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Abandoning Superman

Superman is inhuman, a myth created during the Depression when people believed the power they needed did not come from within.  Our system has seen too many Supermen who come in with tights and capes and offer a quick solution that turns out to be no solution at all.

We need a better story: one that doesn’t pit public schools against charter schools and one that doesn’t see corporate giants as the saviors.  We need a story that’s real and honest and humble.

The following is an excerpt from my book Teaching Unmasked. I’d like to offer it as a counter-narrative to the perfect school utopian ideal and the perfectionist marketing offered in Waiting for Superman (which is a one-sided documentary but a hell of a Flaming Lips song).  I wrote the book because I believe the key ingredient missing in schools is not rigor or expectations or rules or accountability.  It’s humility.  It’s a humble voice saying, “Hey kid, I don’t have it all figured out either.  But maybe, just maybe, we can learn together.”  It wouldn’t look pretty on camera, but that’s okay.  I’ve never attempted to wear tights and save the world.  At least not sober.

I see Superman as inherently dangerous.  As an outsider, he possess all the power, comes in and changes everything top-down as an individual.  That’s colonialism.  That’s imperialism.  All too often, that’s America, filled with self-righteous ideology.  He’s diluting himself into believing the city needs his x-ray transparency when he has done nothing to gain trust.  He’s kidding himself when he thinks the town needs a Man of Steel fighting for something industrial and artificial.

So, this is part of the introduction:

“Mr. Spencer, you’re not talking much today,” a student points out as we line up for class.

“I’m losing my voice,” I explain.

“Just because you can’t speak doesn’t mean you lost your voice. There are lots of people out there who have a voice, but aren’t able to speak. And there are lots of people who talk all the time and never find their voice.”

I smile, realizing that on some level, she has internalized our conversations about a social voice and an individual voice and the importance of developing both. I didn’t try and change her. I never developed a plan for this student to internalize my own ideas about the importance of voice. It just sort-of happened mysteriously.

When I share stories it can feel like a highlight film. I want people to see that “this generation” is not a bunch of lazy screw-offs and sometimes I overstate my case. The truth is that teaching is much more banal. I spend hours walking around asking clarifying questions, reminding students to use words more creative than “stuff” and “thing,” using my body language to suggest that a discussion of schoolyard crushes should stay in the schoolyard and attempting to manage the administrative/paperwork side of teaching. Not exactly Freedom Writers.

It’s not that teaching is a boring job (at least not in the sense that bagging groceries was boring). It’s just that it’s more like the real game than an episode of Sports Center. My classroom includes the usual missteps, false starts and occasionally an intentional grounding or two. It can get as lethargic as a full count in the fifth inning and on my worst days I’m just trying to handle the hecklers in the bleachers.

And yet . . . it’s real – which means it also includes the subtle drama, the serendipity of story and the moments of glory that inevitably make it to the highlight reel. For what it’s worth, I’d rather have real than reel, because it is the unpredictability of the narrative that makes it exciting.

Javi meets up with me to have a microbrewed pint. (Somehow I feel infinitely cooler when I can call it a microbrew; which is nice, because in so many respects, my life has been defined by being horribly uncool)

“How was the conference?” I ask.

“It was good. The speakers were great. So were the workshops.” Educators always call them workshops despite the fact that no one really does any work. I guess it sounds fancier than, “sit and watch someone give a passionate Power Point presentation.”

Javi is careful to avoid criticizing people and so he mentions key things he “gleans” from it. Not being a farmer, I have to ask him to define the word and he says, “I think it’s about taking the leftovers after everyone is finished. So, I guess it’s the other way around. I picked what I liked best and dropped the rest.”

After awhile, though, he tells me, “I just wish people had been a little more vulnerable, that’s all.
Teaching is messy and confusing and, if we’re honest, really hard.”

“What would you ave wanted a speaker to do?”

“Everyone shows us exemplars or they hand out the best possible work from all of their classes.”

“I would have pointed to some mediocre work and asked people what we, as teachers, could have done to prevent the mediocrity. We would have talked about it together and shared our own expertise. I mean, it’s crazy to think that I’d be the only expert in a room.”

“I know what you mean. After awhile, it feels like Sports Center, where no drops a ground ball. You start thinking through this lens of perfection and if you’re not careful you end up leaving a conference either dejected or with this false notion that you can create perfection in your classroom. Even the terminology starts to grate on your nerves. Everything is ‘cutting edge.’ Wow, so it’s a program that can show you visually how many words are being used.” Javi’s right. A flying car that shoots lasers is cutting edge. Splitting an atom is cutting edge. A stop-animation program is probably not cutting edge. Novel, but not innovative.

“Everyone wants something great and revolutionary,” I add. “Revolutions are bloody ordeals. I just want my students to read better.”

Javi is a humble teacher. He’s never written a how-to book of the Essential Fifty-Five. (If there are really fifty-five, can they all be essential?) However, he knows his students well and despite the language barrier his ELL students have deep classroom discussions that often surpass the expectations of an honor’s class. Javi does service projects and documentaries and holds debates with his students. Yet, if you ask him what he’s doing to make a difference, he’ll speak honestly about his mistakes.

Javi makes a difference because he is humble. It’s counterintuitive, I admit, but he’s a phenomenal teacher because he doesn’t have seven steps and eight keys and forty essentials. He offers himself and as a result, the students love him and learn from him.

I’m not against practical advice. I’ve bought books with seven steps or nine keys and sometimes they work. Sometimes. I’m not against conference speakers, either. I’ve known humble speakers who provide honest insights about teaching.

