Working Teachers Don’t Need a Superman

Waiting for Superman, the latest education documentary offering the fix for failing schools, hyped by MTV, Oprah and Time magazine, will be released to select theaters today. Director Davis Guggenheim wants Waiting to do for education what his previous documentary An Inconvenient Truth, did for global warming: to “spread responsibility among ‘all the adults’ for pervasive problems in education.”

But good intentions don’t always pay off. Folks are already slicing the film, (see Rick Ayers in HuffPost, and Rachel Norton for SFGate), and with justification. Tracking five heart-wrenching stories of low-income students trying to win lotteries to get a coveted few spaces in the supposedly better charter schools (even though several studies [PDF], [PDF] have not conclusively determined whether charter schools, generally anti-union and semi-privatized, are better), Waiting frames teachers and teachers’ unions as the Axis of Evil, thwarting the growth of chubby-cheeked children at every turn. According to the film, teachers and their unions are greedy, lazy and stonewall the educational progress of the real reformers profiled in the film: Michelle Rhee from Washington, D.C.; David Levin and Mike Feinberg from the KIPP schools; and the uber-charismatic Geoffrey Canada, who started and runs the Harlem Children’s Zone. These are the heroes, the child savers, who will protect us from the villainous teachers lurking in every classroom.

The excellent teacher- and student-centered national resource Rethinking Schools has organized a boycott of the film, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has put together a website of resources to respond to the inaccuracies about teachers and unions in the film. AFT president Randi Weingarten, according to the Variety review of Waiting, is depicted in the film as a “foaming Satanic beast” and a “shrill opponent of change.”

The film never specifies what, exactly makes an effective teacher. Excellent working conditions? More than adequate compensation? Respect and professionalism? As John Merrow from PBS highlights, “almost all of the teachers who were on the screen when ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ were being talked about [but never defined] were young and white.”

Noticeably absent in the hype and the critiques of the film is that this campaign is made possible by the feminization of the field. Blaming teachers and teachers’ unions is blaming women. What is the barely submerged message in Waiting? Those girl-teachers just can’t do the job! Send some manly men in tights, capes and hedge funds to save the day.

Approximately 3,476,200 teachers (2008 statistics) are employed across the United States, and no-one is making a killing. The lowest 10 percent earned $30,970 to $34,280; the top 10 percent earned $75,190 to $80,970. These teachers are overwhelming women, in unions, and if they waited for superman they’d never get the job done. Check out this chart:

Teachers: Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity


Black or African-American


Hispanic or Latino

Preschool and kindergarten teachers

97.8 percent

14.2 percent

2.6 percent

10.3 percent

Elementary and middle school teacher





Secondary school teachers





Special education teachers





Teaching is still a feminized semi-profession, and this demographic fact has been part of the reason teaching is devalued: It’s women’s work.

For example the expansion of military programs in schools is just one contemporary example of old anxieties about the undue influence of the weaker sex in schools. Too many women in schools creates an absence of manly discipline!

If only it were that simple and we could dump the beautiful mess of education–50 percent graduation rates, Department of Defense-run public military schools, queer kids bashed in bathrooms, standardized tests ruling the day, Texans erasing the separation of church and state in textbooks–on the doorsteps of unions and teachers. Reality is always much more complex.

No teacher, even if she is a Nice White Lady or can leap buildings in a single bound, can cure poverty. Waiting for Superman is another mass media construction of teachers as lazy roadblocks to educational success, conveniently distracting us from a litany of other structural forces. What about the dire need for school funding reform in most states? The fiscal crisis that diverts billions of public dollars to war? The reality that our urban schools look and function a lot like prisons? What about the push to privatize and de-unionize the remaining vestiges of the public-sector workforce?

I am all for change. For justice. For stronger schools. For rethinking what passes as right and normal and good –from haircuts to school systems–but this process cannot be done in isolation. Constructing labor unions as the evil, and (girl) teachers as the dupes that need to be swept out of the way to make way for real educational reform, is a macho, dead-end discourse.

As Ella Baker, civil rights leader and educator, so rightly observed, strong people don’t need strong leaders. Smart female teachers are not waiting for Superman. They are already teaching and organizing for their students, and for education.

