Waiting for Superman: a former public school music teacher’s take on the movie and where we go from here

Posted on October 29, 2010


Me in front of East Ward Elementary in September, celebrating their success


They say I gotta learn,

But nobody’s here to teach me

If they don’t understand it,

How can they reach me?

I guess they can’t. I guess they won’t.

I guess they front.

That’s how I know my life is outta luck, fool.

-Coolio, Gangsta’s Paradise




Before joining the artistic staff of the Colorado Children’s Chorale, I taught elementary music at a Title 1 school in Killeen, Texas for about three years. East Ward Elementary School was the school’s name, and poverty, very low test scores and maintaining a terrible reputation as the worst school in town was our game.

After I had been offered the music teacher job and I accepted it in December of 2004, I was invited to peek my head into the music room during the school day. The music teacher at the time I took over was a long-term sub who said she knew nothing about music and told me that all she did was pass out the music textbooks, turn on a CD and tell the kids to sing along while she sat at her desk. Instead of singing, as you might imagine, they would literally run around the room and do whatever they wanted. They would chat, bang on instruments, and occasionally, they’d fight. No wonder the music teacher job here was a revolving door. This was like Dangerous Minds: Elementary Music Edition. And frankly, much of the rest of the school climate didn’t always seem much better.

For two months, I had to do some real soul-searching. I had a job I didn’t want in a neighborhood that made me sick. But I was about to get married, and I needed a paycheck. Indeed, my heart was not part of the solution to a struggling school, but part of the problem.

But then what happened after those two months, down in Texas they say, is that my Grinchy music teacher heart grew three sizes. In one day.

One day, I started to be able to empathize with the kids and their personal situations. I started to see that so much of these kid’s issues were not their fault; that they desperately needed me not just to teach them but to teach them well; I needed to engage them with music, integrity, and love. They needed someone who who could find a way to channel their tremendous musical gifts into something beautiful, meaningful and useful. And when that all clicked for me on that One Day, I told myself that I wanted to dedicate my life to teaching elementary music to the poorest kids in Killeen, Texas.

After that, it wasn’t long before they fell in love with me, and I, more than they will ever know or understand, fell desperately in love with them. They had been waiting for a musical Superman, and I had come to their rescue.

But in 2008, in the middle of our big push to achieve the impossible (an exemplary rating on state tests), and just as the music program was about to really blast off, I left. It was the most gut-wrenching decision of my life, and while I was really excited about a new opportunity, a large part of me felt horribly guilty and selfish for leaving the kids (and the staff). I had finally earned their trust and convinced them to care about music after years of less-than-sufficient experiences with music teachers and music class, and I rewarded their trust by ditching them when they least expected it.

I have never cried more or cried harder than I did as I drove to the homes of some of my students to say good-bye to them and their families that summer. But to this day I follow them from afar through colleagues, their parents, and even occasionally the kids themselves. And last year, after 4 years of teachers, students and administrators believing in each other and pushing themselves to their limits, East Ward Elementary school- a public school in Killeen’s sketchiest and poorest neighborhood, a school that had recently been placed on some kind of academic probation, received an Exemplary rating from the state of Texas.

We always knew. Now the world does, too. We. Are. Exemplary.

The movie “Waiting for Superman” is, I think, a very fair and reasonable critique of the education system. It highlighted some especially disheartening statistics while lauding some exceptional leaders in different reform movements who are trying to lead by example. For those of us who are currently in education, have been in education in the past or follow public education issues, I don’t think the movie told you much that you didn’t already know. But I can imagine that it must have been quite shocking and maybe even disturbing for people who had never heard or seen the sorts of things that the movie tries to bring to light.

By following a handful of kids and families in their quest to put themselves in the best position possible to get the best education possible, the film makes the stories of their predicaments intensely personal. “Waiting for Superman” illuminates a world and a problem that most Americans will never see or experience first-hand. I don’t consider myself better than anyone else for having experienced this world first-hand while others haven’t (as I admitted earlier, I learned about it against my will), but I think it’s fair to say that the closest most people will get to this situation is probably this movie, so it was essential to make the issues personal if the director wanted people to care about what he had to say.

While this movie has important things to say that all Americans should care about, between the movie and the necessary reforms is reality. And the reality- as any teacher or administrator will tell you- is that right now teachers and administrators have to work to improve schools and student achievement within the current system. So from here forward, most of us shouldn’t be asking ourselves how the powers that be should reform education, but rather, what do we do in the meantime to increase student achievement until meaningful reforms can be made?

“Waiting For Superman” lauds the sorts of things that are being done in Knowledge Is Power Program-type schools around the country (or KIPP). And I, too, applaud KIPP’s efforts and tremendous successes. But even as someone who almost applied for an open music position at a KIPP school a few years ago, I would ask that you consider a few things before you decide that the KIPP model is the way to go.

