Sunday, October 17, 2010

Waiting for Wolverine

There is so much talk about the movie Waiting for Superman these days and the plight of education.  I think that the title gives an incredible bias to where the film is headed.  I have to admit that I have not seen it, and I am not sure that I plan to.  I chose Wolverine because he is a straight shooter and does not beat around the bush.  He is not a diplomat who tries to say all the right things and responds to criticisms.  He is a fun superhero, but one with a few obvious character flaws.  Superman is nearly perfect in every way, and one who allows himself to be publically chastized.  (This is just a quick interpretation based on my childhood preferences and not really a point that I feel like debating).

There are warts in the education system, anyone who denies that is fooling themselves.  There are systemic issues, monetary issues and performance issues.  This is not unique to education.  Similar documentaries could be made looking at the divorce courts and how some families are ruined because of the processes that are there.  How about we look at Fortune 500 companies who use overseas markets to reduce costs and are in markets with severe human rights violations occur?  Churches with sex abuse allegations? Doctors with malpractice lawsuits?  People have flaws, which means that there is no perfect system out there.

I think that, as educators, we need to get on the soapbox far more often than we do. There are so many outstanding educators out there.  Look at all of the professional learning networks that are being used via Twitter.  They are sharing, questionning, supporting, collaborating.  It is amazing.  This is all happening outside of the typical 9-3 hours that are associated with schools. This is happening during Christmas vacation, Spring Break and during the summer.  Teachers work hard to provide the best learning opportinuties possible for their students.  They carry the emotional burdens of some of the families and the struggles that kids are having.  They look to provide a safe haven for their students and their families that take them away from the abusive or catastrophic situations.  I believe that too many teachers and adminstrators are humble and do not want to have their picture in the local paper on a regular basis, unlike some of the politicians and institutes who believe in bashing education.  Their focus is where it should be, on the school and on the students.  We need to do a better job informing the public of what is happening within the walls of the schools.

There are comparissons being raised and discussed in this movie.  Let's start with an important aspect to consider, the film from what I have read in reviews, has a rather narrow focus.  Secondly, people also need to stop comparing apples to oranges.  Comparing different school systems is difficult at best.  There are circumstances that exist in each school, district, province (or state) and country.  How homogeneous is the neighbourhood, how big is the melting pot of culture around the school and in the community?  How many students are ESL, and how many different languages are spoken in their home?  How many families are struggling just to make ends meet? How many students are coming to school hungry or tired?  Does Finland have the same degree of multicultiralism, immigration, refugees or poverty that exist in our schools?  Do these other nations to which comparissons are made have the exact same social programs as we do?  Are there teachers paid an equivalent amount, givent the same amount of prep time, professional development and are they held in the same regard?  If you don't have an answer to these questions then perhaps you need to do more research before making the comparissons.

The Challenge we face when trying to come up with a one size fits all model is that what works 2 hours north of here might not work in my district.  What works well in a school 20 minutes may not work well in mine.  It is amazing at times when I have conversations with colleagues at all levels just how different our schools are, and this is sometimes with schools that are within a 5 minute drive.  We have a "Think Tank" in British Columbia, the Fraser Institute, that attempts to rank schools according to the provincially mandated Foundation Skills Assessments which are done in February at the grade 4 and 7 levels.  Schools can have similar test scores but the equation that they use can lower or raise it based on the estimated socio-economics of the neighbourhood. Simple factors that can influence the scores are:
1) some kids start the test and then we find out that they are going on vacation and will not be able to complete the test
2) A student who is quite capable struggles with the format or starts becoming anxious and it is deemed to not be worth it for the kid to continue so the test is pulled because a passing result in not worth the damage that it could do to the poor child
3) A teacher uses a kid's identification who was exempted or away to demonstrate how to do the test and then finds out later that the clicking of a couple of buttons resulted in a failed assessment.
4) a school's data is lost and the school is blamed for it so an entire class' results are fails.
Some of these errors can add up to a 10-20 % drop in meeting expectations which can result in a bad score which is published. (These are all real circumstances I have faced or some of my colleagues have faced)

We are letting outside agencies do the advertising for us and many do not appear to be interested in what is working in schools, rather they seem to be focussing on what is not working.  I suppose that I could have my students practice for a few weeks to take the test.  I could put every available adult in there to answer the questions immediately.  I could run a whole bunch of pretests, practice tests, old tests or my own tests.  I could do this and boost my results, but at what cost?  I am not willing to sacrifice my school's leadership programs, Peace Squad (peer mediators), playground leaders nor intramurals.  I am not willing to let go of having social responsibility as an important focus in the school, school wide projects for helping out in the community nor having seniors come in to work with kids at risk or those who just need a friendly ear to talk to.  I will not forgo the friendship skills sessions nor the Worry Dragons meetings that my counselor does.  I believe that kids are happy at our schools because we offer so much more than just the ability to take a standardized test.

