Waiting for Superman? How Does an "Ordinary" Teacher Become Extraordinary?

10/22/2010 07:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was in labor (which 27 hours produced a 9 1/2-pound son), my then-husband was enthusiastically cheering me on. "You can do it! A little harder! Just keep pushing."

By the 25th hour, I would have walloped him had I not been (literally) passing out in between contractions.

Having just seen Waiting for 'Superman', my first instinct was to join the ranks of those who were targeting teachers for their willingness to exploit the system with tenure that lets many get away with doing a mediocre job of teaching our precious kids. But as I let my emotions settle, I realized that -- in the same way that I help parents manage a child's misbehavior by looking for the root of the problem rather than on creating better punishments to manage its manifestation -- we have to dig for the essence of the issue with teachers who have become complacent on the job.

If I'm working with a parent whose child, say, whines incessantly, I'll treat the problem like Jeopardy: "If whining is the answer, what is the question?" In other words, "Why does little Lila's whining make sense?" Sometimes the answer is that it's the only way that Lila gets attention. Other parents will admit that whining tends to get their daughter what she wants, because they eventually cave in. By looking at the payoff for a behavior, we can better understand how to change it.

So, why does a "mediocre" teacher's "mediocre" effort make sense? And what would it take (teachers: please respond!) for that same teacher to feel supported, engaged and lit up?

This is the question we need to be asking -- and addressing. Sure, the system of guaranteed tenure allows teachers to get away with doing a lousy job in the classroom, while still being guaranteed a paycheck. But let's dig deeper. Based on everything I know about my fellow members of the human race, most physically and emotionally healthy people really like the feeling that comes from doing well at something.

Whether it's getting a cranky baby to sleep, cleaning a dirty window until it sparkles, or helping a child sound out a difficult word in their reader, it's immensely satisfying to do well at something. In fact, we know from the devastating substance abuse and depression suffered by many trust fund kids who don't need to work that the satisfaction that comes from expressing our talents is hugely important to our sense of psychological well-being. (This is why Bill and Melinda Gates are deliberately not leaving their entire fortune to their children.)

As a former Fred John Sales award Teacher of the Year recipient -- (it was in college, and I mention it with half a tongue in cheek) -- and more importantly, as a former teacher, I know the joy that comes from teaching children. I loved the feeling of helping a youngster think through a tricky math problem, feel pride in sharing a personal essay, or catch on to a difficult science concept. Teaching was my drug of choice; I loved my work, and was fueled by my passion.

While some bad teachers may have joined the profession after discovering that teaching offered unrivaled job security, I don't believe most of them set out to exploit the system. I think we need to look at the fact that some mediocre teachers did start out with a fire in their belly, and the fire...burned out.

I'm enthusiastically in favor of turning the education system inside out so that inadequate teachers are sent off to other professions while enterprising ones are rewarded for their efforts. Kudos to Michelle Rhee and those like her who have been fearless in their effort to purge the system of teachers who, well, aren't teaching.

But I believe we're going to have to address the underlying issue of motivation, too. It may well be that there are moderately good teachers who would be great teachers if they had less bureaucracy to contend with, more parental support, counseling for the overwhelming stress or fatigue of the job or simply, better training for the rigors of the profession...and on and on. What do ordinary teachers do to become extraordinary? This question needs to be examined and acted upon if the system is to fully right itself.

Otherwise, those of us stirred up after watching Waiting for 'Superman' will simply become like my former husband at our son's birth, cheering our teachers on from the sidelines with generic advice like "You can do it!" without having a real clue as to the immense challenges they're up against.

If we can identify what drives exceptional effort in the teaching profession and replicate that (while weeding out those teachers who simply don't belong in the classroom) we'll accelerate the change that's so urgently needed in the education system. Let's find out what we need to do to revitalize and rekindle the spark and passion for teaching in our teachers, if it's there, recognizing that we all share responsibility for "birthing" these children of ours into the wonderful lives they so deserve.