Bad Teachers–infallible signs thereof and how they hide in plain sight

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.

The “World Serpent”

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).


Filed under books and learning, critical thinking, pedagogy, teaching, Uncategorized

14 responses to “Bad Teachers–infallible signs thereof and how they hide in plain sight

  1. Charlie Kenny

    Once again I enjoyed the post. Made me think a lot about myself as a student with Buck and as a teacher. Thanks.

    • I am a teacher who works tirelessly to improve learning for my students – I never blame my students and even when I do I secretly blame myself – however, I am not at the point of totally despair and hopelessness .. I am routinely verbally abused by some of my students – despite all my efforts to educate myself, improve, be transparent, appeal to all interest, combine interesting topical classes with rigorous writing assignments,.. I feel like my students want to rush through college, get good grades and move on – very few want to learn, risk failure, engage … very very few – most often, when challenged, they will blame me – this is crap, this is stupid, this is repetitive, where are we going with this, this is useless “this is the most stupid exercise ever” said one yesterday – I am a skilled teacher who attends professional development workshops, asks for feedback constantly, leans on a mentor, consumes all the literature on best practices – but frankly I feel totally hopeless – nothing helps, nothing works .. hey I get top performance evaluations from the students as well.. but at the end of the day I feel like a bad teacher

  2. Paul Smith

    Thanks Dan. This is a very thoughtful and insightful piece (and as I read this I wondered if I had journeyed back in time to be in the DM faculty room). From an urban ed perspective, I think what you’ve alluded to is a major shortcoming of the Rhee/TFA/name your ultra aggressive “reformer”–there are a lot of really smart folks out there that don’t necessarily need to be fired, but rather have some hope for quality leadership (at both the district & school level) that every classroom teacher craves. Maybe then some of the Darth Vader masks can be lifted, or at least start to be turned.

    Look forward to future posts!

    • Hi Paul, Thanks for the interesting post regarding reformers and the atmosphere they create. I regard my years working with you as a blessing and I follow your career working in Urban Ed with admiration. Dan

  3. Hi Dan!
    Great post–and really, really important topic. You’re writing, I know, from your double perspective as both teacher and principal. In that latter role, I know you’ve spent a lot of time considering how principals confront the challenge of supervising teachers–moving beyond the two evaluative classroom visits per year followed by perfunctory written evaluations based on them.
    As an English-teacher-turned-principal myself, I wondered (only later on in my career, regrettably) if I was qualified to evaluate a physics teacher’s classroom–especially if I strove to get beyond the ohhh/ahhs of classroom performance to get to an understanding of what the teacher was teaching what needed to be taught in a year’s physics class–if the teacher was getting at the core issues of physics and was leading students through the architecture of the discipline so that each got to where he/she needed to be by the course’s end. Was the teacher aware of the perceptions and misperceptions floating around in the brains of each of her/his class? Over and above the teacher’s presentational skills (what is observed, most often, in classroom visits for evaluation purposes) is she/he skilled at providing appropriate learning challenges–appropriate for each (not all) student? How could I evaluate a physics teacher if I didn’t understand the architecture of the discipline of physics? And what about math courses? Was I just evaluating teachers just on teaching the right ways–or also on teaching the right things?
    Here’s a possible resource for principals considering this knotty challenge. As I was winding down my career as an educator I came across some interesting stuff about how teachers can help other teachers by using a professional development process that imitates professional training practices that occur in the medical profession. Richard Elmore, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education has co-wrote a volume, “Treating the Instructional Core: Educational Rounds” ( It urges school leaders to structure a way for teachers within a discipline to learn from each other, to determine an understanding their discipline and the tools to teach it–by doing “medical rounds.”
    I do think teachers want to be good, they’d love to be admired by their students and peers. But they don’t know how–I am thinking because they lack a deep understanding of their discipline and the teaching skills to create the challenges students need to learn it. They need the tools to teach the right way and the disciplinary understanding to teach the right things. A school system needs to help them with both.
    Boy, I do run on. As you can see, this is a really important topic for me. What is exciting is that the topic was raised by a gifted teacher who became a gifted principal. Wish there were more Dan McMahons in the world.

