Hollywood takes on teacher unions

Jon East

Won’t Back Down is a quintessential Hollywood drama in which a teacher and parent unite to fight against the odds and restore hope to their dysfunctional elementary school, and it comes complete with a tear-evoking final scene in which a young girl conquers a stressful passage of reading. Only in the real world of education, though, would a feel-good movie provoke a national teacher union president to release a 2,000-word critique branding it as “divisive” and claiming it “demoralizes millions of great teachers.”

Let’s just say this is American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten playing to type.

The film is fictional and, interestingly enough, presents characters that in many ways have more dimension than those in the educational documentary, Waiting for Superman, that featured Weingarten herself.  The director, Daniel Barnz, comes from a family of teachers and told a screening audience this week at the Republican National Convention that: “We wanted to create a film that suggests that people can come together.”

Though the movie is being billed as a dramatic reenactment of parent trigger laws, Barnz himself calls attention to a significant difference. In his fictional account, the “fail-safe” law does not allow charter conversion and only allows for a leadership change at a school with the support of both the parents and the teachers – and then the school board.

Yes, the school principal, school administration and the local teacher union are cast as villains. But the teachers are most certainly not.

We are brought into the teacher’s lounge where we see them struggle with their limitations, anguish about the right path ahead. We see a teacher who becomes the love interest of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s main character reject the petition campaign until he confronts a union representative whose combative words change his mind. What we really see is not so different from the workers in any company – that teachers bring a range of talent, ambition and desires to their workplace, and they wrestle with each other over who and what are getting in the way of success.

These frank discussions may have represented some of the most genuine moments in the film, because teaching truly is a noble profession for which its practitioners seek neither money nor fame. Teachers draw their greatest satisfaction from seeing children conquer multiplication or subjects and verbs, and they can feel at times just as alienated by their union as by their school boards. That doesn’t necessarily make them anti-union. It just makes them human.

This is where Weingarten, in real life, is now playing a character that is less sympathetic than the one played on screen by Holly Hunter. Unions today operate in perpetual combat mode and are skilled at defeating candidates and referenda. But until recently they never had to take on Hollywood, and this is a dicier opponent.

Hollywood profits by connecting with its audiences, and parents will certainly connect with this film. They will be taken through a 151-minute emotional journey from angst to hope about their children’s future, and they are not likely to be impressed if, upon their departure from the theater, they see Weingarten waving a picket sign.

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