The myth of bad teachers

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America has more bad teachers than minotaurs or basilisks, but not nearly as many as media reports would suggest. The myth of the bad teacher has crept into explanations of our country’s declining educational prowess, a convenient explanation that ignores many truths. I want to state upfront that I am not saying there are no bad teachers. Every profession has its greater and lesser lights. An old joke expresses this idea perfectly:

“What do you call a man who graduates at the bottom of his medical school class?”
“Doctor.”

What do you call a person who graduates at the bottom of his or her education classes? You call that person teacher, at least for awhile. But this is a profession where half of all graduates leave within the first five years. Some teachers may have paid over $50,000 for a master’s degree in education that they quickly write off as an expensive mistake. The data suggests that 50% attrition rate may be increasing, too. If we keep sniping at our teachers, the teacher exodus may escalate — which will create a new problem. We can’t fill many open teaching positions now. America is hurting for capable STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and bilingual teachers. Districts struggle to find secondary Spanish teachers.

Eduhonesty: The idea that we can get rid of the “bad apples” and replace them with better apples requires a supply of apples that, in some cases, does not exist. We may have a pool of waiting second-grade teachers; we don’t have a pool of qualified high school Spanish teachers. Furthermore, I don’t think there are nearly as many bad apples out there as pundits have suggested. Teaching self-selects for better teachers. Students make life miserable for teachers who can’t manage a classroom or who can’t explain their material. Those teachers tend to leave, usually sooner rather than later. Administration also makes life miserable for less able teachers. (In some cases, administration makes life miserable for everybody, but less capable teachers get more than an equal share of that misery.)

Let’s be clear. Media attacks on teachers need to stop. Teachers take on a tough job that requires knowledge, resilience, and commitment. They learn on the job and the research suggests they will underperform for the first two years until they begin to master their craft. Without support and positive reinforcement, though, many potentially great teachers will leave during those critical first and second years. We need to provide reasons for talented educators to stay and continue to grow within the profession.

I am sometimes struck by this irony: Educators understand that positive reinforcement builds self-esteem and encourages effort. Yet school administrations and media writers don’t seem to understand that the same forces that create strong students also create strong teachers. Continuous criticism wears anyone and everyone down.

Uh, guys? Simply put, we desperately need more positive reinforcement out here. Are America’s test scores declining because of poor teachers? Teaching must be a factor in those scores. But we are now a country where the census indicates that one in five households speak a language other than English within the home. We are now a country where both parents often work in the evening to make ends meet. We are a country where young girls who have dropped out of school end up raising the eight children they birthed before the age of 31. (She was a hard-working, dedicated mom and she tried to help her high school boy after he was expelled.) We are a country of economically-segregated neighborhoods. I work in a school with a free and reduced lunch — read poverty — rate of over 90%. My children attended the school where I live, which has a poverty rate of 3%. The educational ramifications of economic segregation dwarf any problems with lack of teacher training, I am certain.

Attacking teachers may be easy and convenient, easier than attacking the problems posed by poverty, lack of English-language skills and the rapid unravelling of the American family. The fact that these attacks are easy does not make them right. Perhaps part of our problem — a problem I expect to worsen — is that the most qualified quant jocks, the men and women able to teach advanced math and science, are opting for professions other than teaching. Why get $35,000 to start teaching chemistry when you can get $70,000 to start as a chemical engineer? Especially when chemical engineering commands respect at a time when teachers are often treated with suspicion and contempt.