We had a conversation about “bad teachers” in my workshop the other day. President Obama used the term in his state of the union address, and fresh from reading Robert Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss, I had mentioned my plan to write a series of columns exploring how Sutton’s ideas apply to teachers.
Ed Stavnitzky, a principal from a school in Ontario, Canada spoke about his belief that the term “bad teachers” carries such negative connotations that using it might actually make it harder for us to reach our shared goal of empowering schools and improving teaching.
Teachers who are not as effective as they need to be, Ed pointed out, are not “bad”–they simply lack the skills they need to become effective. Furthermore, Ed said, most ineffective teachers are victims of a system that has failed to serve them more than they are people who are personally flawed. If we have teachers who do not reach students, Ed explained, we need to first look at how the system can be improved.
Ed’s comments did what I love comments to do: they made me think. And I am still thinking. When people use the term “bad teachers,” or when they celebrate “good teachers” (implying others are bad), they often create the impression that the solution to the so-called crisis in education is to simply weed out the bad apples so that our schools can flourish. Cut the bad ones, keep the good ones, and every child goes home a winner.
If only life were that simple. I have met several thousand teachers in my day, and very, very few of them are bad people. At a minimum, what teachers need is respectful, effective professional learning that empowers them to do what they most want to do: make a difference in children’s lives.
But I still plan to write my columns. Let’s look at two examples of teachers who make it impossible for me not to:
Example One: When I was a student in grade seven, one of my teachers, in front of the entire class, accused me of stealing a pencil from another student’s desk. I had moved to the desk for an activity as I had been asked to do, and the pencil was not on the desk after I moved, so his logical conclusion was that I must have stolen it. The only problem, of course, was that I had not; I knew nothing about the missing pencil.
When I told him I hadn’t stolen the pencil, the teacher grabbed me by the shirt, pushed me up against the wall, and told me, “tell me where the pencil is or you’ll have to answer to me.” Since I had no idea where the pencil was, I couldn’t tell him. He kept getting angrier, but I told him my only answer. Eventually, another student spoke up and said, “I don’t think the pencil was there when Jim sat down,” and the teacher let me go. There was, of course, no mention of an apology.
Today, I still feel angry and humiliated thinking about how I was accused, attacked, and embarrassed in front of class. This man would never treat another adult that way. Why was it OK, for him to treat me that way. Was my teacher a bad teacher? I think he was.
Example Two: In another workshop a few years ago a teacher talked about her daughter’s experience in grade two. One week after school had started, her second grader, who had loved to learn, sat at the kitchen table and asked her Mom a very sad question: “Mom, when does third grade start?”
When she asked her daughter why she said that, the second grade girl who had loved learning, sighed and told her Mom, “my teacher doesn’t like kids.”
“And you know what,” that teacher told our group in the workshop, “my daughter was right. The teacher didn’t like kids, and my little girl had a terrible year.”
A few years after her daughter had moved on to grade three, this mother was still visibly upset at the cold and mean-spirited way her daughter had been treated and the change she saw in her daughter’s love of learning. Was that teacher, who extinguished a little girl’s fire for learning, a bad teacher? I think she was.
Ed was eloquent, and kind-hearted, and deeply committed to doing what would help children. And I agree with him that the term “bad teachers” is divisive and potentially counterproductive.
I would add, however, that when teachers are negligent or abusive, we need to speak up. For that reason, over the next five columns, I’ll be exploring Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss. And, with a great deal of caution and concern, I’ll be talking about Good Teachers and Bad Teachers.