Hollywood Film Puts Teachers on Defensive

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In the new movie “Won’t Back Down” a mother and a teacher - played respectively by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis - become so fed up with their failing public school in Pittsburgh that they start a new one which, in this case, meant breaking away from the teachers' union.

Cue the Hollywood showdown, with competing t-shirt clad protesters and soaring rhetoric. At one point, a union leader asks, "when did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?"

Last week about 200 teachers attended a screening of the film in Union Square hosted by Educators 4 Excellence. The group has many young members and is sometimes at odds with the teachers union because it supports merit pay and an end to seniority rules. One may think E4E members would be receptive to the movie's message.

Sydney Morris, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence, told the audience the film is a "bold depiction of teachers as change agents."

In contrast, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the movie is filled with "blatant stereotypes and caricatures."

But reactions at the screening were mixed, at least as represented by teachers who gathered at a nearby restaurant afterwards.

"I really enjoyed the film in terms of what it was. I think it was a great Hollywood film," said Rachael Goeler, who teaches at P233Q, a special education program at Metropolitan High School in Queens. She called it a reminder for teachers that "job security is great but, like, we’re here for the kids and if you’re not doing your job things need to be taken care of."

Rob O’Leary, who teaches at the High School for Law and Public Service in Washington Heights, said he supports his union. But he feels torn over the tenure system.

"I mean the union protects and that’s great, but at the same time you have to look at when a teacher stops functioning at a high level or a good enough level, whether you keep protecting."

But Sabrina Perez, who teaches at Accion Academy in the Bronx, said it’s the job of her union to protect all teachers, good and bad, because "that's what we pay them to do."

Still, she groaned at the movie’s portrayal of a deadbeat teacher who doesn’t help her students and is even shown checking her phone during a lesson. And she was upset when the teacher said she couldn't stay to help a struggling student after school because of union work rules.

"I’m like, false. You can stay as long as you want to. I stay until 7 o’clock, 6 o’clock, until whenever I want," she said. "So don’t even say that has anything to do with unions."

If teachers are especially sensitive about the movie, perhaps it's a sign of the times. The words "education reform" have become synonymous with charter schools and holding teachers accountable for student achievement, even among labor-friendly Democrats. Four states including California have passed "parent trigger" laws like the one portrayed in the movie, which allow parents to vote on how to turn around a failing school.

The president of the city’s teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, said people should view the film with a good dose of skepticism.

"I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I understand it’s a rewrite of history," he said in a statement, noting that no schools have been turned around yet through parent trigger laws. "The film is like a remake of 'Titanic' where the ship doesn’t sink. The truth is - whatever the movie says - that there is nothing teachers want more than active parental involvement in their children’s schools."

Many of the teachers at last week's screening agreed with that. Daphne LaBua who teaches at the Urban Assembly Institute for New Technologies called the film "anti-union."

For her, the takeaway was that change takes time. "The message of the movie was it takes leaders to do this," she said.