All of us can think of at least one teacher who truly influenced us as students or as people. If you’re lucky, you can think of several teachers fitting that description. (For me, they are my middle school French, 9th grade Global Studies, and 11th and 12th grade English teachers.) Doesn’t it just bring a smile to your face to think of those people who brought out the best in you, showed you the path to your future career, made you laugh, or were really there for you when you needed support?
Now imagine that you don’t have as many teachers to choose from – that in fact it’s hard to even list teachers who were effective instructors, let alone the kind of teachers I’ve described above. That’s the reality that millions of kids in the United States face. And let’s be clear: I’m not talking about mediocre teachers; we’ve all had our share of those too. I am talking about bad teachers – the kind who, to the privileged, sound more like an urban myth. Teachers who read the paper instead of delivering instruction. Teachers whose “class” more aptly fits the definition of “circus”. Teachers who clearly have no faith or interest in children. Teachers who, I am sorry to say, reinforce the stereotype that “those who can’t do, teach”.
I want to illustrate this with a few examples from the school where I taught. Let me preface this by stating very clearly that I was not God’s gift to teaching or anything like. I can name about 100 things I could have done better. Despite that, many of my students described me as the best teacher they’d ever had (and this is in high school, after years and years of school). A first- or second-year teacher should not rank at the top of a student’s list of good teachers. But when your other teachers are like the ones below, whose else is there?
The following comes from a blog post I made during my second year of teaching about how teachers contribute to the achievement gap.
For example, the teacher who uses my room during my planning period is an extremely nice, soft-spoken man from Africa. He and I often speak to each other in French. Last year he had two strokes (and this guy is young – 45 at the oldest) and was out for most of the year; we were amazed to see him back again this year. Despite his good intentions, I doubt many of his students are learning much of anything. From the few minutes here and there that I’ve seen, he appears to have almost no classroom management skills. I walked in once during lunch to see him helplessly trying to control a girl (one of my own students) who was dancing and making a scene in the middle of the room while everyone else was either watching her or talking amongst themselves. Students leave the room at the end of the period before the bell rings; I am always outside to see this happen, and now I’ve started holding the door shut to keep them in. Just as tragically, his expectations for his students’ achievement seem to be on par with his expectations for their behavior. From what I’ve seen, they typically receive homework “assignments” consisting of only four or five problems – and this is not calculus, where that many problems might actually take a significant amount of time. I wish I could do more to help, but I feel that any effort on my part to exert authority for him would both insult him and further undermine his own authority.
What makes me unbelievably angry are the teachers who have given up or who simply choose not to do more. Last week I attended my first meeting of all the IB and pre-IB teachers. I was dismayed as I looked around the conference table at several of the teachers who I know to be ineffective and incompetent. How could these people be the best the school had to offer? At one point, an older lady who teaches pre-IB math raised her hand and began complaining about how her pre-IB class also had 10 special education students in it. While it’s true that that’s not an ideal situation for any involved, her complaint had absolutely no relevance to what we were discussing at that point in the meeting, and she made matters worse by continuing for several minutes about how she CAN’T “make bread from stone” and how she WON’T accept such challenge and disrespect of her as a teacher, etc. It seemed to me as though every other word coming from her mouth was “can’t” or “won’t”. I sat there, two seats down from her, using all my remaining energy to stop myself from yelling at her. A French teacher chimed in with complaints about how he thought his French II students would never be ready for IB because they didn’t know anything (sorry, I thought that was your job?). I bit my tongue and exchanged meaningful looks with the IB coordinator, who is one of my best friends at school and who I knew was fighting the same urge to punch these people. Instead of resorting to verbal or physical violence, I wrote down what I wanted to say: a quote that my mom had recently emailed to me. “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”
Here’s what I want to know. If THAT is your attitude – that the kids are impossible to teach, that your job is too hard, that there’s no possibility of leading the students to the achievement levels desired for them – then WHY ARE YOU TEACHING AT OUR SCHOOL? If you are so completely without a “sense of possibility”, what are you doing here? There’s the door. You’re not doing anyone any favors by staying here.
This is why I so strongly support measures to hold teachers accountable and end the practice of tenure that has kept so many of these ineffective, unmotivating, pessimistic teachers in the classroom. Because, let’s face it – our best teachers don’t deserve to be in the same category as the bad teachers, and our children deserve the best, not the worst, regardless of skin color, income, native language, or religion.