We work hard at what we do to create the best learning opportunities and it is probably time that we started talking about it.  Avoid the Superman diplomacy and use a little Wolverine attitude.  Part of me feels like saying that if you are going to criticize my field of work, then perhaps I should start criticizing yours.  Maybe I should start using stereotypes of your workplace, generalizations and make uninformed statements.  Debating is one thing, slagging is another.  Asking informed questions, or questions to become informed leads to worthwhile thinking while repeating something that Oprah said may not be.  Education is an easy target because everyone has been through it and has an opinion.  We do have warts, but unfortunately we cannot just put a drop of liquid nitrogen on our problems and make them go away.  We do need to continue to improve, just like any system out there, and we need to continue to be humble to remember to look at what can be better.  We need to continue to improve the 21st century skills that need to be taught. We can be better and we will be better.

If we want the public to have an understanding then we have to teach them.  I also like to tell friends who make negative statements about schools in general that I did not realize that they thought so poorly of me.  When they attack the school system they are attacking me, they are attacking something that I am proud of, that I believe in, colleagues that I have a world of confidence in and my friends.  Put a face on it, rave about the amazing things that are happening and then maybe, just maybe, we can get that vocal minority to see the world beyond published scores.


  1. Nice post, Remi - your passion for education really comes through here.
    I think most educators I know are more than happy to discuss the great things going on in their schools but you're right right, that's different from putting it out to a larger audience.
    My concern lies with the fact that a lot of people DO get on their soapbox and subsequently fail to engage in productive dialogue with others. That, or they go on Oprah... :p
    - Michal

  2. I think you hit it on the head, the failure to engage in productive dialogue. The people who are getting on their soapbox are often the wrong ones. The unfortunate piece is that the negative news often appears to be more newsworthy than the positive ones. Sensationalism over personification and that feel-good story.
    It is interesting that we want our movies to have happy endings but love to see the stars crash and burn. Stars philanthropy often gets overlooked but their misdeeds don't. It is a shame.

  3. A thought-provoking post, Remi. My problem is I've been fighting for people to listen all of my career and am getting a little tired of waiting for the dialogue! For an 'essential service' it sure doesn't feel like we're very valued!

  4. Thanks for the great comment. It is true that as an educator, it is very easy to feel under-appreciated. The dialogue starts one person at a time and then 1 community at a time. I believe that we need to do a better job of including parents in our schools as they are our biggest advocates and our biggest critics. The more parents we have on-board the easier the dialogue will be. When we introduce new curriculum and methodology we such as Math Makes Sense we need to have information sessions for them. I also feel that we need to do a better job of communicating to parents and our communities that we are not facing the challenges that our colleagues to the south are. We need to distance ourselves in Canada from those problems and focus on our own challenges.
    Too often, the only time time there is a focus on education is in Feb for FSAs, around contract negotiation time or when the ministry inplements a new policy. How can teacher associations, principal and vice-principal associations and school boards bring the focus to all of the amazing things happening in our schools?
    Lastly I think we need to stop always being in defensive mode defending and turn the tables. Ask these people what are they basing their points on? Where are they getting their information? Make it clear that is not happening in your classroom, your school, your district. When they bring up poor teachers then we ask about their other teachers. Remind them that they had at least as many amazing teachers as poor ones, and what about the rest? We need to make them defend their position rather than becoming defensive.

  5. I appreciate your feedback. These are extremely valid points, especially given the fact that our contracts will be up in June. I was having a conversation with a colleague whom has been getting involved in the union. He's already said that the majority of union people higher up are already in the defensive mode. I like your point about parental communication being front-loaded. We must make allies of our parents from the get-go. They are our partners, not our enemies. Perhaps we're our worst enemies?