There are definitely bad teachers in the world. If you have spent any time reading some of my old teacher posts (posts written by me, an old teacher) you might have the idea that I think I was a great teacher. You couldn’t be more wrong. I was a teacher open to learning from hard experience how to do the job better. I improved. In fact, I improved quite a bit, especially at the end of my career, the last decade. But there were times that I understood what a bad teacher is because I was one.
Of course, the place to start with understanding bad teachers is the whole notion of classroom discipline. For many principals, parents, and even teachers who should know better, a well-disciplined classroom is a quiet place with all the students seated (correct and healthy posture only) with heads bent over books and worksheets and stuff to do that supposedly qualifies as “learning”. I know how to do this, because (especially when I started as a teacher in a school that students nearly burned down the year before I got there) I had to spend some time ruling through fear. I made them keep their heads down. I made them be quiet. And I forced them to stay seated with more worksheets than they could do per period and little in the way of stimulus to keep them from thinking up ways to misbehave. And, of course, I had students who were creative and brilliant enough to make my life as a teacher a living Hell despite how well I wore the Marine Corps drill-sergeant costume. That isn’t teaching. That is merely controlling their external behavior. It is a very good way to teach kids to hate learning and hate going to school (unless, of course, you can look forward to doing apple rolls or lighting off fire-crackers in Mr. B’s room so you get to see the principal yell at him).
There are teachers who go for entire careers spending their whole day battling behaviors and filling class periods with lessons whose only goal is to keep kids quiet and busy. Most of them are miserable all the time. They end up hating being a teacher and hating kids. Some become extremely negative and make you dread being in the same teachers’ lounge with them. They will often say terrible things about kids you actually love and often, the terrible things they claim that student did in the classroom are actually true. I used to wonder why the kids acted so differently in their classes than they did in mine. But I had to learn the lesson that negativity only makes more negativity. Unlike in Math Class, a negative times a negative does not make a positive when it comes to teaching.
Once in a while negative pressure from the teacher teaches a kid something. I remember one time when one of my favorite gifted students, a girl who was head seventh grade cheerleader, student council vice president, and extremely pretty, failed to read the assignments in To Kill a Mockingbird. I made the poor girl cry by calling out her behavior in front of her class full of over-achievers and suggesting that she had too many irons in the fire and too little commitment to reading a very great piece of literature. I embarrassed her in front of her friends. And because she was a self-starter, she vowed to herself to read the entire book before the rest of the class was scheduled to finish it. She later thanked me for making her read the book. She said it was a wonderful reading experience that changed her life, and she never would’ve finished it if I hadn’t forced her to take it on. The appreciation felt very good for a while. But I realized that it really had nothing to do with my skills as a teacher. I merely used extortion and humiliation as a weapon to force someone to do what they would probably have eventually done anyway on their own. You can’t prevent kids like her from learning.
And another problem for bad teachers is the whole idea of “playing favorites”. I have heard other teachers say things like, “Thank God for Sasha and Abby in my third hour class. I couldn’t stand it if they weren’t there to answer the questions and make lessons work.” Too often I have heard students tell me to my face, “You are a hypocrite for getting mad at me. Larry the Loudmouth gets away with doing the exact thing all the time. You even laugh at his jokes sometimes even though they are about you!” And I realize I have always had a problem with having “favorite students”. I love teaching because I love kids. The only solution I have ever found for liking some of the kids too much is to try to make them all feel like they are my favorite student. Even the bad ones who I make voodoo dolls of at home to stick needles in when I am in a vengeful mood… Yes, even some of those have been my favorite kids.
So I have been a bad teacher at times. I have learned to recognize what is bad about certain very common teacher behaviors. I have observed enough other teachers in action to realize that the bad ones outnumber the good ones by two to one… more in some schools that are going steadily down hill. And being a good teacher doesn’t get that teacher any monetary value as compensation for their efforts. Even the best ones will have to endure being under-valued, under-paid, dis-respected, and generally treated like a second-class citizen. People who teach can be forgiven for being bad teachers at times. The behavior is understandable. But there is gold-and-platinum value in those rare few who are honestly good teachers. We need to recognize it more and reward it more. Not all teachers are bad teachers. And some deserve to be called great.