When the lights come up on Waiting for Superman, here’s what teachers need

  1. Waiting for Superman hits theaters in several major cities this week before its wide release next month. Moviegoers everywhere will be transfixed by the emotional journeys of five families seeking a great education for their vulnerable kids. I saw the film twice this summer— opportunities I received because I teach at the SEED Public Charter School, one of the schools celebrated in the film.

The five students followed by Waiting for Superman all hope to get into charter schools, which admit by lottery. Not every kid gets what he or she wants; it’s heartbreaking.

 

 

 

 

 

When the lights come up, I think a lot of people will be flooded with feeling, but not sure how to take action. The end credits encourage viewers to sign up for a text message feed. The film also strongly insinuates that the public education system is utterly broken and the solutions are found in bolting the system to privately-run, publicly funded, non-unionized charter schools.

Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim, holds up my school, SEED, as an exemplar of opportunity and success for educating at-risk youth, but really only portrays it through the admissions process. Teachers and classrooms aren’t spotlighted.

SEED, a tuition-free college-prep, five-day-a-week boarding school, located in Southeast D.C., is an outstanding example of what charter schools are meant for; it’s an innovative alternative to a traditional public school and a place for responsibly experimenting with new models of wrap-around services. It currently serves around 325 students in Washington, D.C. and there’s a new SEED School in Baltimore that is several years away from growing to its full scale.

I love my job teaching English at SEED, and I receive the space and support to excel at it.  So what makes it work? Many of the most important parts are replicable en masse in the public system:

Teachers are accountable without feeling terrorized.

My principal, assistant principal, and instructional coach observe my class, both formally and informally, multiple times throughout the year. They read my lesson plans every week. They monitor trends on my interim assessment data. They talk to my students and my students’ families. They are engaging, highly competent people with high expectations and backgrounds in the classroom. No SEED teacher ever feels that there is one test or one data point that could potentially destroy our careers

Teachers feel ownership over our teaching.

If I can justify what the standards-based educational value of what I’m planning, my principal trusts me to do it. No scripted lesson plans. Order class sets of contemporary novels for literature units? Done. Help me set up partnerships with external organizations? Done with enthusiasm. (Through the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program, visiting authors come to my classes. Through the Shakespeare Theatre Company, my students study and perform a Shakespeare play under the tutelage of pros.) The opportunity to conceive and then actually follow through on bringing exciting ideas to life energizes me throughout the long haul of the school year.

The school helps us to become better teachers each year.

Last year, SEED— in partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality— offered the Take One! program for free to any interested teacher. Take One! is a warm-up for applying for National Board Certification, a truly rigorous and craft-elevating endeavor. I’m currently working towards full certification (which costs $2,500) and the school is happily paying for it. They view it as an investment.

Two summers ago I attended a weeklong professional development workshop for new AP Literature teachers at Goucher College. It helped my practice tremendously—my students’ AP exam scores increased 36% the year after I took the workshop. It also cost about $1,100 dollars, which the school covered. Most SEED teachers have similar stories about transformational professional development, almost always subsidized by SEED.

My supervisors, colleagues and I are on the same team, and we need each other to succeed.

There’s a lot that many in the public system can learn from how SEED operates— but that doesn’t mean that SEED or other charters ought to supplant the entire system serving 50 million students.

Public schools badly need improvement. But to me, that doesn’t mean damning them to oblivion or running for the hills of privatization, away from the possibility of improving the existing infrastructure. Some charter schools — not all, many are disasters — can offer useful practices to share.

Waiting for Superman says that SEED has answers. I’ve listed here several on-the-ground good ones that policy makers and public school administrators ought to heed.