In my opinion, the movie didn’t do enough to emphasize just how much extra time those kids that attend KIPP schools spend in the classroom. The movie mentions something about KIPP kids getting as much as three times as much classroom time for some content areas when compared to what public schools kids get, but the way it came across to me both times I saw the movie, the film makes it sound like the KIPP schools just manage their classroom time better than the public schools do. That may or may not be true from school to school, but what is definitely true is that at KIPP schools, the kids simply have more time in the classroom. LOTS more. Those kids go to school in the summertime. On certain Saturdays. And their school day is longer. The movie mentions this, but it’s almost in passing. I’m not trying to take anything away from the praiseworthy work the KIPP schools do in difficult circumstances, but of course their scores are going to be better than public school scores. Give public school teachers that much more time with their students and I’m pretty sure their scores would improve dramatically, too. Maybe not in the so-called “dropout factories” that the movie rips on, but I would bet my life savings that it would be enough to put America back on top in the world education rankings.

But is this really the answer we want? Fixing the school problem by giving the kids MORE school? Aren’t a lot of kids already “spread too thin,” as we say? Already drowning in homework and extracurricular activities to the point where their parents routinely make the difficult but ultimately cart-before-the-horse decision to place schoolwork ahead of their God/fellowship or sports ahead of family time, as if nothing else in life could be more important than bowing at the altar of Achievement? You really want kids in school more hours per week than most adults spend in their full-time jobs?? Really???

And what about the teachers? They may be “off the clock” at 3:00 or 4:00 but many are spending countless extra hours grading papers, planning lessons, or doing any number of other school-related things. Granted they have summers off, but you want them to increase their workload during the school year to something more than what it already is? Child, please. More and more school as standards get higher and higher can’t be the best solution that our American ingenuity and innovative spirit can muster.

I refuse to believe that increasing the school day is the only way to improve. In fact, I know it’s not the only way we can improve. There are better, more efficient, more creative and less expensive ways to improve our student achievement. And in keeping with the Superman theme, I’d like to share my favorite one with you. Feel free to listen while you read. In fact, I recommend it.

The Working On the Work (WOW) Framework, Dr. Phil Schlechty

On the doomed Planet Earth, a wise man was launched into education reform via THE Ohio State University. Raised by (I assume) two people I don’t know, he grew up to be one of American education’s greatest heroes: a true “Superman.”

Dr. Phil Schlechty is, in my book, among the biggest education reform Supermen we have in America. While many educators are busy complaining about the outside forces that make educating children challenging in the 21st century (which is pretty much tantamount to wearing a necklace made of kryptonite), Dr. Schlechty gently reminds us that too many teachers conveniently forget that they still control the single-most important factor in improving student achievement: the quality of the schoolwork that they provide their students with. Quality schoolwork that students find authentically engaging is what allows students to academically leap tall buildings in a single bound. Charismatic teachers are great. Increased classroom time is fine. But ultimately improving student achievement isn’t about a SuperMAN or a SuperWOMAN. It’s about SuperWORK. And before I was introduced to Dr. Schlechty, I didn’t  understand that.

Dr. Schlechty’s brilliant framework gives educators a disciplined, focused way of assessing both the quality of the work they provide students and the student’s attitudes towards the work they are being asked to do. It also provides educators with a pseudo-checklist of ingredients for lessons; some of which are essential, others which are ingredients of choice that can be mixed and matched to increase student engagement based on what works well for a particular student or group of students. The WOW framework can work well in the current educational system but requires educators to make some pretty dramatic paradigm shifts in how they think about their own jobs and about themselves (teachers as leaders and inventors of authentically engaging work as opposed to the traditional view of teachers as clinicians, presenters of information or performers, etc.).  “Working on the Work”  had a huge impact on the way that we designed student work at East Ward, and I know that it is being implemented in other schools, school districts and even churches around the country with outstanding results.

Many teachers are skeptical of Dr. Schlechty’s ideas because…well…in my opinion, because they’re lazy, and because they believe that their older, more romantic paradigm of what teachers were and what schools used to be is superior to current realities or current ideas about what teachers and schools should or could be. To those who feel this way, I ask you: if you’re Superman…and Lois Lane dies…do you move on? Or do you spend the rest of your life wishing she were still here? You’ve got x-ray vision, for crying out loud. You BETTER move on to someone new. Use your gifts to make some woman happy.

I believe that it is possible to support and sustain educational innovation within the current system, whether the reformers are faster than a speeding bullet or not. I believe that public education can play a roll in truth, justice, and the American way, and that it can do so in a way that is more powerful than a locomotive. And I believe that someday, we can see…up in the sky….

not a bird…

not a plane…

but America’s public education’s test scores soaring over the rest of the world once again.

And I ain’t frontin’.

It’s so dark, but I see sparks, if we don’t snuff them out.
We gotta let them flame, let them speak their name.
Let them reach up to the clouds.
Can’t eat if we don’t feed them.
Can’t read if we don’t teach them.
There’s no light if we just hide them.
Don’t just let them die.

Let them shine.
Let them shine on.

-John Legend

Until next Wednesday, you stay classy, Planet Earth. And read Dr. Phil Schlechty’s “Shaking Up the Schoolhouse” if you get a chance. It’s brilliant.

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