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The Oprah Show & Waiting for “Superman”

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

October 2010

I rarely watch Oprah.  Sometimes I feel like she favors celebrities (who donate money because they have so much they don’t know what to do with it) over those regular Joes who make next to nothing and sacrifice their lives for the good of our country.  I’ve seen it for years.  But yesterday afternoon, I was home and thought I’d give her another shot since it is her last season.  Come on, Oprah.  Wow me!  That she did.

For those of you who have not seen the Oprah Show about Waiting for “Superman”, a documentary that came out at the end of September, please see if you can track it down on the internet (air date 9/20/2010).  My brief review of the show was, “I’ve been waiting for this, Oprah!  Finally a good Oprah Show!”  I was motivated and inspired to do more and be held accountable for more, all for the sake of our children.  Unfortunately, others had a different view.

I saw that a friend of mine and some of her teacher friends were frustrated by the show, and they had valid points regarding their frustration.  Yes, I imagine that Bill Gates has no idea what it is like to be a teacher.  Yes, the entire world has no idea about the ins-and-outs of being a teacher, especially what it is like working under the Department of Education.  However, that does not mean that the system is not broken.

Although I have not been in her classroom, I imagine that my friend is a lovely, wonderful teacher.  I imagine that her students and their parents adore her.  I have many teacher friends and think the same thing – they are wonderful people, friends, and I imagine, wonderful, brilliant teachers as well.  The Oprah Show was not directed towards them.  She even made a point to state that.  Similarly, The Child Knows Best is an article that often critiques traditional education.  Like the show, my article is not directed towards them.  The show, like my articles, was directed towards the broken system.

A broken system will inevitably teach people to act like someone they are not (the snippy receptionist who has no reason to be nice to you) and to cut corners because of the massive workload (a professor not reading the term paper and giving your brilliant work the same grade as the plagiarist next to you).  Does it mean that the receptionist is not a lovely person or that the professor is lazy?  No.  The receptionist may deal with complaints all day and hasn’t received a reinforcer (praise, a raise, extra time-off) for her diligent work.  The professor may have three manuscripts to prepare for publication this month while chairing a committee at the university and being an officer of a special interest group among like professionals (believe it or not, teaching classes is only a small part of a professor’s responsibility).

The American Education system is broken.  I do not know one person, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Socialist, who thinks that the system is effective.  Not one.  As a result, it is possible for “bad teachers” to exist.  Yes, I said it.   Before going to college, my concept of a bad teacher was the one who reported me to the administration because my skirt was too short, or the teacher who would assign way too much homework for me to finish between all my other “very important” high school activities.  Before going to grad school, my previous definition of a "bad teacher" was significantly altered.  The teacher who was the hardest in high school was one of the reasons that I was accepted into grad school due to my GRE scores (Thank you, Mrs. JoAnne Glenn!).  Maybe there are no “bad teachers” after all!  However, after just a few months in grad school, that fantasy was shattered. 

A new, young teacher that I supervised was the worst I think I may ever see.  I knew her obligations to the school.  I sat in her classroom for hours at a time.  I knew the ins-and-outs.  No child had a chance in her classroom, and because of such negativity and negligence, she poisoned all the other teachers.  I saw them drinking her poisonous cool-aid while the students were in the midst of what seemed like a war. 

I imagine she didn’t dream of becoming a teacher to treat students poorly.  Her actions and values were altered as a result of a broken system.  Additionally, she still had a job because of a broken system.  The only measures that held her accountable were students’ test scores (which we all know are problematic measures to hold teachers accountable of – see previous Child Knows Best article).  Why were her behaviors not compared to the effective and positive behaviors of exalted teachers?  Why should she make the same amount of money, comparatively, as the best teacher in the school? 

My friend pointed out that teachers are the last element to focus on when fixing the system.  Very true.  They are not the root of the problem, but the by-product.  However, intervening on the teachers will function as a band-aid until the global system is changed, which takes years.  Change in the classroom can happen immediately.

I’ll stop here, but would like feedback from you – parents, teachers, student, and other concerned members of the community.  To close, I applaud Davis Guggenheim and Oprah for making the issues I have seen for the past 7 years available to the public.  I applaud Bill Gates for throwing money at a worthy cause, John Legend for attaching his name to the issue to make a different demographic stop and think, and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for taking serious slack for trying to mend a broken system.