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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.

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.

See Full Formatted Version Here

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
---Lulu
(Granier, London, Black)  

Originally posted to Lightning Rod on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 05:30 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I have had great teachers and horrible teachers (8+ / 0-)

    both in school and in college.

    But then I have also had nothing but bad doctors and bad lawyers since then and very often the products I buy in stores are very dissappointing.

    The problem I have with the whole situation is that at its heart it is fraud and it goes unpunished.

    In every instance I am paying for something that has been misrepresented to me and that doesn't seem right - at least to me.

    But then I look at the bigger picture and guess what ?

    The people that I vote into office have also mis-represented themselves to me.

    Maybe we shouldn't just single out teachers.  I know some terrible cops and judges too.

    At bottom I think we have stopped being a nation that values excellence in anything.

    We seem to value only wealth regardless of how dubiously it is obtained.

    Why should we expect more of our teachers than we do of our Banksters anyway?

    Caveat Emptor

  •  My best example (4+ / 0-)

    Came from college where we had a horrible Chem teacher.  He made everything miserable and confused the whole class.

    One day he was sick and one of the Department Heads covered for him (also, based on his attitude, he probably got a kick out of teaching).  This was a guy who had his name on the textbook we were using.

    In one session, he caught us up on seven weeks of unclear pedagogy.  The guy was amazing.

    Elizabeth Warren has my back.

    by nightsweat on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 06:26:05 AM PDT

  •  Great diary, thanks. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    historys mysteries, Lujane

    I agree that a great teacher succeeds, first of all, by motivating. Looking back, I had teachers who were competent, and even distinguished, at their subject matter, but who didn't inspire. They bored and/or discouraged students, and as far as I'm concerned, they failed for this reason.

    •  Mrs. Nagel (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lujane

      was one of the sweetest people I have ever met. She got her PhD at a young age and won all sorts of teaching accolades.

      However, her class was so devastatingly boring that we felt like slitting our wrists.

      We behaved in her class because she was so nice, and the administration thought she was a wonderful teacher. All I remember from her class, though, is that I was checking my watch a lot, wondering if it was slow.

  •  I had a sadistic Nazi bitch for a 3rd grade (7+ / 0-)

    teacher.  She was cruel for the sake of cruelty.  If I knew where she is buried, I would dance on her grave.

    This woman ridiculed the children, especially anyone with a handicap.  Why the adminstration put a hard-of-hearing boy with a hearing aid in her room, I have no idea.

    She would torture children.  A favorite trick was to have the child stand on tiptoes, with nose to the blackboard.  She would draw a circle around where the nose was, and force the child to keep his/her nose in that circle (stand on tiptoes) for an hour or more.

    She would have a child stand on her desk while she led the rest of the class in chanting abuse.  I got "Look at the baby who writes with her nose," because I was near-sighted, and even then, it took MONTHS before my parents took me to get glasses.  When I refused to chant, she would take that student off the desk, and put me up there.  "Dar doesn't follow the rules," was OK with me; it got someone else off the hotseat.  She stopped that after about 4 days, because I obviously didn't give a damn.

    That hard-of-hearing kid?  Each teacher had a coded signal that she would whistle to get her own class in from recess:  3 long and 2 short blasts, or 1 short and three long, etc.  Billy was playing kickball with kids from a different classroom, and he didn't notice that his own classroom had been called in.  He had left his hearing aid (which was a box that hung around his neck on a leather strap, and had headphones; this was the early 1960s) in his desk, as his parent told him to, since it was too expensive to risk on the playground.

    When he tried to sneak back in, this asshole of a teacher ambushed him at the door, put his earing aid on, turned up the volume!!!!--probably causing damage to his residual hearing--and did the "stand on the desk and chant" thing, as Billy was frantic, trying to re-set the hearing aid properly.

    Before we got on the bus that afternoon, 5 of us made a pact to take care of Billy from then on, making sure he came in from the playground with the rest of us.

