Bad teacher. There was a movie with that title, and now a television series. Time magazine had a recent cover with the title “Rotten Apples” that was not a reference to rotten Honey Crisps. And many school reformers talk about teachers as if nearly all of them are lousy. Certainly some teachers who should be doing something else (and it shouldn’t take forever to remove them from a classroom), but there’s a legitimate reason why polls show that teachers are utterly demoralized.
So what is a bad teacher (and I’m not talk about the extremes who commit criminal offenses)? This post answers that question. It was written by Ellie Herman, who for two decades was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. In 2007, she decided, “on an impulse,” she wrote, to become an English teacher and got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in south Los Angeles until 2013, when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She is chronicling the lessons she is learning on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where a version of the following post appeared. Herman, who gave me permission to publish this, was awarded first and third place prizes in the 2014 SoCal Journalist Awards given by the Los Angeles Press Club.
By Ellie Herman
I once had a student who was on crack. It was a nightmare. Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro. But crack turned him nasty and out of control. He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him. We did an intervention. We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help. Nothing worked. Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on facebook during winter break he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity. He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls
I lost it. I actually only dimly recall what happened next. I’m sure I didn’t actually drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember. All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut. When finished, I was shaking. He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.
All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher. I was ashamed of my loss of control. Even the next day, when I had had a chance to calm down and try to have a more rational conversation with Jorge, I couldn’t reach him. To be fair, none of us could. He bombed his classes and did not graduate on time.
The incident with Jorge was the most extreme I ever had, but for all the five years I taught, I was dogged by the worry that I was a bad teacher. Despite everything the books tell you, teaching is above all a deeply messy human endeavor; for all the exhilarating highs, there are terrible days when you feel like a profound failure, and those are the days when you long for a reality check. Am I really a bad teacher? How would I know?
I know, I know: teacher evaluation rubrics are supposed to alleviate this worry, but if like me you don’t believe that the rubric measures what you’re doing, they’re no comfort and can actually be crazy-making when you score low on something you don’t even value, like the robotic re-iteration of a three-part objective, which would send me into a tailspin of that’s insane! and then no, what if I’m insane? and then a dystopic the whole world has gone insane and I’m completely alone because nothing has any meaning any more! a conviction that rarely leads to good teaching.
Now, with the benefit of time, sleep and the chance to observe many, many teachers across Los Angeles, though the vast majority of teachers I’ve observed are excellent, every so often schools will allow me to go from class to class, and occasionally I’ll find myself in the classroom of a truly bad teacher. And let me clear one thing up right away: bad teachers are extremely rare, but if you’re in the presence of a truly bad teacher, as opposed to a good teacher on a bad day, you will have no doubt about what you are witnessing.
So in case you’re like me, wracked with doubt about whether you’re a bad teacher, I’ve identified five key tendencies that I’ve observed in the classrooms of truly bad teachers. Take this short quiz and at the end I will tell you if you’re a bad teacher.
1. Do you dislike children? I don’t mean that you love every single one of your students every day. I mean, do children in the age group you’re teaching generally fail to delight you in any way? The number one quality I’ve observed in bad teachers is that they do not seem to like children very much. In high schools, this means they do not seem to find teenagers charming, funny or interesting—ever.
2. Do you find your subject matter dull? If asked “why are you teaching this?” will you respond “because it will be on the test”? Do your eyes glaze over at the thought of your subject area? Every teacher has dud lessons from time to time (believe me) but what I sense in the classrooms of bad teachers is that they have no interest in their entire subject.
3. Do you know what you’re talking about? I recently sat in on the class of a teacher who was teaching students incorrect grammar. Actually teaching it—she’d put an incorrect rule on a slide and then was forcing her students to rewrite sentences in order to conform to this incorrect rule. It was especially upsetting because several students were shyly raising their hands and going “Miss…are you sure? That sounds wrong.”
4. Do you ignore a large subset of your students most of the time? The truly bad teachers I’ve observed tend to engage only with a small number of very compliant, eager students, ignoring the rest except to reprimand troublemakers.
5. Are you totally disengaged? I don’t mean those bad days when you want to flush your head—or someone’s head—in the toilet, or even those days that you’re so burned out you can hardly keep going. I mean have you checked out emotionally as an operating philosophy, day in and day out? A central quality in truly bad teachers is that they seem to have stopped caring; this lack of engagement is reflected not only in their interactions with students (or lack thereof) but in their seemingly random choice of lesson topics.
So are you a bad teacher? No. How do I know? Because if you’ve read this far, you care. You may not be great (yet). The inspirational movie of your life may be set several years hence. It may be that you have a tremendous amount still to learn. But you’re not a bad teacher. Because the overriding quality of truly bad teachers, as Azucena Gonzales observed, is that they have given up. And you haven’t.
Why does this matter? It matters because as a country we seem to be convinced that our classrooms are infested with bad teachers who must be driven out, and this conviction seems to be the driving force behind most of our supposed “accountability” measures, which are designed like self-guided missiles dropped down to locate and destroy bad teachers first, before installing good teachers. I agree that there are some bad teachers and that they should be coached or, if necessary, fired.
But I also think this preoccupation with bad teachers in the absence of the more urgent strategy for attracting and retaining good teachers is deeply unfair to students and in fact, unequally distributed, because it falls much harder on teachers in low-income communities who teach in far more challenging conditions and therefore are much less likely to see visible signs of success on a predictable basis. I think it demoralizes all of us who are in the classroom to feel that we are continually suspected of being “bad,” and that it is this badness, our inadequacy, that is at the heart of the economic inequality in this country.
Let me tell you how Jorge’s story ended. He did not graduate but made up his classes in summer school. To everyone’s astonishment, he went to a four-year college. We all lost touch with him for a long time, then last year, when I was chaperoning prom, I saw a young man waving to me: clean-cut, in a pressed tux, sipping a fruit juice. It was Jorge, escorting his younger cousin, beaming. He told me that he’d been sober for two years now. All those years ago, the teachers had been right, he said, and as part of his 12-step program, he apologized for everything he’d put us through.
Over and over I tell the same story, right? But the truth is, you never know the effect you’re having on someone. If you care, you’re not a bad teacher–which doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to learn. As the Dalai Lama is said to have observed, “You’re perfect. And you could use a little improvement.”
By the way, Jorge will graduate from college this spring.
He plans to be an actor.