Searching for Answers While We’re Waiting for Superman

During the course of my life as an educator over approximately the past two decades, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand what happens to some young people during the difficult stages of adolescence.

While the particular school at which I teach is an all-boys’, Catholic college preparatory school with a tradition of academic excellence, and for that reason the social dynamic and the expectations placed upon our students are obviously different than that which we’d find in the typical public school, on a basic level, however, there are certain givens that take place each and every time no matter the high school setting.  No matter how you slice it, whether at a public school or a private school or a charter school or anywhere in between, adolescence is a difficult time for every child in many different ways and degrees.

The reason for my having these particular thoughts was piqued over the weekend as a result of having watched the recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, a presentation that lays bare many of the truths at the heart of the vital academic and social dilemma that is our public school system.  For me, it’s a no-brainer to suggest to as many people as possible to watch it when you have the chance.

As with anything, each person brings an accumulation of his or her own life experiences to bear on any issue worthy of discussion, and based on quite a few of my pieces here at America’s Right, it’s not too difficult to understand when I say that much of what I’ve argued is based upon a commingling of my love of history, my experiences in education, and my understanding of just what it means to be in a “union.”  Naturally, there will be those who assume that I’m merely speaking of the civil rights-based public-sector working force; however, while that’s obviously an element of it, I put the term in quotation marks because I feel that it needs to be considered more as a concept than as merely an organized force.

While Waiting for Superman deals with much larger forces that are at work in public education as a whole, my intent here is to lean on my opportunities and experiences as a microcosm in having viewed, up close and personal, what happens to many young kids when any one of them first begins to view himself as having been “cast off” by the larger social dynamic.  The proverbial ball of string that unwinds from there contributes greatly to the mindset that we see from many of those who espouse far-Leftist viewpoints as well as what we see in the deeply-seated scars of class warfare.

I’m not breaking any real news flashes when I say that when any of our young people first enter high school, they’re searching for their future selves, that identity and understanding of themselves that will allow them to move forward confidently in life and to feel as though they have the same chance as everyone else to leave a mark on the world in one way or another.  What I have seen happen time and time again is actually quite simple.  As I said, our school has a tradition of academic excellence, but it also has an equally impressive athletic tradition.  It doesn’t take much to understand that most–but certainly not all–of our young men enter our school community with dreams of being the next Major League Baseball player, NFL star, division I college basketball prospect, or National Hockey League standout.

Indeed, we have sent a lot of players into the top levels of professional sports in addition to both minor leagues and collegiate successes.  Unfortunately, sometime between the ages of 14-16, many of our young men come face-to-face with the harsh realities of life, sometimes for the first time: the games eventually end.  The essence of our society–competition, and in this case at the highest level–presents the cruel truths that those who are most equipped to prosper in a given field are those who earn the most success.  It is at this point that a young person can choose to feel sorry for himself or to pick himself up and to try another endeavor.

Once again in the case of our school, following those who show athletic prowess, those who exhibit academic excellence usually find themselves in the next proverbial hierarchical “in-group.”  Each year, many of our students are accepted to elite universities around the country (which, unfortunately, isn’t necessarily a good thing these days).  As one might expect, though, there’s always a good number of our students who don’t make a mark in either of the two most significant arenas and, consequently, these are the young men that by the time they’re seniors are the ones that I get to know the best, because they more often than not become fairly frequent flyers in my office — the Office of the Assistant Principal.

In the larger picture, the incidents that lead to certain young men being sent to my office are probably reasonably insignificant in comparison to what’s happening in the public schools, but there’s also far less tolerance for nonsense at our school as a private institution.  The more general point, however, is that with nothing with which to truly identify on a daily basis, school becomes a daily reminder that in one sense or another they don’t measure up; in response to what is essentially their “acting out,” my job therefore becomes two-fold, as it is not only my responsibility to ensure that common sense behavioral standards are maintained but also to somehow show the young men in question that there’s going to be a lot more for them to potentially accomplish merely beyond high school.  Clearly, that’s not always an easy task, since the vast majority of these kids lack the life experience and maturity to see beyond the next 24 hours of life, and in many cases have further problems at home with some degree of family dysfunction.  When it all comes out in the wash, these particular kids quite often seek out a sense of belonging in people and places that they probably shouldn’t, situations that become self-fulfilling prophecies as they’re probably told over and over again that their circumstances in life couldn’t possibly be their fault and that all of this “misery” was, without question, somehow thrust upon them through no fault of their own.

Look at the scenario as a whole: the three social institutions that should ideally form the very basis of their identities–faith, family, and school–have been systematically undermined by the far left in this country over the course of the last six-plus decades.  Consequently, the socially “disenfranchised” become a union of sorts in and of themselves.  There’s another word for it as well: a gang, from which it’s always very difficult to extricate oneself once you’ve joined.

