Melissa Serio (St. Louis '08) is a manager of teacher leadership development and real-time coach with Teach For America in Los Angeles.
Spoiler alert: Won’t Back Down ends with hope. Literally, the last word of the movie is “hope.” And you know what? I left the theater feeling just that.
As a former public school teacher who now coaches and supports teachers in both traditional and charter public schools, I know all too well the challenges our kids and teachers face every day. But the bottom line is: We have to have hope to work in public education, and it can’t hurt to be reminded of that.
Sure, there are some things the movie might exaggerate, glorify, and even demonize for effect, but a fair share of scenes reflect what I’ve seen and experienced firsthand. I’ve seen teachers scream at students and then sit back and do nothing. I’ve experienced the power parents have when they team up with teachers to provide better opportunities for their kids. And these are only a few small glimpses of the problems within education.
I’m not going to lie, the film’s portrayal of the teachers union made me uncomfortable. I didn’t join the union when I started teaching, for two reasons: First, I viewed the union as an organization that protected bad teachers; and second, I was broke and needed that extra $50 a paycheck. But then, in my second year of teaching, my 11th and 12th graders raised money for a trip abroad, and on a technicality, the school administration turned down the trip; if I tried to pursue it, my job would be on the line. Knowing that unions exist for this very reason, I became a union member. The union helped me keep my job so that I could give my students—most of whom had never left the state—the opportunity to travel to France and Spain.
Throughout this experience, my biggest supporters, alongside the union, were my students’ parents. I think there is potential for unions to be about teachers and students. And that brings me back to my Won’t Back Down spoiler. The story of teacher Nona Alberts (played by Viola Davis) left me feeling hopeful. When the film begins, the feeling in her classroom is apathetic; by the end, it’s a place of joyful learning.
It’s important to remember that teachers come to this work for the kids, even if that doesn’t always appear to be the case. There are people who wake up every day to fight for education and our students’ futures because they believe they can do something about it. Right now there’s a lot of debate about education—what works and what doesn’t—but we can’t let that lead to paralysis. We have to keep trying for something better than what exists.
I don’t think Won’t Back Down will change the opinions of those in the education field, and I don’t think it’s meant to. What it can do is broaden the education conversation for those who do not live it every day. We need more people to feel hopeful enough to do something; our kids can’t wait.
Melissa Serio was a 2008 St. Louis corps member. After her time in the corps, she joined the staff of Teach For America—St. Louis as a manager of teacher leadership development. She recently transferred back to her home state of California and is now a manager of teacher leadership development and real-time coach with Teach For America—Los Angeles. She enjoys going to the beach, dancing, and spending time with friends and family, and loves trying new things.