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Posted at 2:24 PM ET, 11/ 9/2010

Antidote to an educator’s depression

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips
After spending a few weeks watching films about the proclaimed “Crisis in American Education” -- The Lottery, The Cartel, and Waiting for Superman, I considered calling my doctor to prescribe an antidepressant. I also wondered if I should have pursued a different career, maybe driving a truck or making shoes.

The lingering images were those of hopelessly decaying schools, disappointed kids and parents, obnoxious union leaders, and corrupt politicians, brightened only occasionally by scenes from a few good charter schools and some dedicated reformers. Albeit these reformers also kept reminding me of how bad things are in education!

I know I’ve played my part at times, focusing on changes needed in education and bewailing the failures of public policy and funding. I know that we have lots of challenges. But I needed to be reminded that, in spite of all of this, most teachers are doing a good job and most kids are not miserable in their schools.

Then I got lucky and had a couple of great weeks. First, I got to see a film that premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Most Valuable Players. A documentary about a competition between schools in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley for the best musical theater production, it’s filled with vibrantly alive, extraordinarily talented, happy teenagers and engaged parents and teachers. Hundreds and hundreds of kids in public high schools, blessed with great teacher/leaders and supportive parents. A light in the darkness.

My lucky streak continued when I viewed the advance screener for August to June, a new film by Tom and Amy Valens, documenting a year in the life of the open classroom at the Lagunitas School, in West Marin, California. I’ll have much more on this film when it premieres in January, but it’s a treat and a reminder of what’s possible when gifted and caring teachers, engaged parents, and kids who are happy to be there, “live” together in a classroom. The film moved me to tears and laughter, my favorite combination. And at the end there is a long list of the many other similar schools in the United States. What a great antidote to educational depression.

Then I spent a few hours with two of my daughter’s English classes at Mt. Eden High in Hayward. The school is grossly underfunded and her 36-student classes are much too large. Too few of these kids, many second generation Americans for whom English is the second language, will go to college.

Yet the feeling here is not depression or resignation. Both classes, and those of many of her colleagues, are alive. In a school the reform filmmakers might have condemned, there are excellent teachers and vibrant students and, despite the obstacles, some very good things are happening. And my interactions with the kids left me feeling anything but depressed.

Finally, I participated in the first of this year’s monthly A Place in the World events of the California Film Institute. Students from three local schools attended, each innovative and highly successful: The TEAM program at Tamiscal High in Marin; Envision Academy, a charter school in Oakland; and Leadership Public School in Richmond.

After viewing a film, the students spent time in discussion groups, each a combo of kids from the three schools, and in every group the kids were totally engaged, hitting every point in the film, as well as friendly and open with each other. At the very end one student said “Can we do this every day?!”

I know changes are needed in our public schools. I know things are not like this everywhere. But I also know that these experiences are more representative than the melodramatic tragedies emphasized in the wave of reform films. Experiencing each of them sure beat a dose of Prozac!


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 9, 2010; 2:24 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  educational films, mark phillips, school reform, the cartel, the lottery, waiting for superman  
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You would have been treated better by Arne Duncan and Jeb Bush if you hadn't become a teacher. Obama would treat you better also.

Your post is a good reason to keep young people from going into education.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 9, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Let me get this straight - this "educator" is depressed because she feels the weight of all the media/political teacher bashing that is occurring right now. Am I missing something? She teaches at a college - not the target of the 'reformers'. She produces people with master/doctorate degrees - the very people who are running around yelling at me and other teachers who are trying our darndest in these schools. The very people who claim to know so much about teaching but haven't seen a classroom in 20 years and couldn't teach a fish to swim. And she wants someone to give her an antidepressant? What the heck is she upset about? Her job doesn't depend on the test score of a kid who's been absent 30 days or whose parents haven't had a book in the home in the kid's entire life.

Give me a break.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 9, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Give 'em hell, peonteacher. You are so right: there are way too many GD professors, like DHume1 on this blogue, who bash teachers needlessly. Usually for not following, or waiting for, their crappy research.

Posted by: axolotl | November 9, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

The Business Roundtable's unholy scheme to destroy the public schools hatched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989 is now in full-scale collapse along with the global capitalist economy. The oligarchs and their henchmen and hatchet women are defeated. But the fight is only beginning because Gates, Broad, Bloomberg and the Waltons are replaced by a more powerful and vicious enemy of working people--the banks.

