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The feature film, “Won’t Back Down” premiered this weekend, coinciding with the Education Nation Summit in New York City. I was thrilled to be a part of this amazing experience and excited to view the much talked about film. I was lucky enough to sit in on the interview with the movie’s stars and director on Sunday afternoon, so I was somewhat prepared for the mixed emotions that the film might elicit. What I did not expect was the picketing outside of the theater or the range of emotions that I myself would feel after the movie concluded.
The movie seeks to discuss the Parent Trigger Law, that has been invoked only one time in the United States in California. The law states, “that if a school is failing and teachers and students are dissatisfied, then the parents can seek to turn the school around.” At this point in history,this law has not lead to a complete school take over, but is currently caught up in court. While the situation in the film is a slightly altered version of this law, it mirrors the same issues that are discussed in the California situation.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a mother who desperately wants her daughter to succeed, but is unable to afford private school and therefore is distraught because her child is assigned to a consistently poor performing school. Gyllenhaal is poor and clearly uneducated, but like every parent she wants the best for her child. We see Gyllenhaal tragically attempt to place her child in a charter school, even though we know she will not win the coveted lottery. The flip side is Viola Davis, who is also in the same boat with her own child, and she also does not win the charter school’s lottery. The only difference in Gyllenhaal and Davis, is that Davis is actually a teacher at the school Gyllenhaal’s child attends. Together these two women attempt to take over the school, all the while being constantly deterred by the union and other teachers who seemingly are scared or lazy.
I could not help to have mixed emotions when watching this film. I viewed this film from many different lenses. With the lens of a parent I could not help but cheer for the school take over and understand the pain that a mother must feel when they are all but helpless in the education of their child. I reflected on how lucky I am that I can send my child to any school I desire and ensure that he has the very best education that money can buy. I truly believe every parent should have that right and every child deserves that.
This is what switches my lens to that of teacher. I believe that very child deserves a “state of the art” education and I teach in an urban school. I was appalled at the images of teachers reading the paper and sitting at their desks while students ran crazy through the classroom. This is not to argue that these things do not happen, but the movie portrayed this to be the norm and I was both offended and outraged because this is not the case. Most of us teach because we are dedicated and want our students to succeed. Most of us hold high expectations and would refuse to work in conditions where the majority of our colleagues sat around doing nothing. Another issue I had was the portrayal of administration in this film. What kind of school district allows this type of administration to remain in place when a school has consistently failed? I simply feel that the movie falsely portrayed teachers and might leave many thinking that Davis is the exception, while I feel she is closer to the norm.
Finally, I viewed this film from the lens of a union member. I know that all teachers’ unions are not as active nor are they as equally supportive as mine, but the main goal of a union is to support teachers in their positions as practitioners of student achievement. The union was portrayed in a very negative light and this portrayal was completely one-sided. The union leader in the film claimed that students did not matter, as they did not pay union dues. While I know this is an actual statement made by a past union leader, it is still very one-sided and does not address the beliefs of all teachers’ unions. Another union leader attempts to bribe Gyllenhaal by paying for her child to attend a private school if she will agree to “back out” of the school take over. I simply feel that while things like this might certainly occur, they are not the norm for teachers’ unions or individual union members. I have been a union member as long as I have been a teacher, and while some of the choices that my union makes are perhaps not the choice I would make, I have always felt that both my interest and the achievement of my students were supported equally.
Overall, the film is entertaining and uplifting for an education layperson. It is a fell good movie with a happy ending and many will find it to be very satisfying. However, on the other hand, I believe that many teachers will be disappointed and feel that their profession has been unjustly portrayed. After seeing the film I no longer wondered about the picketers, I was just surprised there weren’t more!Check out the trailer below and tell us your thoughts on the movie. Does it depict teachers as the enemies and parents as the saviors? Or is it just a “feel good” movie for the masses?