I recently watched “Whatever It Takes” as part of an event sponsored by an education advocacy organization here in law school. (Note: this documentary has no connection with the Paul Tough book of the same name on the Harlem Children’s Zone.) The 2007 documentary examines the progress of the Bronx Center for Science & Mathematics in its first year. The film traces several main characters, including a struggling student who is offered a spot at a summer enrichment program sponsored by Dartmouth College; the principal, a former teacher but newbie administrator; a social worker who, like her students, grew up in the Bronx; and a teacher who, for a multitude of reasons, submits a resignation letter midway through the school year, her first.
Afterwards, we, a group of law students interested in issues in education (and, for what it’s worth, substantially composed of TFA alumni), discussed the documentary. The consensus was that the movie seemed to lack any sort of overarching theme.
While I agree in part with this sentiment, I do think that the film brings into focus–although maybe not in an intentional, coherent way–a central issue in education: balance.
I saw “balance” playing out in 5 broad ways in the film:
(1) Balancing school size: Substantively, this is the most obvious way that balance appears. The film starts by mentioning that in 2002 the NYC Department of Education began its “small schools” initiative, which broke up many large public schools into several smaller ones. The rationale was that smaller schools would better create a sense of community and prevent students on the margin from slipping through the cracks. Principal Tom affirms this on the first day of school, when he tells his 108 new students that he needs “commitment” for the school to succeed. In turn, he recognizes that his school “need[s] to be the haven where [the students] can find peace.” The film, by giving us an example of one (and admittedly only one) “small school” makes us think about the optimal point for school size. How many students should a school have? Does that question even matter?
(2) Balancing work and “life”: This is a perennial problem in any career, but particularly so for those working for others. The film best shows this through the social worker, who, like her students, grew up “hard” in the Bronx, but nevertheless carves out time for her personal life. In a clip of her playing baseball, she says “you just gotta have that balance…to be a whole person.” On the other hand, Ms. Balogh, the first-year science teacher (believe it or not, not TFA and actually a traditional ed school graduate) succumbs to the pressure of work and submits her resignation letter mid-way through the school year (she stays at the school through the end of the school year). Though she claims that the commute was the primary reason for quitting, she admits off-hand that other factors exist. How can educators in schools best balance the crucial work they do everyday with students while fulfilling their own needs?
(3) Balancing short-term and long-term goals: The film showed several examples of how short-term goals conflict with long-term goals. Mid-way through the year, a student, angry at Ms. Balogh, tags a wall with the statement “Ms. Balogh sucks.” Principal Tom, with his all-or-nothing, no-exceptions attitude, holds an all-school meeting and declares that students will not have class until someone comes forward, either to take responsibility for the incident or to offer information (“snitch” as students might be wont to say) on the culprit. After a few days, still no one has spoken up. Students and teachers are clearly frustrated. Why let the wrong of one person prevent the rest of the school from learning? Isn’t that unfair? Principal Tom’s steadfastness shows that he would rather suffer the short-term harm of a few day’s worth of class lost in order to achieve the long-term goal of building a school environment that doesn’t tolerate disrespect–one that ultimately is better for the students. The catch, of course, is that Ms. Balogh has a very good sense of who the culprit was–the student stormed out of her class only moments before the graffiti was discovered. When short- and long-term goals conflict, what system do we use to choose between or modify them?
(4) Balancing aspirations with reality: Principal Tom is a go-getter. He feels that he was called by God to help teach others. And he’s serious about taking his students to the top. The film shows many clips of him speaking to students, emphasizing the high expectations he has for his students. But he recognizes reality too: “A lot of our expectations are unrealistic. It’s been 14 years and they haven’t learned this yet… And 7 months is going to change that?… What is the time frame for this work? We really need to recognize that.” At what point do we recognize that the goals we may set are unrealistic? If they do become unrealistic, do we stubbornly continue pursuing them or reevaluate?
(5) Balancing the burden of responsibility: Principal Tom refers to what he calls the “triangle of success.” The student is at the apex of the triangle, but, supporting her are three elements: parent, school and community. The film highlights some of the challenges around the shared responsibility of educating a child. A whatever-it-takes mentality undertaken by only one realm might do little for a student’s trajectory of success. Speaking with a parent, Principal Tom says “you have to make the noise; we can’t always make the noise for you.” What balance should exist between the various parties responsible for educating a child?
I’m not sure if director Christopher Wong intended to communicate this theme through his film. This is just my personal reading.
Though I didn’t walk out of the room feeling like my life had changed, I definitely think the film is worth watching, particularly if you’re interested in exploring the dilemmas around building a school up from day one. Give it a whirl!