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