Photo from user davidChief through Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. I'm interested in seeing this film. I currently work in a private school (non-unionized), but I have student-taught in public schools and have witnessed some union operations throughout my own public school education. I must admit, though I am generally pro-union, after seeing my all-time favorite teacher be vilified over a megaphone during a teachers' strike she did not support, and subsequently leaving the district, I completely understand why teachers' unions get a bad name. Seeing someone so brilliant, thoughtful, and innovative in her teaching (with most likely more positive classroom results than many of her peers) be alienated makes me wonder why unions are considered to be "supportive" of teachers.

    I don't believe overall, however, that teachers' unions are terrible. I think instead that as a society, and unions as a part of that society, we need to abandon this notion that good, effective teaching is something "anyone" can do. I state it as the "anyone can do it" attitude because I feel unions are enforcing that notion, by not allowing many school districts to give raises/bonuses based on performances, and making it extremely difficult to fire or suspend teachers who are ineffective. By saying that teachers are all equal, despite performances, unions place teaching as a job consisting of of generic, automated tasks. This attitude is in turn perpetuated, both by teachers, parents, and administrators, and results in a subsequently ineffective method of learning – a method that says, "Memorize these facts, take tests, pass" and "forget context, forget analysis."

    Although I haven't seen the film, if it indeed places blame on "terrible" teachers, I think many people who educate know from their students that with a lack of encouragement, there is no desire to succeed. Strange that this basic tenet of education is forgotten when we discuss how to compensate teachers. And I don't necessarily mean monetary compensation, but the lessening control teachers have over what they can do in their classroom in terms of "teaching to the test" and having to get through X number of books each year, or X chapters of a math curriculum. It is stifling and DOES make teaching feel like glorified babysitting, with no creativity or chance to use one's own intellect to innovate.

    A fantastic book analyzing teachers and payment is "Teachers Have It Easy." It discusses unions somewhat, but for the most part is a pretty objective view as to why 46% of teachers leave the profession within five years. Something DOES need to change.

  2. Also, teachers suffer from a lack of respect overall, and specifically from their students. Where do students learn not to respect their teachers? Certainly not from the unions. Teachers need unions or they would only be making $10 an hour. Forcing kids to respect their teachers via security, police, isn't going to work either. I am not saying that lack of respect is the only problem.

    Kids have and use cell phones during class to make calls, to text messages, to play games, to surf the internet. Kis also have electroninc games. I think this is also a factor in the decline of education.

    Poor management. Corruption. Lack of funding. These are not teachers' fault.

    Also, a teacher's workload is way too high. The stress is enormous. They work their asses off. And the payoffs? They get blamed for the decline of education.

  3. Important notes alongside this article: there are ways of determining which teachers are better and which ones are worse: outcomes. No matter what profession you're in, you have at least two criteria: your conduct, and your outcomes. As long as your conduct is acceptable, you're seen as sort of a black box — if it's working, keep doing it. Now, I admit that in teaching, the conduct (aka the methodology) is very important, since you're serving kids, not creating products. However, nobody is suggesting that we stop the basic administration- and school-board-level oversight of teachers.

    What people like David Guggenheim are suggesting is that we've basically stopped considering the individual outcomes as criteria for employment as a teacher. As the previous commentor said, teaching is being seen as something "anyone can do." This is the source of all these problems: refusing to apply any system of standards or rewards to teachers is making it seem like their only job is to keep kids calm for most of the day.

    The film spends very little of its time directly vilifying teachers. It actively avoids this route, making it clear that just a few low-performing teachers can totally destroy a child's education. Yes, it does vilify the Teachers' Union, but honestly, I haven't seen a lot of argument to convince me that this POV is invalid. In Washington, DC, the city council proposed giving each individual teacher a CHOICE: you can accept higher pay for lower job security, or you can keep our old terms, where you're guaranteed tenure but don't get the rewards of having performance-based pay. And the teachers union didn't even let the proposal come to a vote. They didn't give the teachers any say at all in the matter.

    Most of the evidence I've seen so far is that the teacher's union is powerful enough that it's become cancerous. I wouldn't completely oppose its existence, but it seems that, like any excessive growth, it will no longer submit to compromises and controls. We have to find a way to rebalance the power structure to favor the kids, instead of the middle-men. Teachers will probably get a mixed bag of perks and consequences, but that's just what needs to happen.

  4. Do your homework. Waiting for Superman is nothing more than an infomercial for the corporate takeover of public education. More:

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