When I was in school the vast majority of my teachers were amazing, wonderful, inspiring, caring people. But I did have a few bad teachers – we all did. I remember going home and telling my parents about them. My parents were wonderful, active, engaged, they really cared. BUT, they couldn’t help. Time and time again I was told that those teachers had tenure and that nothing could be done to discipline or fire them. I was stuck, and so was every other student who went through those classes. It didn’t get really bad until high school when I moved to a small town with only one school and only one teacher per subject per grade so there was not even the option of switching classes to get another teacher.
Teachers matter – they are the single most important key to the education system. But the system is broken. We know this because millions of American kids are failing to graduate high school. And the ones who do graduate are, largely, graduating below grade level in reading, math and sciences. The tragic “Leave no child behind” act has done worse than nothing to change these dismal statistics. In many cases it has made the bad schools worse and the good schools better, further expanding the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
So, what to do? I am writing this as a product of a public school education. Though my family struggled to become and remain middle class during my childhood, I was able to attend the “best” schools in my district during elementary school and junior high. Even so, we had bad teachers. There was the teacher who told my sister that she was bad at math and would never succeed. And the following year a male teacher who told ALL of the girls that they would never be good at science, which was a real bummer because he was a science heavy teacher and he actively encouraged the girls to fail.
In junior high I had an English teacher who only assigned books about horrible, terrifying child abuse. The year after that I had an English teacher who wanted to be a writer, so for our class assignments we critiqued his books. They were not children’s books. I moved to a new, small town half way through 8th grade and there I met my first REALLY bad teachers.
I had a female English teacher who was accused of molesting more than one male student over the course of several years. I had the Social Studies teacher who assigned me and a partner a paper about homosexuality. When my partner and I presented our research asserting that homosexuality was genetic and not a choice the class was opened for debate. My partner immediately defected and joined EVERY SINGLE other student saying that homosexuality was an abomination and against God’s law and that I was going to Hell. I could have handled that, but MY TEACHER joined them as well. I was alone against a class of 35 students AND the teacher. I didn’t convince any of them, but I refused to back down. I count that as a win.
I had another English teacher who was an alcoholic and had the shakes so bad by the time I got to his class after lunch that he couldn’t write. My Math teacher was arrested with cocaine in her desk and later found to be psychotic – she had invented a stalker and a sister, among other things! One of my science teachers had sex with two of his female students. I know this because I was friends with his roommate, not because I believe anything that high school girls say in hallways. My Spanish teacher caught doing drugs with students, off school property, but still… The health teacher told both me and my sister that we were going to Hell, I don’t remember why – I think it was because we came in with signed notes from our parents saying that we didn’t have to watch the anti-abortion film that was shown in class in lieu of teaching the students about birth control. (Note – this town had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation at the time that I attended this school.)
The two teachers caught with drugs were fired, the rest are still there. They had tenure. They were, in effect, unfireable. This is a very common situation, especially in the worst schools. Bad teachers with tenure often get traded around, eventually ending up in the worst schools. At that point there is no where left to trade them and they cannot be fired for anything less than doing drugs on school property. And even then, it’s questionable.
In 11th grade I traveled to Scotland as an exchange student for a semester. I did it to escape my high school which was the only school in the district and so getting out of the country seemed like the only way to avoid it. When I returned I realized that I could not face another moment at that school. I talked to my parents and they agreed that I needed out. Everyone around me was getting into drugs, 12 of the 50 girls in my class were pregnant, one student had committed suicide and two more had died in drunk driving accidents. This was not the place for a straight A student who had had her sights on Harvard since elementary school. After much discussion we agreed that I would stay for my last semester as an 11th grader – long enough to get my Senior English credit, take an AP history class, Physics and Calculus. Then I dropped out of high school and went to the University of Colorado. Harvard doesn’t take drop-outs, no matter how noble their cause. I graduated from CU in 3 years, with a double major, and honors. I did not drop out because I was stupid, or incapable of learning, or because I lacked parental support – quite the opposite.
So, what do we do about this? What do we do about bad teachers driving out good students and further dismissing struggling students? Lets get rid of tenure. Let’s make it so that bad teachers CAN be fired. Because they should be. Lets let parents AND students evaluate every teacher at the end of every year. Of course, you are going to get the grudge evaluations – students, and their parents, who did poorly in the class and may lash out in the evaluation. BUT I’d be willing to bet that most will be honest. Most universities have this process in place. Mine did. And boring, uninspiring professors were told to get on their game.
I think that if even a quarter of the students and parents in a class lodged a complaint it would be worth checking out. I also think student grades should be a marker of a teacher’s success. You can’t honestly tell me that all 35 students in every class that a teacher has are stupid and incapable of learning. But I would believe that that teacher is incapable of teaching. And they should be let go. Or encouraged to get more education themselves.
Lastly, we need to educate teachers better about the realities of teaching. We need to teach them how to keep order in a classroom, how to encourage kids to participate, how to inspire, how to encourage, how to deviate from the curriculum while still teaching the important aspects so that a golden opportunity can be met.
My daughter is taking Spanish after school. On the first snow day of the year I picked her up and asked “So, how do you say snow in Spanish?” She said they hadn’t learned that yet. I looked at her teacher and he just shrugged and said, “We don’t learn weather vocabulary until next year.” That’s a bad teacher. Seize the moment. Welcome the class in Spanish and ask them how they’re enjoying the snow – in Spanish. Start a conversation. It’s not rocket science. And those kids will never get to rocket science if we don’t start educating them now.