By way of a victory lap, this was written a month ago today.

One chancellor down, one to go.

New York City Chancellor Joel Klink*, I sincerely want you to enjoy your warm fuzzy delusions about "Waiting For Superman" because they may not last very long. I mean, did you hear what happened to Michelle Rhee? She's plays a "chancellor" just like you right? And she was one of the stars of your movie right?

Excuse my French, but damn Joel, she didn't even make to the big premier yesterday in NYC and LA, before she was turned into a quivering bowl of jello standing next to the man who will fire her soon in DC. If you haven't heard about Sept. 14th in Washington, that mayor that Bill Gates put in charge of the public school system, Adrian Fenty, got stomped in a re-election bid. I mean he got beat like a hedge fund manager trying to steal something from Sen. Perkins there in the Big Apple! Go figure. Rhee, the "warrior woman", campaigned for him and everything.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't she like to mouth the same hypocritical blather you do about education being "the Civil Rights struggle of our generation" while overseeing a thoroughly racist public school system. You may want to retool that Newt Gingrich-ish slogan, paragon of the Civil Rights Movement that he is. It looks like people may be on to you folks. Rhee kind of made it easy. Just before the election she entertained her new teachers with a story about taping the mouths of Black children shut to keep them quiet. According to her, there was blood when the tape came off, but for some reason she wasn't arrested.

But I digress, because I just have to tell you the most startling thing of all. As a civil rights crusader, you need to really put your ear up close to this essay now. D.C. is broken up into eight or nine wards for purposes of voting. In the wards where white voters are concentrated, four out of five supported Adrian Fenty. I mean Joel, those people love themselves some Bill Gates, some quisling mayor, and a chancellor who will tape those Black kids mouths shut and take a broom to the teachers. But listen, in the African-American wards, where parents actually have their children in the DC public schools, and where the Black teachers replaced by white Teach For America missionaries live, they voted four out of five to run Michelle Rhee out of town!

Two Chancellors down!

Posted by: natturner | November 9, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse


I wish I was a professor sometimes. They at least get time off.

I do a lot of needless bashing, though. I can't help it. I do enjoy it so. But it is usually only the Dudley Do-Rights or the pseudo-I'm-Perfect figures, like yourself, who proclaim that everything boils down to The Children and the cheap fix.

By the way, I have to agree with peonteacher here. That article was super-duper dumb.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 9, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I find the sort of trollish comments here rather sad. It's as if they hadn't even read the piece. As someone with 2 family members who are teachers my first thought was, "Thank god, something I can send both of them that will keep them from jumping off the cliff!" People are understandably on edge these days when it comes to education issues, given the state of budgets and schools and the hot button issues. There has been some great discussion on this blog lately about a lot of these, but it was great to read this educator's attempt to give us a few positive anecdotes for once because the media just fixates on the negative.

I really appreciated the piece, frankly, and my overworked, stressed out teaching family members (and another who is the parent of a pre-adolescent) have already thanked me for sending it to them. So thank you, too.

Posted by: craigary | November 9, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

Actual public school teachers with 25 years of of experience are writing things like this:

But you wouldn't want to read it. Too depressing.

Posted by: hainish | November 10, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

hainish, I assume you haven't read any of this author's numerous other guest pieces for this blog? Because they've all looked at some very depressing things in education. I think he felt it was time to look at a few positive things he'd run across. Your comment makes it clear you haven't read any of his other pieces. I guess we should all return to our pre-jump positions on the ledges and bridges now.

Posted by: craigary | November 10, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for running this piece. There are lots of reasons to worry about schooling in America, to be terrified about the dangerous and growing gap between kids who believe they've been well-educated because they have credentials saying so--and kids who never had a chance.

If media is going to be used to shape the national conversation about how to fix schools, we need to look at models like the school featured in "August to June." There are terrific, functional public (not charter) schools out there, serving the needs of diverse kids. Saying so does not represent being an apologist for our national educational failures.

It's about hope.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | November 10, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Mr. Phillips.

Posted by: chicogal | November 11, 2010 12:45 AM | Report abuse

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