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Why 'Won't Back Down' Just Doesn't Stack Up

A former teacher takes on the untruths at the heart of this anti-union film.

A passion for teaching and a hunger for educational change are what drove me into the classroom a few years ago. That’s also how I ended up exhausted a few autumns later, when I dragged myself home to my apartment around 8:30 at night, slunk down into the nearest chair, reached for my laptop and Googled “downshifting + career.”

It was my second year as a classroom teacher in a so-called "failing" school, and I was feeling overwhelmed and depleted after yet another 12-hour day where I didn’t actually feel finished with my work. There were still projects to be graded, reading groups to be sorted, lessons to be planned, parents to be called... the list went on. Yet the first article I clicked on after my desperate Googling listed teaching as one of the top “family friendly” careers – because, it claimed, “you work the same hours as your kids!”

I wanted to scream. (In fact, I think I might have.)

I recalled this episode recently after watching the film Won’t Back Down, Hollywood’s engaging but controversial take on the latest corporate education policy trend, the Parent Trigger. The “day’s-done-at-3” myth it cultivates is just one tiny reason the movie has already proven almost as divisive and polarizing as the educational policy it promotes. That divisiveness does a disservice both to the issue and the communities that will be affected by it. Students and schools cannot succeed if the adults in the community don’t work together to make a high-quality public education for all kids a reality. And while Won’t Back Down purportedly supports such a goal, the stereotypes it promotes-- and the agenda it hides-- could threaten that effort if people don’t understand the reality beneath the Hollywood gloss.

“Who are these people?”

As a former union teacher and present union staff member, what struck me most profoundly while watching Won’t Back Down was the stark disconnect between the way people and schools were characterized in the film and the way they are in the real world. That isn’t surprising given that it’s a Hollywood film, but it is harmful -- precisely because these kinds of stereotypes often fuel destructive and unnecessary divisions and tensions among parents, teachers and students in real life. Those divisions often stop people from working together to find effective, win-win solutions to problems that affect all of us.

In my work, I’ve spent time with hundreds of teachers, mostly in high-poverty schools that get low test scores. From teaching and preparing to teach for hours on end, to providing food, care and inspiration for hurting kids, these are dedicated, hard-working people who routinely go well above and beyond in their work. (A popular joke among teachers hinges on the notion that the hours in your contract aren’t the hours you’ll actually work, but the hours for which the district will begrudgingly pay you. It’s well understood by all that it is literally impossible to get everything done in that time period.)

I personally remember lots of overstuffed rolling tote bags (an especially popular option among teachers who needed to bring work home after school ended) and reusable coffee mugs (popular among us newbies who often worked such long hours we barely saw daylight during the fall and winter months) in the school I worked in. Likewise, the school day itself was often a whirr, with teachers bouncing around among 25, 30 or more students at a time during lessons; moving in and out of meetings, planning and professional development sessions; and making calls and handling other daily logistics during “free” periods.