My issue is more with myself. See, if I start reading too many of them, I turn toward the Sports Center mentality. I get arrogant. I start believing I have the secret formula, the best ideas, the perfect classroom. I tell myself that I’m thinking outside the box when, in fact, that very phrase is so cliché it fits well within a box. What happens is an ugly spiral of self-competition and goal-driven directives to try and validate my existence as a teacher.

It can get worse. I once gave a presentation called Social Studies 2.0, where I provided insights about all the paradigm shifts that we need to make in history classes. People seemed interested and I fed off their excitement. When it was over, a friend offered his critique. “It was interesting. Parts were actually pretty funny. It was missing one element, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Humility. What are people supposed to do with this presentation? Either they write you off as deceptive or crazy or perfect. That doesn’t motivate them to embrace new ideas.” It was painful to hear, but he was right. I was the emperor refusing to recognize that I’d been exposed.

My friend Quinn once told me that he read Three Cups of Tea and it was more depressing to him than a book about genocide. “I was supposed to feel inspired, but it made my life feel worthless. I kept thinking, ‘Man, what am I supposed to do with this?’ I’m sitting in an office cubical writing procedures right now and I’m not inspired.”

I tell him, “Those books make me feel tired. I read a few pages and I have to fight back a sense of jealousy or defeat. For me, those are the only two options. I know that I should feel happy for the guy, but I don’t.”

I don’t need more stories of great achievements or more steps to a perfect classroom. Instead, I’ve found that I am stronger when I am vulnerable. It is when I am humble that I can lead. It’s when I focus less on behavior that students change and when I focus less on making a difference that I actually make a difference. It’s not a new idea. Jesus taught the same concept twenty centuries ago. So, yeah, I jacked his idea, but I think it’s in public domain by now.

The bad news is that I don’t have seven steps or three keys or the magical formula for education. I’m still figuring out this whole teacher gig . . . and my place in this universe. This is a story, a philosophical journey of the reality that teaching is a paradox of humility.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


13 thoughts on “Abandoning Superman

  1. Thank you for this! Sharing both sides of the coin, the good the bad, the messy that is what helps! We don’t need superman, we need real teachers and real children trying to work together to make meaning and solve problems and creative new thought and life. When we make our teaching public we start to move towards transformation. We don’t always have to be right, actually I would not want to work in a system that neat and tidy …. Life is messy, democracy is mess and therefore teaching and learning is messy! and should be!

    Posted by dloitz | September 26, 2010, 6:13 pm
  2. Have you SEEN the movie? It has nothing to do with HOW to teach. Nothing in the movie goes against what you are saying. Every good teacher knows to learn from others – the KIPP schools were founded by a pair of guys who observed the stellar teaching practices of the teacher (Harriet Ball) in the classroom across the hall…and adopted them. They adopted best practices from her and other effective teachers and scaled them across all 96 schools (and growing).

    No one has all the answers and Waiting for Superman certainly does NOT imply any one does.

    Posted by Camilo Acosta | September 27, 2010, 2:08 am
    • Have you been inside a KIPP School? I would wonder what you thought of the actual school each one, not the uniform body. I think the main point of John’s post is that it is not merely the best practices of this or that teacher, but the act of being authentic and honest as a teacher and a member of a learning community that start to get a real transformation.

      I also would argue that Waiting for Superman should be about teaching and have teacher’s voices, because without it, you lack the true scope of what education is.

      Love to hear more about what you personally know about KIPP schools, because all I see and hear as been Pre packaged for me by a PR firm or a documentary.

      Posted by dloitz | September 27, 2010, 10:41 am
    • When I visited a KIPP School, I found the following to be true:

      1. There were some great teachers using great strategies. Then again, I see this at the school where I teach.

      2. There were some strategies I found to be kind-of creepy. Students reciting a pledge to success together, for example, felt like a brainwashing camp.

      3. The teachers had a great relationship with the students. But then again, I see that at my school.

      Pretty limited, I admit. I have no deep insights there. I just think it’s like a more showy version of a quality school. On the other hand, I walk the campus of Cartwright Elementary and I see the same things just minus the PR.

      Posted by John Spencer | September 27, 2010, 10:48 am
      • That is what Imagine to be true. The picture that is being painted is that some have found the answers and the rest are not willing to get on board. I truly think that if we allowed for the time to build good classroom practices from the ground up meaning from each school and community that along with start the process of true transformation. Not hand picking practices and giving them to everyone to do.

        Posted by dloitz | September 27, 2010, 10:59 am
  3. John, Having been to KIPP schools, I’m right there with you on your observations.

    As a lifelong embracer of humility and messiness, I love your description of teaching and of the stance of vulnerability that makes you feel more strong. My question: where do you feel legitimate in claiming expertise? Have you had this happen? When you really did feel you knew more and wanted to share that? How? When? What happened?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 27, 2010, 4:30 pm

    Thank you for this eloquent post, John. Your reference to humility rang true when I read the article I’ve referenced above. It’s about a school with a million little supermen (and women). And even if the facts are glorified (hard to believe all of everything I read) and it focuses on standardized test scores as a symbol of improvement, I found it refreshing—considering the multitude of depressing and infuriating articles regularly in the news.

    The teachers at this school seemed to have taken the bull by the horns and turned inward—tapping into the talent and inspiration within their ranks to initiate large scale change. The fact that they are a large American high school makes it even more exciting and different, proving that small schools don’t have a necessary edge.

    This piece reminds me what a determined group of people can do, without the help of so-called experts. It sounds like the leaders and staff of this school have developed abilities that might lead to some significant long term change. They just rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

    Posted by jengroves | September 27, 2010, 11:35 pm
  5. I really think this article is worth reading and worth talking about!

    Posted by dloitz | September 29, 2010, 2:17 pm


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