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Prime Time: Teachable moments: 'Waiting for Superman'

When I was a kid, I sometimes watched the old black and white Superman episodes on TV. Clark Kent, the mild-mannered, quiet, inconspicuous reporter by day, but Superman as needed (when close to a phone booth), was every kid's hero.

Yes, he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, could fly faster than a speeding bullet and all of that, but no one claimed that he could fix public education.

Two months ago, I started hearing and reading about the "movie that could fix our ailing schools." 'Waiting for Superman,' according to Parade Magazine, "promises to do for education what 'An Inconsistent Truth' did for the environment: get people arguing about it."

The hackles go up on every dedicated educator's back when another attack on education is launched. The best educators take this kind of criticism to heart and can't help but feel defensive.

The ostrich head-in-the-sand part of us just wants to say, "Yeah, well, maybe they have those problems in Pittsburg or Washington, D.C., but here in Minnesota, we're a quality act!" Yet I must confess that there have been many times when I have felt that, while we do a pretty good job, none of us - students or educators -- is doing as well as we could do.

And what is the solution? Well, I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've read about it, watched the previews and gathered from my research that the movie's solution is to replace the worst teachers in our schools with at least average teachers. By doing this, the reviews tell me, this movie suggests that we would rise in ranking of best-educated nations from 24th or 25th place to a more respectable position much nearer the top.

Research tells us the single most important determiner of a student's success in school is the teacher. This is not new, and has often been a source of discussion and debate. Programs like Teach for America attempt to get the brightest and most talented graduates, people who had not set out to become teachers, into the classrooms of high-poverty, underachieving schools. The program, which started in 1990 and has grown dramatically, has taken some criticism for the limited amount of pre-teaching preparation it provides, but it has done something that one source describes as making teaching "sexy" or cool.

Three of the five educators spotlighted in "Waiting for Superman" are former Teach for America participants, so I'm expecting the movie to portray this movement in a pretty positive light.

The teaching profession in America is one that is in need of gaining respect, of being portrayed in a positive light. In the not so distant past (present time even?) there was a perception by some that "if you can't do anything else, you can always teach." In spite of the fact that the majority of teachers (at least the ones I've known and worked with) are truly dedicated and effective, the profession gets a black eye whenever an ineffective teacher is spotlighted.

Education is a people business, and sometimes it's hard for evaluators and criticizers to remember this. It's not like running a factory, where you order the best raw materials you can and attempt to produce a consistently good product that meets specific criteria within a time limit and within a budget. It's more like medicine, I think.

Your students/patients come to you with a variety of needs. Your job is complex. You must diagnose what each of them needs and work to help them improve from where they are to the best they can possibly be. Every single one of them: rich or poor, white or other. Every kid deserves the opportunity to be the best and healthiest that he or she can be. This is America, and we owe this to our children.

My hackles have gone down a bit. I'm anxious to see the movie. I hope that the millions of excellent teachers in America will watch it. I hope it will inspire the best possible candidates to choose to enter the field of education - not because anyone can do it, because not just anyone can.

I hope the movie will not leave our best teachers feeling beaten and derided. I hope they will watch it with a critical eye and ear, weigh what this movie has to say, and return to the classroom to continue to educate students. I also hope the movie will portray to its viewers the complexity of this career -- this vocation -- and inspire good people to enter into teaching.

Sue Bruns is a retired teacher and assistant principal with Bemidji Area Schools.