Won’t Back Down, the new feature film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis who play two determined mothers, one a teacher, who will stop at nothing to transform their children’s failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.
Sounds like a HUGE undertaking right?? Well it is. Being the father of two elementary children and having my wife work in K-12 education administration, I thought it fitting to catch this film on its opening night.
In an effort to NOT give away the core of the story, but instead touch on the overarching message, let me just say that I walked away from the film seeing the “feel good” message of adding a parents resolve and determination to an educators renewed passion for teaching.
Yes there were the necessary dramatical character developments and Hollywood moments, but those were positioned appropriately, and in my opinion, done without deviating from that message of the film.
Now that’s MY view, interesting to see the somewhat different perspective from my wife who, again, is an administrator within a local, large school district here in Norther California. Read her view below:
As an educator I could completely relate to some aspects of the movie Won’t Back Down. While it seems the majority of the “blame” was placed on the teachers unions for the deplorable conditions of the elementary school, I think there are many systematic issues in education that go beyond just the unions. I have worked in multiple school districts with very diverse ethnic and socioeconomic populations of students and families. But in each district I have experienced some of the same systematic failings that ultimately result in decisions being made that are not always in the best interest of students.
In the movie, Won’t Back Down, there was an emphasis on the power of the teachers union. I can remember early in my teaching career a situation where I received a flyer in my teacher mailbox stating that if I did not want $1.00 of my union dues to go towards supporting the political outreach of the California Teachers Association (CTA), then I needed to fill out a form and return it to our site CTA representative. Being that I usually opposed the CTA’s political agenda and was already not happy about being required to be in the union, I filled out my form and returned it to the CTA representative. The next day that person visited my classroom and asked me if I understood what I was doing, stating that I was the only teacher on staff who was opposing my $1.00 contribution. I let the rep know that I very much understood, but remember being shocked that not only was I the only one, but that I was confronted about my choice.
One aspect of the movie that I could completely relate to was the protection of unsatisfactory teachers based on tenure. I would go so far as to say teachers that damage students learning opportunities are protected by tenure. To be clear, there are many, many wonderful teachers out there, many who serve our students selflessly, with great skill and care. There are many more wonderful teachers than poor teachers. However, in my 13 years as being an educator I have seen time and time again, a small percentage of teachers who are not helping our students grow. Teacher lack of motivation, engagement, skill, whatever it may be results in teachers with unsatisfactory performance responsible for the learning and growth of students. It is very difficult to remove an unsatisfactory teacher. Many administrators don’t even try for a couple of reasons. First it takes a long time, and a lot of diligence and documentation. It can take several years of continuous unsatisfactory evaluations before a teacher is even considered for dismissal. Usually the union becomes involved and many districts faced with impending lawsuits by the union, simply give up the fight. They can not afford to fight the battle financially. Instead administrators are faced with the decision of where they can place the unsatisfactory teacher that they will do the “least damage”.
I have a good friend who is a principal at a very low performing school with high needs. As this school year began her district was facing severe budget cuts that would result in laying off many new teachers. Her staff was comprised of over 50% new teachers. These new teachers were enthusiastic, dedicated, well trained and passionate about seeing their students succeed. Layoffs would have wiped the staff out. But because lay offs are totally based on seniority, they would have lost their positions before other staff at the site who were not as effective, but who had more seniority would. Luckily the district found other ways to cut the budget and did not have to resort to laying off teachers.
The moral of the story in Won’t Back Down was that parents and teachers must be vocal, keep fighting for what is best for students and be persistent. While this happens in communities with higher socio-economic status, parent education levels, etc. all to often it is communities that are quite the opposite who struggle to find their voice. For that reason, this movie served as an inspirational call to action.
Have you had an opportunity to see this film? If so, what are your reactions?
More information about the film can be found on their Facebook Page here.