The “Fellowship of the Miserable,” an expression coined by famed professional and college basketball coach Rick Pitino during his brief tenure as head coach of the Boston Celtics, becomes more and more of a social force as it becomes larger and larger, its power vested in resentment and anger.  This is the reservoir of power that is tapped by those who operate politically from the far left in an effort to further their own causes (I could list a lot of the Democrats currently seated in Washington, but I don’t think I actually have enough room in this column).

Amidst all of the facts and figures presented throughout Waiting for Superman, the most telling portion of the film to me was the part dealing with the efforts of Michelle Rhee, Commissioner for Education for the Washington, DC School District.  In her extraordinarily well-intentioned efforts to truly get to the root causes of the problems in public education, she came upon a remarkably novel solution: do away with teacher tenure and offer the educators of the school district the opportunity to double their salary in merit pay.  The proposal was so unique that it received an appreciable degree of actual discussion, but in the end the teachers’ union was so threatened by the potential implications that it refused to even allow a vote on the measure.  The head of the NEA, briefly interviewed as part of the documentary, even went on record as saying that she resented the fact that Rhee was trying to divide the people.

Excuse me? Maybe it’s just me, but after taking a gander at what’s happening in Wisconsin, I don’t think I’m too far off-base in saying that it certainly seems that the social force that is the unions–particularly the union leaders–is the one that is separating itself from everyday American citizens, since it’s from the inside of the pockets of the taxpayers that they’re living their secure lifestyles.

I’d be willing to bet, though, that there were plenty of teachers who are part of that teachers’ union who would have loved the prospect of merit pay, potentially making $125,000 per year.  Of course, that would also allow the school districts to keep the best educators while reserving less resources for underperforming teachers or cutting ties with them altogether.  However, as I already noted, once a person is part of a gang it’s always difficult to get out, because those who are firmly entrenched are threatened by the possibility of someone else’s succeeding and lifting him or herself above the fray of the pack.

While the three R’s–reading, writing and arithmetic–are obviously very important in the most practical sense–i.e., our young people being able to compete in the American and global economy–the quandary that truly needs to be addressed in the schools is the idea that has gradually taken root in the underbelly of our society, namely that if someone is not granted the immediate and exact social success for which he or she pines, “organizing” in an effort to bully those who have worked for their own success is seen, for some perverse reason, as a de facto civil right.  That, my friends, is a tall, tall order, the essence of which is at the heart of human nature.

We are a Christian nation and, as such, programs that offer a “hand up” during difficult times but do not de-evolve into “hand-outs” are the right thing to do.  It is the latter of the two, unfortunately, that has been used to perpetuate the conditions of the public schools, in both the social realities of state assistance and the jobs programs that the school systems have become. The answer for the schools is the same as for society: incentivize personal responsibility, both in the students and the teachers, and allow the same mentality which built America into the world’s foremost superpower to ensure that today’s youth have the best possible future.



  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ll be a fan of merit based pay the day that merit based classrooms and/or teacher selected classroom students becomes the standard. The legal system stands in the way far more than the unions.

  2. Jeff Schreiber says:

    Great piece of writing, Feen.

  3. Sam says:

    1:13 That actually would be kinda fun watching teachers pick the students they want. Reminds me of my trauma in gym class when it came time to pick sides for basketball.

  4. John Feeny says:

    Thank you, sir.

  5. Gail B. says:

    Great piece of writing, John. And, your students are soooooo lucky to have someone with some UNcommon sense!

  6. whats_up says:

    Mr. Feeny,

    For the most part I agree with you on this posting (I know, I wont make it a habit.) The problem with merit pay is how it is carried out. How do you measure the teachers, individually? By subject? By school? For example how would those teachers that handle special needs children be judged? How about those who only teach advanced AP classes? What about those that get stuck with the lowest learners? Private schools have an advantage as they can turn away students, public schools with few exceptions dont have this luxury. Also included, who is doing the judging? Other teachers? Parents? Administrators?

  7. Dean says:

    Good piece of writing, John, and excellent comment by whats_up. I want to piggy back on whats_up, because, in this rare instance, I am in agreement with most of what he says. As an ex public high school teacher, assistant principal, and principal (I am now the principal of a prison school) in a system that had “merit” pay, I can testify from first hand experience that merit pay totally destroys collegiality among staff members. The teachers become very competitive to get the necessary evaluation rating that earns the merit pay – unfortunately, they will not share their secret of doing so with the other teachers for fear of one of the others getting a better evaluation that earns THEM the merit pay at the cost of the sharer’s merit pay. It can cause some really ugly realtionships in the lounge/workroom/hallways that become easily evident to the students. I assure you that it makes life for the administrators horrible.

  8. Anonymous says:

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