“Won’t Back Down” Stands up to its Critics

“Won’t Back Down” is a tribute – to hardworking, courageous teachers AND parents everywhere.  It is a tribute to everyone who stands up for their convictions and suffers the slings and arrows of the powerful, the narrow-minded and the lazy entrenched.  Although the phrase “Won’t Back Down” is more contemporary, the movie reminds us of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses (in 1517), of which he stated, “I will not recant. Here I stand.” Just as Luther’s defying ushered in the Reformation, perhaps two parents, one a teacher, will prove to be as powerful against power of the local teachers’ union and the school district’s administration in this must-see movie.

The movie is not a documentary.  The credits state it was “inspired by a true story” and there are sure to be more comparable true stories out there.  What makes “Won’t Back Down” so attractive is its theme of Everyman who stands up to opposition, and wins.  From the story of David and Goliath to Joe The Plumber, people are awestruck, inspired and energized by the “little guy” whose fortitude helps them win against a magnitude of odds.

What makes it relevant to CEAFU supporters and all concerned educators is its focus on the harm done by teacher union monopoly bargaining power, which is more about teacher perks and limiting education than ensuring students are educated.  

The writer and producer place the blame directly where it lies – on the monopoly bargaining contract that has forced teachers to back down from doing what is right, and has allowed the school administration to shrug off any responsibility for children not being able to learn.  It presents an equitable view of both sides of the issue, and sticks to its thesis that school should be for kids.  

Teachers on both side of the issue are portrayed as human, with faults and failings, with courage and the ability to change their perspectives.  Teachers and the school administration and teacher union officials should all work for the successful education of kids, not to kill time babysitting and receive a substantial paycheck to do so.

The writer seems to have made a thorough study of the late Al Shanker, who founded and served as president of the American Federation of Teachers/AFL-CIO, for many years.  Although the movie does not mention either teacher union at all, in reviewing the portrayal of the teachers and teacher union officials, two Al Shanker quotes come to mind:  “A professional is the closest thing to a propped-up dead body I know of.” (1981 Annual AFT convention)  And, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” (Albert Shanker, Meridian Star, MS, 8/13/1985.)

The credits state the movie was inspired by actual events.  Many incidents of teacher union official intimidation in the CEAFU files attest to the movies’ credibility in that regard.   Although she repudiates her position in the end, Holly Hunter (Evelyn), as the local teacher union president, bears an uncanny resemblance, in looks, speech and attitude, to the late Sandra Feldman, who for many years was president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  The difference is that Evelyn, after trying every trick she can think of to entice Jamie into dropping her plan to reform the school, leaves the teacher union in the end to go back to teaching.  

Of course, the plot centers around the struggles of two parents – one a teacher – who are disenchanted with their children’s education, and they take on the entrenched teachers union (of which every teacher seems to be a member) and the equally entrenched school administration, from the principal on up.  Both parties have a “good deal,” and have a good deal to lose if these parents win and take over the school.  

The movie is full of incidents where teacher and administrators fail to put kids first, as Jamie and Maggie work to do just that – put their children first.  In the end, however, some of the teachers and administrators change their minds and join the school reform movement.

The main character, Jamie, watches as her daughter suffers from humiliation by teacher and classmates because she is dyslexic. Unable to send her daughter to a private school, she summons the courage to fight for a better school for her daughter.  She charms and persuades a teacher, Nona, who is already disenchanted with the situation at the school, to join her in her quest to turn the school around.  Both parents have children with learning and emotional disabilities that require some special attention, which they are not getting in their current classes, which makes their struggle all the more poignant.  It is clear their only wish is to make education for the kids, in a place where they are surrounded by an adult bureaucracy where the priority is on making things easy on themselves. 

The parents work tirelessly to attract community support, armed with nothing but determination, courage and the facts, and meet treachery around every corner.  Teacher union officials and school administrators, shaken by the possibility of losing their power, turn to intimidation tactics.  The writer here has done his homework – when the going gets tough teacher union officials turn to Saul Alinsky tactics, like polarizing the opposition and spreading rumors and half-truths around the community, building up emotional fervor against the reformers.

Even the principal finds grounds to fire Nona after she has obeyed his instructions.  Her son suffers indignities as his teacher verbally abuses him.   Jamie’s daughter is humiliated over and over by classmates and teacher.  

“Won’t Back Down” is a must-see for all parents.  Maggie Gyllenhall and Viola Davis, the two main characters of the movie, are all too believable as parents of children with learning problems.  You may be brought to tears as you watch the 2 women struggle to provide their children with what they need, and as they share the slings and arrows aimed at their children because they are “different” in a classroom designed for “normal” children.  For parents whose children do not face these challenges, the movie will give them some insight into the lives of other people.  

“Won’t Back Down” will upset many people, including many teachers, as it attacks sensitive subjects like tenure, teachers’ workload, and differing values about the role of a teacher and pedagogy.   It has already been reviled by teacher union officials.  The movie has been downloaded on one northern state’s teacher union website, so its members do not have to pay to see the movie. 

While every movie will have its critics, and this is certain to be a very controversial one, it provides a lot of food for thought for every one, including teachers.