- I have a theory that anyone who is good at his or her job has a secret (and sometimes not-so-secret) contempt for everyone who does the same job badly. I have a friend who is a terrific priest: thoughtful, compassionate, faith-filled, demanding of himself, a model really. It makes him crazy when clergy are lazy, give bad homilies, are immoral, etc. because he realizes that this ends up damaging him and he takes such pride in doing things the right way. I have the same reaction to bad teachers.
I am a good teacher (if would be ludicrous false modesty to claim otherwise). Bad teachers make me crazy and hurt all of us–their students first and their colleagues second. I’m not talking about the teacher who has a bad day–that’s a different thing from being a bad teacher. I’m not talking about a teacher who makes a mistake or a bad decision. I’m also not talking about the inexperienced teacher who is developing and makes some bad decisions. What I’m identifying is a fundamental approach to teaching–a series of assumptions and attitudes–that no amount of education classes , tips, tricks, webinars, advanced degrees, professional development, or strategies, seem to be able to alter.
The two characteristics of EVERY bad teacher I have ever known are: 1) they blame the student(s) for EVERY issue in class; and, 2) they blame the preparation by a past teacher or in prior classes. And here is why they can get away with it–sometimes it is the student’s fault and sometimes a former teacher was bad and didn’t prepare students. In addition, bad teachers occasionally have one or two kids that they do get through to–or who succeed in spite of them–and so they convince themselves that they are actually good teachers. Virtually no one can be universally horrible at one’s job. Consider the NFL journeyman quarterback–he might be able to make some plays in a game–not EVERY pass would be intercepted, not every call would be wrong, not every snap would be fumbled. Still, we know the good from the bad. Walk in to any school; ask a cross-section of kids in the hallways–just pick 60 and say “Name the top 5 teachers.” Go to the parking lot and find 20 parents and ask them the same; go to the faculty lounge and ask for “5 terrific colleagues.” You’ll find the same names over and over again.
What about good teachers? Every good teacher when thinking about a class or course defaults to the following series of questions–“What could I have done differently? What assignment could I have changed? Are there things I should do regarding texts, approaches, assessments that better connect to the student?” The good teacher scrubs her conscience and memory and believes with a fanatical devotion that if she just did ONE more thing she could have gotten to that kid or those kids. The ambition of the good teacher is to celebrate his students–the ambition of the bad teacher is to protect himself. In addition, every good teacher becomes an instant pragmatist–if a student doesn’t know something or have some skill–the good teacher does NOT lament this but starts teaching it–you have to go to where the student is and stop complaining about how the student got there. That’s a different argument (and an important one) about sociology, politics, poverty, class, society, pedagogy, family dynamics, etc.
Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post, has been commenting lately on the teaching of writing and looking at studies of plagiarism and just bad writing. Predictably, in the comments section there are numerous lamentations about students. I, too, teach writing and get lots of bad writing. But notice how many of these teachers are whining about the student lack of effort or low morals (the “they all cheat and use Wikipedia” argument) or say that the students who have gotten to them aren’t prepared. This is the lamentation of college professors who blame high school teachers and the lamentation of high school teachers who blame middle school teachers and the lamentation of middle school teachers who blame elementary school teachers and the lamentation of elementary school teachers who point out that college teachers have designed the curriculum and pedagogical approaches (it’s the Ourobouros–the snake with its tail in it mouth)–well, you get the idea.
To some small extent these criticisms are attempts at an analysis of underlying problems but too often they are just the characteristics of bad teachers. These people should stop whining about the crappy papers and start teaching–unless of course the reason that they complain is that they get a little intellectual frisson from doing so and they enjoy trumpeting the end of standards and the boorishness, incompetence, and stupidity of the young. As someone who has engaged in PRIMAL SCREAM therapy in response to student writing on occasion I am aware that I can be momentarily overtaken by the lesser angels of my nature. But it is an act of the will to look again at the paper and start from where the student is and bring him forward.
You’ll notice that the habits derived from the attitude the teacher adopts will create the teacher–so the teacher who blames the students in all cases can justify doing less work; the good teacher who is convinced there is SOME WAY to get to a kid or kids works endlessly to find it. The bad teacher already believes the worst of the student and has no reason to go searching for the “real” student (and may resent the “real” student for not being the “ideal” student)–to find out exactly what he or she knows and where one could start. It’s easy to claim “high standards” when you teach to an idealized set of students who are NOT in front of you and blame the students for not reaching your “high standards” when you are too lazy or indifferent to find out what the student does know and work from there. The attitude of a bad teacher has another “benefit”–it aligns him with the critics of all sorts (those who point out all of the societal issues related to education that make the job more difficult and those who blame “youth culture” and even those who blame teachers–after all, they are doing the same thing!) and prevents him from being called a Pollyanna or from being “taken advantage” of by students, colleagues, administrators, the public, etc. No matter how good you are, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET TO EVERY STUDENT! And your failure to do so is much more palatable if you can blame a series of others instead of taking the failure on yourself.
As principal, I once had two physics teachers: one (A) had students that consistently failed and another (B) whose students did great. After countless talks with (A) wherein the students were blamed, the math teachers were indicted (“I have to teach them trig–why didn’t they learn this before?”) and the difficulty of the subject was invoked (“physics is just a harder subject”), I finally said that (B)–whose AP scores are off the charts and whose students come to love physics and go on to engineering, pure and applied math in amazing numbers–didn’t have these problems and he had the same kids. (A) was stuck and finally told me that (B) must water down the class and inflate the grades–that he, (A) that is, had high standards. I just about screamed. The reasoning was perfectly tautological. Here’s the thing, though–physics is hard, some kids don’t do the work, some probably need remediation in trig to help with physics, and a couple of kids did well. So when you point out that (A) is a bad teacher it is easy enough for (A) to delude himself into denying that. A smart person can be a powerful rationalizer–and schools are full of smart people.
It is clear that virtually none of this has to do with debates about pedagogical strategies (lectures, discussions, and labs, “sage on the stage vs. guide on the side,” group work and project-based learning, etc.), the adoption or rejection of the most current technology (Powerpoint, twitter-feeds, podcasts, clicker technology), or any of the other issues that crop up and actually mask what separates good teachers from bad. So, I know that the Gates Foundation and countless others want to find out what makes good teaching and I really appreciate that–but if it were a formula that could be learned like the quadratic equation we would already know it and already do it.
I’ll have more to say about: 1) the erotic nature of teaching; 2) teachers as Magicians, Strippers, and Sherpas; and 3) the subversive nature of good teachers in blogs this fall. So I guess the last thing I’ll say about this for the moment is that good teachers are almost pathologically self-reflective; bad teachers have almost no capacity for self-reflection. I hope I can learn how to teach that capacity for self-reflection, but up until now, I’m stymied.
Next week at the blog–summer reading for faculty: we get the behavior we model (or better said–you CANNOT possibly get the behavior you want if you don’t model it).