  4. John Tucker

    Dear Mr. McMahon, and I say Mr. McMahon because that is how I remember you from school . I still remember the poem assigned to me entitled “The Miller’ Wife” your class required in sophomore enlgish. So you obviously made an impression. I found your comments to be most timely and prescient as the state I have adopted so many years ago (Mississippi) struggles with how to better improve the public school system here. All sorts of approaches have been taken, from spending more money to attempting to set up charter schools. Arguably there are a myriad of other issues that impact the system, but it does seem like your classification would help to narrow the focus in many instances. I have two boys currently in elementary school and a third about to get into it. We are in a very good district but the issue you describe seems to run the gamut as I have seen it first hand. Everyone loves the motivating teachers and dread that your the next child will get the one who seems to just go along. As a parent I can tell that parents do talk about who is a “good” teacher to get and who is not. I typically don’t read blogs but soemthing compelled me to read this one. I may have to read more. Thank you for an inciteful read.

    • Hi John,

      So good to hear your voice–albeit electronically–after these many years. Thank you for your comments and for reading this entry. I pray that your children may have great teachers in their lives (but even if they don’t–they are fortunate to have you). Best, Dan

  5. Wonderful items from you, man. I have have in mind your stuff prior to and
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  6. This is over a year old and not one of the persons leaving comments has noted that you have spelling and grammatical errors that you should have edited by proof reading your own article before publishing. Teach by example.

    • Sheesh, Jim, that’s kind of a cheap shot, and not really a very telling comment. Yes, teach by example. Is this blog “teaching”? And, do you, as a reader (non-paying or contributing) really have the right to tell someone contributing his or her time and thoughts that somehow it’s not good enough. I don’t know. I’ve written some 20 books, and you know what? If you want me to spell and be grammatically correct online, I’d be glad to edit everything I post provided you’ll pay me for the free content I have online.

      • Thanks, Robert. Not sure about the usage of “edit by proofreading” in Jim’s comment. Seems enough to either “edit” or “proofread.” I thought the article was good–provocative–and worthy of responses to substance. Also, I found it to be pretty solid, usage-wise.

  7. Sarah Goodwich

    I had some bad teachers– at a private school for “gifted” children, which secretly means “if you do poorly, drop the class.” The physics teacher irked me most, essentially telling me that I had “bullshitted” my way through school and didn’t belong in his class; and he also played favorites with students who did exceptionally well through their connections with famous relative outside of school in the areas of math and physics.
    A poor teacher will take credit for his best students, while blaming those who have trouble, assuming no responsibility; so after high school, it took me years to enter college and learn that, once given a chance without judgment, comparison or ridicule, I could really start to learn and do well on subjects by putting in the time, effort and learning.
    Bad teachers just label your intelligence based on performance, and that sabotages the efforts of those students who are on their own without extra help outside the classroom.

    • Hi Sarah, I love your line that “A poor teacher will take credit for his best students, while blaming those who have trouble….” Those teachers do not “get on the same side of the desk” with their students. Dan

    • Thanks, Sarah. I applaud the many, many hard working (and properly working) teachers we are blessed with. Regrettably, there remains a culture in too many schools (public and private) that is as you describe. The effect is “school-as-sifting-mechanism” attitude that severely inhibits kids who come with some hole in their knowledge and skill acquisition. Rather than intellectually dismissing the “slow,” “unmotivated,” surly,” teachers need to spend more time trying to get into the minds of each and all of their students to see what pieces are missing in their learning a discipline, then figuring out how the teacher can offer a learning challenge that will fill the hole. Student-centered learning should be about diagnosing each student’s particular holes at the moment–and intervening individually. Hard work, deserving of far better remuneration. That’s how I see it, anyways. John

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