Thursday, June 23, 2011

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher, Red Teacher, Blue Teacher

I've become fascinated by the discussions around "bad teachers." Over and over, I read articles where teachers get their backs up when people talk about bad teachers, and insist that the problem isn't bad teachers (because, they say, there are so few bad teachers), but the problem (for underachieving students) is actually poverty, uninvolved parents, not enough funding, etcetera.

Well, they're right, and they're wrong. Of course the reasons for underachieving students include poverty, uninvolved parents, not enough funding, dilapidated but it's also some other things, namely:

1) Bad teaching (and note, that's only partly "bad teachers," because even teachers who are generally good sometimes do bad teaching) and
2) Poor use of evaluation to improve teaching performance.

That's true, at least in part, because involved (and educated) parents with access to their own money can combat bad teaching--if the parent doesn't know the material, they can hire someone who does...

When my oldest son was in the lower elementary grades, a parent with several older kids said to a group of parents, including me, "Well, you'll have good years and bad," and I thought, "WHAT?! That's not going to happen to my family." Well, she was right. We've had good years, and bad years. Sometimes it was due to the circumstances in my family, but sometimes it was due to bad teaching. 

I've experienced my share of bad teaching, and so have my kids. For the sake of this argument, I'm going to ignore the bad teaching that we've experienced when teachers have themselves been dealing with serious health issues in their own lives or the lives of their family. After all, teachers have their own lives--and if a parent is dying and they are distracted, it is going to affect their classroom performance even if they are usually at the top of their game. So even though I'm ignoring this issue (for right now, and only sort of) I want to point out that it is one of the most common reasons for bad teaching, and that there's lots of educational research suggesting that if students experience bad teaching more than one year in a row, their performance really suffers.

The other piece of the puzzle is whether, or how, evaluation happens. I know that I've had jobs where I did most of the work well, but there were areas where I had room for improvement. I think that is true for most of us. I've also had jobs that didn't suit me at all.

A continuous feedback loop would allow teachers to learn from their mistakes--which is exactly what we expect students to do. In my opinion, most principals have not been taught how to effectively evaluate staff, and if you ask me, schools would do very well to get feedback from parents and students. I am quite sure that my kids can tell you exactly what their teachers have been doing well, and not so well--and very thoughtfully, too.

So here, as a thought experiment, I am going to present some examples of bad teaching. All of these examples have been experienced by myself or by people close to me. I'm interested in which of these you think are irredeemably bad, and which of these would point to a teacher that would need more coaching. Genders and subjects may have been changed to protect the unknowing.

In no particular order...

1. A teacher who has very deep knowledge of her subject (middle school math) but little control of her classroom.

2. A teacher who has moderate knowledge of her subject (high school math) and is very kind to the students, but who has little capacity to share and teach advanced math concepts.

3. A teacher who has moderate knowledge of her subject (high school science) and is therefore afraid to deviate at all from her teaching plan in order to answer questions.

4. A teacher who is extremely knowledgeable about her subject (elementary music) and has very innovative teaching techniques, but who has anger management problems with the end result that students learn music very well and remember it for years, but are unwilling to continue in the subject.

5.  A teacher who has limited skills in his subject area (English) but a wonderful relationship with the middle/high school students he teaches and is really able to provide a "safe space" for them.

6. A teacher who has limited skills in his subject area (English) and writes so poorly it is unclear how he got certification, but who encourages discussion of literature and makes class enjoyable.

7. A teacher with strong skills in his subject area (English) but who is so boring that students fight to stay awake in the class, and who "kills the joy" in the subject.

8. A teacher (elementary) who is very strong at teaching reading, math, and history, but who knows very little about science and therefore doesn't teach it at all.

9. A teacher (elementary) who has interesting ideas and curriculum plans but is disorganized and often doesn't follow through to make sure students do the work they are assigned--and therefore, many students don't do the work.

10. A writing teacher who accepts regular assignments but doesn't provide feedback or request rewrites, even on materials that were submitted as drafts.

11. A middle school teacher who never rejects an assignment that was poorly done.

12. A high school social studies teacher who is an expert in his subject matter and an entertaining lecturer but who belittles and picks on some students, playing favorites with others. 

13. A high school chemistry teacher who is competent in his subject but calls some of the girls "princess" and "helps" those girls on tests.

14. An elementary art teacher who develops interesting activities and then stifles all creativity by requiring students to replicate them exactly the way she set up the example.

15. An elementary teacher who goes to have lunch with two children on a field trip, leaving the other 28 with a single teacher's aide who is technically assigned to one of the class's students.

16. A teacher who effectively teaches social studies, but doesn't respond to emails and phone calls from parents.

The world is a complex place. People are complex. All of these teachers are doing some bad teaching. Which of these teachers needs evaluation and coaching to work on specific problems? Which of these teachers need to find another career?

(Feel free to respond with comments specific to some of these examples. And I'm curious--what percent of teachers in your average school do you think is doing bad teaching, or is a bad teacher?)

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