    And don't give me any garbage about how such abusive teachers aren't out there anymore.  I know of a teacher who put a hyperactive boy's desk into a refrigerator box with a little hole so he could see the chalkboard.  I know of a teacher who saw that a kid came to school on a cold day without a coat (she didn't want to miss the schoolbus), and had her go outside and stand in the freezing cold outside the classroom "to learn her lesson."  

    These abusive, power-hungry assholes have no business being in authority over even one child, much less 30 at a time.  

    Bad teachers should be run out of the school system the minute they are discovered.  

    To say that my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, "Your end of the boat is sinking."--Hugh Downs

    by Dar Nirron on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 06:48:23 AM PDT

    •  "What a story! Everything but the blood-hounds (5+ / 0-)

      snapping at your rear end!" (Birdie, "All about Eve.")

      Yeah, I had her. Thelma Fitzgerald in Blackwell, Oklahoma. She sat me next to our retarded kid, Billy Ray, and gave me a flyswatter and said, "If he makes trouble, swat him."

      Instead of swatting him, I tried -- with surprising success -- to teach him to read. I always think of Billy Ray as my first student.

      A lot of us had Mrs. Fitzgerald and her nefarious clones.

      "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." -- Flannery O'Connor

      by teachme2night on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 07:03:37 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yes, those teachers still exist. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NYCee, RamblinDave, Lujane, greengemini

      No, they should not be teachers. I don't know what they should be; probably something without any contact with other people.

      However, when union bashers talk about "bad teachers," often they mean the ones whose students, for whatever reason, don't make the desired scores on standardized tests. Big difference.

  •  Great diary, I would only disagree with one (12+ / 0-)

    point.  It's not the students faults, it's his/her parents fault.  Children don't have to display the type of maturity called for by the diarist. That's what parents are for.  

    I'm disheartened by this public debate on the state of education in this country because parents are getting a free pass.  You can't send your kid to school ill mannered, with poor nutrition, and with unmet medical needs and expect someone else to educate them.  If education isn't a priority in the students home, it won't be the student's priority in class.

    "Because I am a river to my people."

    by lordcopper on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 06:53:01 AM PDT

  •  We quake in fear of the Bad Teacher who will (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NYCee, milkbone, Lujane, greengemini, MaikeH

    destroy our children's lives with a power so overwhelming that nothing in these children's lives -- before or after this monstrous encounter -- can save them.

    What kind of hysteria is this? Who are these demon teachers so great in number and omnipotent in power that they are destroying America and all its otherwise fabulous kids?

    I've been in school -- student and teacher -- since I was five years old. Despite a number of bad math teachers, I am fairly sure that is 51 years. Growing up in racist, redneck, dirt-dick Oklahoma, I am confident my teachers were as bad as anyone's. By prevailing philosophy, I should be a semi-literate, unemployable wretch in a cardboard box, the inevitable victim of Mrs. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Mickey, Mrs. Stafford and all those other mean and stupid monsters that robbed me of any motivation or ability to learn.

    Instead I've been a very happy and successful teacher, a constant reader and a lifelong student who, when required to present transcripts from all my colleges, has to contact 18 colleges and universities.

    As a child, I never saw my mother empty-handed. In her right hand there may have been an iron, a broom, a mop, a pen or, upon occasion, a paddle. But in her left was always a book. When she wasn't working her butt off -- and often when she was -- she was reading to me or to my little brother or to my father. Reading was the normal state of being in my home.

    My mother was not one to suffer fools, much less gladly, and she knew perfectly well that many of my teachers ranged from good-hearted incompetents to malicious idiots. She also knew that I had one teacher above all others. It was her job. It was her job to teach me and my job to learn -- and both of us loved our jobs.

    Damn few ruined students were ruined at school. Teachers aren't trying to ruin students and, frankly, teachers aren't that powerful. Parents are.

