Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Politics and the Message of “The Principal Story”

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Education is a hot-button issue, both politically and personally. But I still couldn’t believe the reaction to President Obama‘s Back-to-School speech two weeks ago. Right-wing zealots raging about how it should be boycotted? School districts in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin actually complying and boycotting the broadcast of the speech?
The speech, as it turned out, could have very well come from the lips of Ronald Reagan, or Ayn Rand for that matter: it was all about the individual’s responsibility — specifically, the student’s — to succeed.

So I was interested in watching The Principal Story, the POV doc about two school principals in Chicago, to see how it addressed that hot-button issue. But incredibly, I felt that it barely touched it — despite a cameo from Arne Duncan before he became secretary of education. There’s not even a mention of No Child Left Behind. It’s just about some students, teachers and two principals doing their best to educate the children at their schools.

The strongest message I get from The Principal Story is that our schools are in trouble, and that we need smart people who care to make them better. It’s not exactly a new message, but one we need to be reminded of. It could be deemed pretty non-partisan — but then I think about the current status of public schools in my hometown, New York City, and how the Board of Education has decided that in order to cut costs, principals must hire within the current teacher pool rather than hiring newly trained teachers (read: smart people who care). So we’ll be stuck with older (and probably less energetic) teachers instead of fresh, bushy-tailed ones.

That’s the political subtext I found myself thinking about after watching The Principal Story. I wonder what the right-wingers might cook up. I’m surprised there isn’t an organized boycott already in place, for some half-baked opposition to the politics of The Principal Story — a doc that is as inspiring, and yet non-polemical, as Obama’s recent speech.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Michele N. Killette

    FOREIGNID: 20613
    Oh Yes, education is a hot-button issue today. It is very unfortunate that this issue is hot politically and on my part personally. I am a former teacher of the Baltimore City Public School System. One of many who has been terminated for what is called the “No Child Left Behind Act.” This law in my opinion has left our children behind, because it is suppose to deem an individual “highly qualified,” therefore certified, but it does not. It only says that an individual has passed these specific tests. I and many others have taken these tests, and are having difficulty passing portions of them, but this does not mean that we are not “highly qualified.” I strongly believe that when an individual attends college and completes their course work and upon doing this obtains a teaching position and does their job efficiently and effectively, they are “highly qualified.” The determination of quality teaching must be placed back into the principals hands where it belongs, without all of the long and drawn out complicated paperwork, and the interference of individuals who are not in the position to make the decision, because they are not there to observe daily, therefore they can’t make the determination of “highly qualified or not highly qualified.” Therefore being able to produce passing schools. By not allowing the principals to do their jobs, individuals who are so called “highly qualified” teachers are allowed to remain in the classroom, collect a check on a bi-weekly basis, and “LEAVE OUR CHILDREN BEHIND!” Therefore our schools fail. Something need to be done about this law, and it “NEEDS TO STOP!”
    Who teaches the students everyday? Who makes sure that the students achieve and succeed? Who takes the time to speak to the upset or angry student to find out what has put them in that present state of mind, and assure them that all will be alright? Who takes the time to evaluate each student to make sure that they are recieving the appropriate instruction and quality education? “A QUALIFIED DEDICATED TEACHER!” What does a qualified dedicated teacher need to assist them in doing this and more? A qualified, caring, compassionate, honest and fair principal. One who knows quality, not because of a test, but because that is what the teacher delivers.
    I started with the Baltimore City Public School System as a parent volunteer when my children were in elementary school. I entered the system in 1997, as a children’s assistant, and worked as an assistant until I became a teacher in 2004. I waited to go to college until my youngest child was in middle school, because I knew that my children would have to be home by themselves at night, because I would be working during the day and attending school at night. I also wanted to give my children my undivied, uninterruped parental attention in all aspects of their lives, so I waited to accomplish what I wanted to ever since I was a child. That was to become a qualified dedicated teacher! I have not given up on the profession that I intend to retire from. I am continuing to take the Praxis test, and I will return to the classroom to continue to do the job that I love doing. When I do this I hope to teach in the New York City Public School System, because I feel that this is a system that has come a long way, it is a system that faces alot of challenges, and rises to each challenge with the solutions that impact it’s students positively. I am an individual who welcomes a challenge and takes it head on to success!
    I am writing this to say that teaching may not always be easy, but it is always rewarding. These rewards should be shared by those who truly deserve them. There are wonderful, qualified, dedicated principals and teachers in all of our schools. Lets do what needs to be done to make sure that these are the individuals educating our children, so they will not be “LEFT BEHIND” This is a very complicated ISSUE, but it does not have to be!

  • DRoss

    FOREIGNID: 20635
    Very moving example of good people falling through the cracks of a society that quite often punishes, love of thy neighbor as weak! Children and adults easily see through insincerity and become disillusioned, to send as great a message as these principles ,teachers and Povs have done is truly a blessing! Truly Good examples, Thank you for the hope.

  • John Harville

    FOREIGNID: 20667
    Dear Mr. Roston, After a bried period of reflection, I came to this conclusion. You are letting your prejudices show through. Not all of the persons who boycotted Pres. Obama’s speech are “right-wing zealots”. Quite a few are person such as myself, self-thinking individuals who do not want any part of a socialist government system.
    Quite some time back, certain types of persons decided to change our school system to a more relaxed and non-competitive nature and look how that turned out for us as a nation. Quit wining and DO SOMETHING besides write about how right-wingers are the problem and help Chicago change their school system. Oh, and please apologize to the teachers whom you called “just some teachers”. Geez man, get a grip.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 20671
    When you say you don’t want any part of a socialist government, are you suggesting you don’t believe in a public school system? That’s interesting. Like, all American kids should be home schooled? And who are these nefarious “certain types” who made our schools too relaxed and non-competitive? Socialists? I don’t follow, but I do share your dismay at the state of public education in this country. That, we can agree on.

  • Luc Watelet

    FOREIGNID: 20864
    I just watched the tail end of The Principal Story. Tod Landing says at the end how we need heart and passion in order to make a difference. Saving children from the fate that awaits them depends on the heart and passion that is offered to them.
    The problem is “heart and passion” is not rewarded financially. I have a PhD in biostatistics. I could make lots of money working to make drugs and vaccines approved by the FDA for various pharmaceutical companies. But something was missing for me. I needed to find my heart. That cost me my marriage because my wife at the time wanted me to continue being employed as a biostatistician as she got scared. Perhaps I could have continued… but feeling pressured by her like that made me feel I needed to run away to find myself. In the process of finding myself I became a home health aide for 3 years. There I found out that clients wanted me back. They called to ask that I be sent to them. My supervisor asked me early on: “What do you do?” I did not know because I did not know what other aides did not do. I had a blind lady, who did not want any male aide, call the office after I visited her for 15 minutes to let them know that I could always come back even though at first when I was at the door she turned me away. I have a lady client who will not accept any male aide to help her with a shower and personal care except me. I told my company that aides are advertisers for the company and we should be paid as such. But nothing changes.
    Why aren’t the heart and passion rewarded financially? Should we offer PhDs to people who have it in order to be able to give them substantial raises?
    There should a be a story somewhere related to this issue because I can imagine a society that would reward heart work… and I can imagine how happy such a society could be!