In Defense of Bad Teachers

The Poet’s Eye loves to see the national chorus being raised by the Waiting for Superman movie and the unified media push on the subject of education reform. One thing that troubles me is that we seem to be, in the process of creating a sense of urgency, risking a witch-hunt that will distract from real solutions. The witch-hunt is based on the dubious assumption that our system isn’t working properly because the evil unions are sponsoring what are vaguely termed ‘bad teachers’ or ‘inferior teachers.’ They might as well say ‘heretics.’ When labels like that start to be flown, hysteria often ensues.

This is not a hard proposition to sell because if you don’t have some rich and unpleasant experiences with bad teachers, then you haven’t been to school. And even if you haven’t been to school there are ample portrayals of terrible, even evil teachers in film and TV fiction. The haughty, cruel or dismissive teacher is a perennially favorite literary archetype. So, when Mayor Bloomburg or other quite sincere reformers point to ‘bad teachers’ as the culprits responsible for our educational crisis, not only is it an unfounded accusation, it is scapegoating at its best and at worst could express itself in witch-hunts and arbitrary purging within the teaching profession. Certainly there are bad teachers just as there are clumsy surgeons and crooked lawyers. Any profession has its miscreants, but it’s not appropriate to judge any group by its worst representatives.

I feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t experienced at least one really bad teacher during their academic career. It should be a required course credit. Call it How One Vain, Incompetent or Power-crazed Person Can Make the Lives of Thirty Other People Miserable One Oh One. It is a very useful life lesson to see what it does to a class or a community or any organization when one person is marking time in their job, just getting the old paycheck. There should be a dead-beat on every faculty just to provide a lab for studying the results of incompetence and apathy.

But realistically there aren’t that many terrible teachers and certainly not enough to be singlehandedly responsible for the dry-rot in our national intellectual timbers. Most teachers are dedicated and diligent and doing their best in a hard situation, Angels in Shit. The whole Bad Teachers thing is a strawman. The real reasons for our sad state of academic decay are manifold and include our vapid culture of consumerism which places little value on knowledge, our system of school taxation and administration which makes money and politics more important than learning, our fast-changing technology that often finds students knowing more about new technologies than their instructors, and rigid and entrenched institutional traditions which won’t allow schools to adapt to rapid, constant change. Then there is the pedagogic elephant in the classroom, namely that much of the curriculum is completely irrelevant to the lives and futures of our students. We are trying to teach 21st century minds with 19th Century methods. These are conditions too abstract to consider so we focus on something tangible, something that we feel we can do something about, like Evil Tenured Union Teachers. In this atmosphere, if I were a middle-aged marginally popular Latin teacher with her hair in a bun I would be worried for my job.

Before we start burning unpopular teachers at the stake, we should do what is wise when examining any large institutional problem, and follow the money. We should take a particularly hard look at how we finance education and how we decide where this massive amount of money goes. We get taxed in two main ways, on our jobs and on our houses. They tax your job with income and payroll taxes and they tax your property with school taxes. It can be argued that School Boards are more powerful in local politics than City Councils. We may like to idealize our school systems and pretend they are all about education and the welfare of the students etc, but they are also big businesses involving big money and the attendant big-league politics and corruption. Who paves the parking lot of the local high-school is as important a question as whose version of genesis will be emphasized in science class.

We can bitch and create witches all we want and point fingers at school districts, State governments, Unions, communities and parents or teachers and it won’t solve our educational crisis. It’s none of their fault. Here is the truth that nobody wants to utter because it sounds so cruel and un-liberal: If education fails, it’s the student’s fault. I know you hate me for saying that and will accuse me of blaming the victim but, “When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.” Or, in more prosaic terms, it is ultimately each student who is dean of his own education. Our youth are bright and curious and ambitious. If we let them study what they are interested in and what matters to their lives and allow them to learn in the ways that best work for them, if we convince them that their time is not being wasted by going to school, they will stay in school. But if we make our schools simply indoctrination stations or upholstered kiddie-prisons, then the inmates will be forever trying to escape. The best thing our schools can teach is how to learn and that learning is fun and satisfying in itself, which will hopefully inspire students to embark on the lifelong journey of learning required to complete any education.

My Junior English teacher was a humorless old crone named Mrs. Ligon. She reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West and succeeded in completely poisoning poetry for me and queering me out on Walt Whitman so badly that it took years to recover my appreciation for him. I shudder to think that she might have robbed America of one of its greatest future poets by making the subject a chore and a bore. You couldn’t call Mrs. Ligon an incompetent teacher, she was head of department and taught honors classes. We just hated each other, simple as that. This happens in life. We all need to learn about it. It’s part of a well-rounded education. Sometimes you have to deal with people that you just don’t like. If I had been checking boxes on her, she would have gotten a poor rating. Hers was the only class I ever failed in high school. For years I characterized it as ‘she flunked me.’ But the truth was that I flunked, not by failing to learn the material or do the assignments but by failing to deal wisely with someone in authority who didn’t like me. But Mrs. Ligon didn’t define my academic career any more than I decided if she had a job next year. I was the one who needed to be interested in my education, not her.

We live in an age where any person seriously intent on improving himself by learning has at his fingertips nearly unlimited access to educational resources. If you have an internet connection, you can study at Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. in the same afternoon. You can watch and listen to lessons by the finest lecturers in academia on YouTube and sympose with fellow students from all over the world about any subject on discussion boards. You can stroll through the Louvre on your lunch break. Our educational crisis is not from any dearth or paucity of facilities or opportunity, it is from a poverty of motivation. This is the reason we want good teachers, it’s why we need them and ought to pay them generously. We aren’t paying them to teach the ABC’s, Mattel makes a toy for that. We hire teachers to inspire our students and to ignite within them the fire of learning. There are no standardized tests or check-box evaluations that can measure charisma and enthusiasm which are the un-learnable qualities needed to be a good teacher. People with these qualities don’t thrive in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Let’s not drive away the good teachers we are lucky enough to have by making a witch-hunt out of our earnest efforts to realize Education Nation

Let me cry Help beside you, Teacher.
I have entered under this dark roof
As fearlessly as an honoured son
Enters his father’s house.
—-Leonard Cohen


The time has come,
For closing books and long last looks must end,
And as I leave,
I know that I am leaving my best friend,
A friend who taught me right from wrong,
And weak from strong,
That’s a lot to learn,
What, what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start,
But I, would rather you let me give my heart,
To Sir, with Love
(Granier, London, Black)


One Response to In Defense of Bad Teachers

  1. Barbara says:

    yes, and this latest withholding of tenure unless… is doomed to fail for everyone.
    i like obama’s idea of shortening summer vacations.

    in all my years of schooling i’ve only come across one hideous teacher. he was independently wealthy and didn’t need to work. the college hired him as a dollar a year man. he gave me the only F I ever received on a paper. It was on Hegel, and I didn’t spit back at the teacher his own beliefs. I had some of my own. I’ve never forgotten this — mainly because i spent most of my summer rewriting the paper that he didn’t like much more than he had the original.

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