    "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." -- Flannery O'Connor

    by teachme2night on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 06:55:00 AM PDT

  •  Test scores are not a measuring stick to evaluate (7+ / 0-)

    teachers. In many districts, test scores are the only means of comparing teachers. As a result of the all or nothing mentality that comes with this testing fetish, teachers will often cheat to boost the test scores of their students. Those teachers who refuse to break the rules often pay the ultimate price as this link describes a teacher that committed suicide as a result of a poor evaluation based solely on the test scores of his students.

  •  You feel sorry for anyone without a bad teacher?! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    esquimaux, Dar Nirron, Lujane

    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.

    Well, yes, but just how is a 14-15 year old supposed to "deal wisely" with someone in authority who abuses hir, as my 9th grade geometry teacher did to me? I hate to sound like I'm shirking my responsibilities, but she was the one who was in the wrong, and it was not my responsibility to figure out how to convince her to stop mistreating me. Besides that, I tried the best I could, but nothing worked. That "nothing" included trying to get my parents to talk to her. While my parents were otherwise always well-engaged with my education and willing to help me when I needed a hand, they chose that particular teacher to draw the line and refuse to believe me when I said she was singling me out and humiliating me week after week.

    To add insult to injury, Mom referred to that teacher for years afterwards as an example of how I needed to learn to deal with people better. Even if she was right about that, how was I supposed to learn when I didn't even know what I was doing wrong in the first place?!

    Bottom line, though, I did in fact deal wisely with that teacher: I never followed through on the many fantasies I had of cutting class, or screaming back at her the next time she attacked me, or even something much worse like showing up in class with a gun. That really took quite a lot of self-control for someone of that age in that position. But it still pisses me off that refraining from being equally abusive was the best I could do.

    And you feel sorry for anybody who hasn't gone through something like that? Uh-uh.

  •  Very well written... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RamblinDave, Lujane

    Enjoyed the flow.

    I do take issue with this portion of this text:

    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.

    I guess you can see, it's the "Bloomberg or other quite sincere reformers," to which I object.

    Should a "progressive" Dem blog dwell in the safe zones of a tame party, or should it drive a tame party to break out?

    by NYCee on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 07:49:32 AM PDT

    •  Re Bloomberg (0+ / 0-)

      Bloomberg is a billionaire who, like so many of the wealthy these days, thinks he can "reform" education as a business model... The man has  no soul (look what he did to the counter culturally iconic Washington Square Park!) As such, he appointed, as righthand man, Clinton admin lawyer, Joel Klein, as chancellor, to head NYC's school system - a man of like mind but also little mind for education (no background, like the mayor... )

      They looked at test scores from Manhattan's richest district, District 2 (its borders wend their way around all the wealthy neighborhoods... by design, of course!) and decided, let's take whatever is going on here, the philosophy and methodology, and spread it citywide. Perhaps being privileged himself made it hard for Bloomberg to SEE the diverse needs of others, to see their needs. Instead, he saw one size fits all. He saw great test numbers from that richest district. And he wanted it citywide. Only it doesnt fit all, that one size - as he would come to find out.

      The instructional MO of District 2 was the doing of its superintendent, Anthony Alvarado. He had been fired after a short tenure as NYC Chancellor, early 80s, for some sleazy illegalities, but somehow, he's this city's comeback kid, and he soon found himself ruling the District 2 "cult" roost for many years - I will add, I have a special fondness for San Diego's teachers, who sent Alvarado packing when he tried to carpetbag the same rigid approaches onto them in the early 2000s.)

      Bloomberg cluelessly took what Alvarado implemented "successfully" in District 2 and got Alvarado's trademark system implemented everywhere: lots of consultants re-programming teachers across the city in retraining workshops to get with the new program, which included: "Fuzzy math" curriculum and texts (incited petition signed onto by a long line of math professors calling it, in crude vernacular, "crap"); Lucy Calkins writing approach (dont mark errors/all kids are wonderful authors who never tire of writing and writing and writing about their wonderful selves), whole language (or else!), no phonics!; no desks for teachers, always desks in groups for students, no chalkboards (everything MUST be written on chart paper... some rooms have so much, they need clotheslines to string it from), only childrens literature for reading, in basket after basket, on shelf after shelf...

