Tuesday night, my husband and I did something we haven’t done in a long time…. went to a movie! I was offered the opportunity to attend a movie preview, and I couldn’t refuse.
Movie: Won’t Back Down
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaall and Viola Davis
Opening: September 28, 2012
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis play two determined mothers, one a teacher, who will stop at nothing to transform their children’s failing inner city school. They risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.
In many ways Won’t Back Down is an inspirational movie. How can you not care about parents fighting to receive a quality education for their children. We all want the best for our children, and it pains us to see them struggling in school. What makes the situation in this movie even more painful is that the struggles are the result of a bad teacher. This teacher should NOT be teaching children… instead of spending her time helping the kids, she is shopping on the internet. She doesn’t stop fights that occur in the classroom. She ridicules and humiliates the children who are struggling. She refuses to help those children who are falling behind in any way. She is the perfect caricature of the “bad teacher”. The bigger evil, as portrayed in the movie, is the system that protects this teacher from losing her job… the teachers union.
That’s where I feel this movie falls apart. Everything is simplified, made black and white. The evil of the bad teacher is extreme. The union employees (except for one) are portrayed as being anti-child. The good is the parent, in this case Maggie Gyllenhaall’s character, Jamie Fitzpatrick, a poor, uneducated, overworked, feisty mom who will do anything to help her child receive a quality education. She is the spark that changes the opinions of others and inspires parents and good teachers to care about their plight and fight the system. But the movie relies on the audience falling in love with her goodness, on her love for her child, as well as the love between the mom/teacher portrayed by Viola Davis and her son. The movie plays with the emotions of the audience. Without the emotion, the audience would see the true intent of this movie. It has an agenda.
I have to address the perceived all-powerful evil in the movie… the teachers union. Now, I must disclose at this point that my husband is an elementary school teacher in the public school system. He’s a good one, by the way… one of those teachers who is not only exceptional at providing a quality education but also one who students like and continue to come back to visit even after they are in high school and college. My views may be biased, but I feel they must be heard.
I have trouble with the movie because it attacks teachers and the union set up to speak for them. Teachers are educated people who could be employed elsewhere for a higher income, who have chosen to devote their career to educating children. The vast majority of teachers chose the career because they like children, value education, and are “helping” people. They have become teachers, even though incomes are low and the profession is looked down upon in our society. And, as they work with the public, they are an easy scapegoat. If a child is not succeeding in school, for whatever reason, it’s easy for a parent to point the finger at the teacher. People love to put blame somewhere else instead of upon themselves. And it’s so, so easy to say it’s all because of the “evil” teacher. Because it is the general public who is being educated in our public schools, teachers see parents and children from all walks of life. They see parents with a variety of issues that effect a child’s ability to learn… parents going through divorce, families dealing with unemployment, a parent with mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, parents who either don’t understand how or who don’t care to provide a home that’s conducive to learning (TV off, don’t over-schedule with extracurricular activities, read with their children daily, provide a healthy diet, ensure children get enough sleep, etc.). A teacher can be used as a tool by these parents to say, “it’s not me or my child… it’s the teacher’s fault that my child is falling behind.” Even when the teacher and the school system may be doing everything in their power to try to inspire and provide extra resources to help this child succeed, it can be extremely difficult to overcome a home environment that’s undermining their work. The teacher’s union is in place to protect these good teachers from situations like this. What to do with the truly bad teachers, the ones proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be unfit for the job? I say change the system so they can be fired, but allow the union to do it’s job… protect good teachers and fight for fair pay. Don’t even get me started on the unfairness of what teachers are paid in this country, especially in the inner-city where high quality teachers are needed the most.
OK, now I’ll step off my soapbox and get back to the movie. The movie makes a big deal about how the union prevents teachers from helping students after school, so I have to address this. Where did this information come from? Of course teachers are allowed to stay after school to help a student who needs additional help. What is not allowed is for a parent to pay the teacher to help their child after school hours. Now the true question is… should teachers be expected to stay after school and work additional hours without extra pay to help students with extra needs? Hm… free one-on-one tutoring. Wouldn’t all parents want this? And how would they choose which of the children to give this special attention to? It kind of smells like favoritism to me. Wouldn’t ALL children benefit from a little extra time after school with their teacher? Teachers are already expected to work several hours outside of school hours each day to grade papers, record grades, create lesson plans, conference with parents, and respond to e-mails from parents. The work day for a teacher does not end at 3:00, as many believe. Some teachers choose to stay at their desk to complete these extra responsibilities of their job before heading home while others choose to do it at home. Either way, the work must be done. Teachers, like most people, at the end of their work day are ready to go home and see their own families and attend to their own private lives. Just be aware that if you decide to watch this movie, it’s using false information to get to your emotions.
My take-away about this movie? It feels like thinly veiled propaganda for the anti-teacher / anti-union movement. Teachers are NOT the enemy. Teachers and their union are NOT anti-child. Yes, the educational system is broken. It needs to be fixed. But let’s all work together to figure out the real problem and fix it instead of searching for an easy scapegoat. Let’s start with standardized testing… it’s not working. It’s gotta go. Let’s discuss the low-pay for teachers. If you want quality, energized teachers in the inner city, pay them! Let’s talk about taxes. Why is education always one of the first things to be cut? Let’s talk about educating parents. When parents place a value on education, embrace it themselves, and begin to work together as a team with their children’s teachers, their children will, too. As a nation, we have to begin to put our money towards our future, and our future is our children. When we as a society begin to value education, then maybe we’ll begin to get somewhere. Educational reform is an extremely complex topic. This movie doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
Do you enjoy movies that make you cry? This is a great movie for that. It’ll pull at your heart strings. Want to get fired up and fight for better education? This movie will do that, too. Just put that energy to use where it’s needed. The enemy is not the teachers union. The enemy is not the teacher. I can only hope viewers will see through the propaganda.
I’m sure I’ve hit a nerve with some of my readers. That’s not my intention, and I apologize if I did. I’m simply expressing my personal response to the movie and the issues it brought up.
FTC DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENT A Nature Mom aims to provide unbiased editorials. However, I wish to disclose that from time to time I may receive free products or other compensation from companies for blogger reviews.