How accurate is Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”?

Waiting for "Superman"

Waiting for Superman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was in no hurry to watch Waiting for Superman since I was sure it was just going to be another condemnation of teachers from a non-educator’s point of view.

I was wrong about my expectations for the documentary. Davis Guggenheim did an excellent job of trying to explain all of the factors that go into what makes or breaks our educational system. As I was watching, I was making a mental note of – in extreme generalities – what needs to happen in order to fix what’s broken.

‘Lo and behold at the end of the movie, as a good teacher would do to reflect at the end of a lesson, Guggenheim summarized the pieces of the puzzle. While I agreed with the sentiments that flashed on the screen, I think there needed to be a little more explanation.

So, what does it take to create a school that works?

1. A kid who cares – Did you see all of those students at the lotteries? They wanted to be there. They wanted to learn. They wanted a better life.

2. An adult in the household who cares – Every single one of the kids’ guardians – be they biological parents or another adult who is responsible for their well-being – recognized the importance of education, made sure the kids studied and got as much out of school as possible, and would do anything to make sure their kids succeeded.

3. A rock star teacher – A teacher who combines knowledge of the curriculum, skills for transferring that knowledge, and a passion to save those kids. Studies show it takes at least 5 years for teachers to reach this culmination, yet we lose 50% of teachers by their fifth year of teaching.

4. An administrator with cajones – This is a principal who isn’t afraid to say, “We’re not going to teach to the test. We’re going to teach our curriculum.” A headmaster who has a heart of gold and will shed tears, yet will rule with an iron fist to keep order. An administrator who calls teachers in for a pat on the back and who knows every student’s name and story.

5. School board members without personal agendas – They honestly care about how many students will make it in the world. They don’t care about power plays or taking money under the table or creating cliques of minions. They are there to support teachers and students and give them every possible resource to get the job done. They realize that they somehow need to fund smaller classes as well as more prep time and support for teachers.

6. A Superintendent who doesn’t play games – Someone who isn’t worried about being politically correct, but who is worried about what kind of lives the district’s students will have. This person is both highly logical, yet crazy enough to take a stand and make sweeping changes that will be unpopular at first but will eventually turn the schools into what they need to be.

7. Teacher unions with open minds – Instead of seeing change as giving up their power, they should view it as their contribution to the betterment of society. Unions should protect the profession from arbitrary hits, but they cannot continue to protect the bottom rungs of the profession and think that that is helping the situation. They should be on the forefront of advances instead of constantly playing defense.

8. A community willing to take a stand – This isn’t a community who just comes to town hall meetings to complain. This is a community where every person steps forward and says, “What can I do to help?” and follows through on their promises.

It seems daunting, yet Geoffrey Canada has created a successful program in the worst neighborhood in New York. KIPP Academy has a proven track record in schools across the nation. Success has happened, yet why isn’t it widespread?

Change certainly won’t happen overnight since it will take a shift in mindset to undo 100 years of the same ol’ routines and politics. But it can happen if we support “crazy” people like Geoffrey Canada. If you don’t know someone like that, what about being a mentor to a parent who doesn’t know how to be a parent? Or be a mentor to a kid who has no one else? Or volunteer to run copies for teachers for an hour once a semester?

What will you do to make Superman get here faster?

Previous: Part 1: Instead of Waiting for Superman, why not save Superman?

Coming next time: Part 3: What is a fair way to reward teachers?

About Helene Segura

Helene Segura teaches go-getters how to use their time more efficiently in order to have a more peaceful life. For details about her, be sure to visit


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