      Now, many kids who need a more structured/different approach to learning math, reading and writing (ie, disadvantaged, special ed, ELLs, and even some kids not in those categories - which, when put together, account for a great number of our city kids) did not get what they needed under this system. Not to say classrooms shouldnt be flush with children's lit or that desks shouldnt be grouped... I hope I can make myself clear here how RIGIDLY imposed and scripted was this Alvarado program writ large by BloomKlein, as we like to call them)

      Not only didnt kids in less privileged areas always get what they needed, not only were teachers squeezed to pretend they were and stick with the script, but also, these kids couldnt avail themselves of the extra help the kids who werent faring well in District 2 had gotten - that would be tutors, special programs and materials - things that sufficient ed savvy and money is used toward to beef up children's weaknesses in the key subjects...

      Why not? Cause they didnt have District 2 parents! Duh. District 2 parents  had the means to help their kids where Alvarado's methodology wasnt, and they did. For example, I recall hearing how Kumon was all the rage with those folks who found fuzzy math wasnt cutting it, even for their "best and brightest" kids... They would buy Hooked on Phonics and use it. (Quietly... ) Pay for tutors, do this, do that, etc, etc...

      Billionaire Bloomberg didnt get all this. Nor did his buddy Klein - the qualified lawyer of Microsoft anti trust fame. Well, it appears the state tests, used to buttress the mayor's case for himself and his success at school control  - ever growing academic success of all NYC's kids shown by ever climbing test scores - were deemed too narrow and too predictable (dumbed down... one teacher showed how she could repeatedly bubble a-b-c-d on multiple choice math for 3rd grade or 4th, cant recall, and still PASS!).

      The much-criticized state tests were reworked to be harder last year and everything came tumbling down. Scandal. Scores "plummeted" drastically across most schools, esp those minorities who had allegedly made so much 'gain.' (BloomKlein were fond of marking schools with grades, which schools showily exhibited, of course... folks started to report, like in the NYTimes, a couple of years ago, how funny it was that it appeared hardly any schools got less than a B and an amazing amount got A or A+)

      I dont think the grades for schools were given out this year.

      Not only have this duo messed up NYC's ed system in this way, but also, Mayor Bloomberg has caused a lot of pain to communities by allowing fellow billionaire, Bill Gates, to meddle with his money. Break up high schools into small schools... all the trend a few years ago to make more graduates shake out... It's now defunct because it didnt work.

      Ah well, what's a dashed experiment to a billionaire? They are treated like royalty and allowed to play again... foist their next big reform experiment upon the luckless inhabitants of their realm - teachers, parents, kids... Bill Gates is big on charters now.

      And so are our President and his clueless Ed Sec, Duncan. Obama's Race to the Top has given all these deformers, like Bloomberg and Klein and Gates and Broad and Michelle Rhee, et all (may they suffer!) some high octane fuel, along with a press that sings harmonious back-up... (reminds me of how they sang, also cluelessly, for war on Iraq). BloomKlein got leg passed by willing Dems for RttT win, that allows charter cap to rise from 200 to 460. And teacher evals based on test scores of students.

      As for all these "helpful" reformers, I am done with the lot of them.

      I never voted for Bloomberg. I wont vote for any Democrat who supports this mania, and that means a whole lot of them. They brag about it. You write them letters and they send you back witless replies, thinking you support this crap or saying a whole lot of spun generalities that keep them safe from confronting your concerns.

      Okay... hope this rant has been instructive, on some level.

      PS - I really did like your diary. Nice writing! Interesting thoughts. (Although I wonder about all those Ivy league courses online you touted, which make me cringe a bit, re the notion of taking the place of groups of students together, in the flesh, with a real flesh and blood teacher there in the mix.)

      Should a "progressive" Dem blog dwell in the safe zones of a tame party, or should it drive a tame party to break out?

      by NYCee on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 08:50:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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