times have changed – most kids don’t just hop on their bike and go down to the creek and play in the dirt.

2. Weed out the poor quality teachers who clog the system – There needs to be more oversight and evaluation. This to me doesn’t mean offer bonuses for high test scores or whatever – to me this means actually evaluate your teachers. Sit in on their classes and have a look at what they’re doing. Fix the system so that if a teacher is not performing they get the extra support but if that still isn’t working, actually terminate them. There’s enough new teachers being churned out by the universities at the moment it shouldn’t be that hard to fill those jobs. Honestly.

3. Smaller class sizes – When you get classes that are more than 20 kids it just becomes crowd control. If you are a high school teacher where I am, you teach 3 courses in a semester. Figure that the average class size is about 25 (often more). That’s 75 kids in a day that you see. Even if you got it down to 20 kids per class so it’s a total of 60 kids, that’s more manageable. More 1-on-1 time for students who need it, more opportunity to have class discussions where everyone participates, etc.

4. Show students all post-secondary options – The singular focus on university has long been a pet peeve of mine. I get it, I do. Unfortunately now you have all these people with 4 year university degrees that are essentially useless in the real world. You need a second degree on top of that and you end up putting yourself into serious debt. Show students the options for co-ops and internships, work study, college, apprenticeships, etc. Put them on a career path – but it doesn’t have to be the same one as everyone else. We have a huge shortage of skilled trades workers, that’s an area we need people in! Talk about it with your students.

5. Have high expectations – If you have high expectations for all your students, they’ll deliver. Kids know when you think they’re idiots – you suck at hiding it. If you push your students, they will step it up. This doesn’t mean stand over them and pester them until they hand in every assignment – show them that they’re capable, then they’ll follow through more.

6. Make the system more transparent – This should help to encourage parental involvement. The more involved the family is – especially at the younger ages, the more likely that student is to be successful, as they have a support system at home.

7. Cut the bullshit.

The last one is obviously a bit of a pipe dream, but still.

What do you think needs to change in education?

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About Miss Substitute Teacher

Working as a substitute teacher. Kids really do say the darnedest things!
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2 Responses to Waiting for Superman

  1. Tan says:

    I agree all of your statements except for your opinion on unions. I agree 100% that there are some horrible teachers taking up space in the system and that they should be terminated. I don’t support taking out unions because I have seen the union protect my family and coworkers. Yes, it comes at an inconvenience for the public when there is a strike but it’s also a terrible inconvenience to the families affected by the decisions/outcomes that would hurt them. Those families deserve some level of defense especially in a corporation loving society where the bottom line is often more important than the individual. I agree that tenure should not protect teachers who don’t prove themselves, who don’t take feedback to improve, and who purposefully try to take advantage of a system designed to protect hard working teachers. I have seen a fellow teacher who is amazing in the classroom forced to turn to the union for help when a parent sued the school over grades. This parent was later found to be emotionally unstable but in that time period, the teacher could have been ruined. Every statement and suggestion that you made otherwise had me nodding my head in absolute agreement. I even understand why you feel the way you do about unions because of your experience. It’s just not the way I feel… because of my experience. Thanks for a great piece!

    • I’ve found that unions can serve a purpose, but unfortunately they seem to have this insane amount of power in some cases and it’s mind boggling to me. I think there needs to be an overhaul in the way unions function in modern society. I just feel there needs to be changes made – as to what those changes may be, I’m unsure of specifics. I just know that I see problems with how they work at the moment in the way they seem to protect people who aren’t doing their job.

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