I was recently invited by Circle of Moms and Pop Sugar to be one of 40 mom bloggers nationwide to screen the upcoming film release of Fox Studios “Won’t Back Down” in Los Angeles. I was excited for a night out (woot!) and I’m always a sucker for a good parents vs. the system education movie. Plus Maggie Gyllenhall, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter all star. And there was free popcorn and a soda involved. So, um, yeah. I was in.
It’s rare that a movie grabs you from the second it starts, but “Won’t Back Down” did just that. As a mom and a teacher, I was horrified and anxious at watching the classroom conditions of a a group of second graders with a teacher who’d long stopped caring (or even faking it). Restless kids, a texting teacher with a screen of boots to buy up on her computer, and 2nd grader Malia Fitzpatrick desperately trying to read the generic assignment on the board.
Malia has ended up in this failing neighborhood public school, Adams, because her double job holding, single mom, Jamie Fitzpatrick (played superbly by Maggie Gyllenhall) can’t swing the $5000 tuition anymore at the private school Malia used to attend. The school where teachers stayed afterwards to help dyslexic Malia with her reading and presumably the teachers were more engaging, or at least not on their smart phones blatantly during class time.
After stopping in to check on Malia at her new school, and asking her new teacher to stay after class for some tutoring, she’s shocked to be staunchly and disgustedly rejected because school is done at 3 p.m. Period. A glance around at the other 2nd grade classroom, led by Nona Roberts (played with grace and strength by Viola Davis), reveals a similar attitude and classroom atmosphere: disengaged students, bored and beaten down teacher, and a disrespectful attitude all around. It’s pretty much seeing your worst nightmare for your child’s education on the big screen.
Despite her shock and dismay, Jamie doesn’t just give in to this as her daughter’s future. She sets out to get Malia a coveted spot in the nearby charter school, a school so inspiring that the education going on there seems like a perpetual pep rally. Motivational banners, colorful artwork, inspiring speeches by leadership and cutting edge technology are the norm. At the student lottery, where applicants hope to get one of a handful of spots randomly chosen, Jamie runs into Nona, who is also desperately, and ironically, trying to get her only son with learning problems too into a better school than she herself teaches half-heartedly at.
Afterwards, inspired and having learned of a law that can allow parents and teachers to seize control of a historically poorly performing school, Jamie sets out to make Malia’s failing school the successful one she’s convinced she’ll blossom and thrive in. To do this requires significant amounts of parent involvement, starting merely with signatures that turn out to be a battle, and the same of half of the teachers. With a strong will, street smart attitude and inspirational words (and a good amount of pleading and charm in equal amounts), Jamie convinces a downtrodden but maybe hopeful Nona to join her fight to make it right.
Watching these two women find and follow their inner passions and realize their destiny to give their children every possible opportunity for an excellent education despite having few resources and little money makes you want to cheer throughout the movie. “Won’t Back Down” is a feel good film that makes you want to go sign up for that volunteer opportunity you always want to do but don’t, donate money to a cause or even just pick up some trash on your way out of the theater to make the community where you live a better place. Non-profits would do well to have sign up tables outside showings of this film, as you leave feeling emotionally and intellectually motivated to make a difference in our world, especially in public schools. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s also a little dangerous.
The clear protagonist of this film is the teacher’s union, led by Holly Hunter as Evelyn Riske in a convincing performance. The message is clear: either you love your job security and your union or you love teaching and children. There is clearly no room for both, it’s an either/or situation. To become a charter things must radically change, from curriculum to attitude. And the union, with its ability to protect teachers from working harder than they have to, a promise of tenure and indefinite job security, is sacrificed in the process. If they’re rehired at the same school after it undergoes the charter process, it’s a whole new ball game.
I used to be a union teacher. And I certainly saw the same, glazed-eyed, counting down the days until retirement teachers that are portrayed in the film. The ones who Xerox mimeographs from the 1970s instead of the latest teaching tools, who pass along students who are academically failing, and worry just about their benefits and meeting the minimum requirements to stay under the district’s radar. But I also saw union teachers who every day go above and beyond. Who keep up with technology in the classroom, not for shoe shopping but to give their students the cutting edge skills they’ll need. Teachers who come early, stay late, supply their own classrooms and champion their students who need help. Union teachers in public schools who really teach and coach and even parent when necessary, not because they have to but because they love to. Union teachers who do jobs that aren’t theirs, like scrubbing the classroom and taking on extra roles, because district jobs are being cut left and right.
And while it’s great and wonderful and inspiring to see parents take an active, real interest in their children’s education by taking over a failing school, parents also to take some responsibility in the day to day details of their student children. In “Won’t Back Down,” Jamie Fitzpatrick is often seen rushing her daughter to school late. The best school in the world can’t fix that, and that’s certainly not to the student’s advantage. Even the hardest working parents, with multiple jobs and requirements and problems, still need to find a minute to check over homework or get some breakfast into their child before school. There’s only so much an amazing school can do. It’s a lot. But it’s not enough in eight hours per day to give a child everything they need.
So go see this film when it comes out September 28. Cheer it, love it, be inspired by it. Enjoy the feeling of victory and empowerment. Go get involved in your child’s education no matter what their type of school, or go get involved your community. But also take away the message that parents and teachers need to work together for any school to be a success. Wanting job protection and security doesn’t mean you don’t want to teach and don’t love kids. Having amazing teachers too means the parents have to still pitch in.
When that happens, then the real and lasting change begins.
Disclaimer: I was compensated for my time to attend this screening and got a snack. All opinions and thoughts are 100% my own. I still can’t be bought though.