Friday, April 08, 2011

Finding Bad Teachers

(News-Herald, April 7) Periodically folks get their High Dudgeon on (that’s fancy talk for Large Hissy Fit) about Bad Teachers and the need to Weed Them Out. Contrary to some reports, you can find plenty of classroom teachers who support that idea, at least in principle.
With the exception of students, nobody suffers more from the work of a bad teacher than the competent teacher in the next room who has to live with the mess that Professor Numbskull creates day after day. We would be delighted to see him retire to Florida or take that job in Antarctica.
Even if we aren’t going to fire some lemons of learning, parents still want to be able to spot these potholes of pedagogy before their children smack into them. Unfortunately, identifying these educational examples of classroom clutter is harder than it looks. Currently, our leading educational experts, loaded down with big ideas and unhampered by any actual experience in schools, have come up with two definitions of a bad teacher.
1) A bad teacher is one whose students don’t bubble in the preferred answers on a government-designed test.
2) A bad teacher is one who gets paid more than other teachers.
These are not helpful; neither is focusing on age. I have known teachers who taught for decades and never stopped firing up their students. My Uncle Frank has taught high school history for over fifty years and his students still do things like dedicating entire sports seasons to him. But I have also known young teachers who were already burned out when they were straight out of the package. So here are some telltale signs that a teacher might not be as fresh as a didactic daisy.
The Big Countdown. A teacher who is focused on how many days are left in the year, how long till the weekend, how many minutes left in the day, is a teacher whose head is not in the game. Granted, a teacher who is so lazily comfortable that he doesn’t need a break, ever, may not be putting his back into it. And everyone has the occasional day that they simply want to be done with.
But a teacher who constantly observes how much he’d rather be somewhere else should do everybody a favor and go be somewhere else.
It’s Not My Fault. My old co-operating teacher Joe McCormick told me two rules of education. Rule number one is that some students will refuse to be taught. Rule number two is that there is nothing teachers can to change rule number one.
He may have been right. There are some students who aggressively resist learning, and others who are so distracted by the mess at home that they cannot focus on school. It is likely that some children would be better off being raised by wolves. Nevertheless, it’s a teacher’s job to try to find a way. We aren’t hired to teach the people they’re supposed to be. We’re hired to teach the people they actually are.
If a teacher bemoans how every lesson is scuttled by those lousy kids, if class is a noisy uncontrolled mess because of those lousy kids, if the teacher complains that he can’t get his job done because of those lousy kids, here’s a news flash—it’s not the lousy kids.
I’m Fine, Thanks. Teaching carries several sources of stress that they never tell you about in teacher school. One is realizing that no matter how hard and long you work, no matter how many years you refine your game, there are things you don’t do quite well enough.
Any teacher worth his chalk (or keyboard) can tell you where he’s weak, what he needs to fix. He may very well be collecting pointers from co-workers, doing more reading, experimenting with new ideas in his classroom. A teacher who doesn’t think he needs help or advice is a classroom disaster waiting to happen.
A teacher should be an expert in his field. If he isn’t a lifelong student of his subject, he’s little use to his students. If he couldn’t teach without teacher editions, he can’t do that much better with them.
There are other signs. A good teacher takes his job very seriously, but not himself. Bad teachers get it the other way around. Bad teachers hide from their students and community in their off hours. And bad teachers think It’s Just A Job, not a particularly large part of life. For that last point, unfortunately, many reformers agree.

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