Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Teachers Are Sinking the Boat!

...and plugging the holes, and rowing, and building new boats, and...

Teachers really tick me off sometimes. We've dug ourselves in, isolated ourselves from other stakeholders, allowed substandard educators to join our ranks and have not done a very good job of keeping up the professional edge we once had. That said, we're also sending more students to college than ever before while doing everything in our power to hold on while the arc of education is tossed to and fro by the political and social tide. We are, for better and worse, the men and women that are escorting young Americans to their futures and we range from excellent to terrible. Aside from the students themselves, teachers are the lifeblood of the education system. If there is a major problem with that system, as more of America is beginning to assume, it is natural to examine our ranks to see what is going on. It would be ludicrous not to take these steps. Upon exploring the ranks of pedagogues, one might find there is a pretty interesting mix out there.

I've now worked in three very different settings: rural Kansas as a sub and student teacher; on a U.S. military base in Germany as a long-term student teacher; and in the South Bronx as a first and second year, full-time teacher. As with the parents, it's tough to label teachers, but there is definitely a spectrum of good and bad teachers. This again is entirely subjective and also the opinion of a second-year teacher, but this is my report:

New Teachers- They're very tough to label and are very generally a hot mess. Their quality is difficult to judge accurately, as their success has more to do with the support network they land themselves in than some natural ability to teach the children.

The Good
Green and Eager- I would say I'm probably one of these. The learning curve is steep and they're dedicated. If on the good side they are, of course, headed in the right direction and perhaps one day will be a master teacher.

Solid, Not Entirely Seasoned- These are the good eggs that have stuck around a year or two or three and are developing great skills as teachers. Their management is solidifying, as is their curriculum and they make solid contributions to their staffs. They are not as masterful as those with more experience, but the veterans started somewhere, too.

Entirely Insane, In a Good Way
- I've run into a few of these. From throwing lab stools across a room to accidentally blowing petri dishes up and across the lab, these guys can inspire, terrify and potentially teach like no other type of teacher. While not the best role models, it doesn't matter because the vast majority of students want to be nothing like them- they simply learn a lot of great stuff from them.

Well-Seasoned- These folks can be the heart and soul of a school. Masterful, experienced, flexible and at times very quality leaders, they are fantastic examples for other teachers to follow. The ones I've seen are not necessarily in leadership positions, but are looked to as leaders anyway.

Master Teachers- These ones make your jaw drop and drool a bit. With management that wraps entire classes around their little finger, they strike a strong path from day one, hit the ground steaming full throttle and do such a fantastic job that only one of the so, so ugly (see below) teachers would dare criticize them- generally one of those people that criticize others for doing too good a job. If every teaching position was filled by one of these, the Americans would not only be leaders of the free world, but leaders of the universe.

Ancient, Masterful & Growing- In one of the places I taught, the most technologically adventurous teacher was past old enough to retire. He was an expert teacher and still trucking. The year I was there was actually his last, as he took up a teaching position at a major university educating future teachers. Had I been in that state, I would have been lucky to have been one of his charges. He was a master teacher whose days left in the classroom were probably not many fewer than days left in his life.

The Bad
Lost At Sea- Often green, sometimes not, these folks lack directions, whether from their administration or they simply don't have it. Many of them join the ranks of former teachers.

The Bored- These folks, for one reason or another have stopped trying. The students can tell; other teachers can tell; the administration can tell, but for some reason they stick around.

So Angry- Potentially good at their jobs, but so angry at the world and the hand they've been dealt that they cannot deal with other staff, they seem to hate practically everything. I found last year that it's pretty easy to get angry in this field for a billion reasons, but to let it consume you can be to let it tear apart you practice.

Very Bitter and Old- They tell new teachers to beware or simply not to join the field. I met one once that had a PhD in ed, but when she found out that I speak German she told me to switch to business because I could make more money- not very encouraging, nor helpful.

Ancient, Crumbling- These folks are waiting either for retirement or an excuse to leave or maybe even death . They may have stopped growing as a teachers several decades prior and had difficulty switching from the abacus to the computer (their arch-nemeses are the Smart Board and the LCD projector).

So, So Ugly
Absolutely Crazy (In a Bad Way)- These are various. From teachers who can't prevent books being microwaved in a classroom to a middle-aged man prancing around a room of would-be thugs like a fairy-godmother cawing, "No one can steal YOUR education!", these folks need the boot and fast.

Really, Really Bad- This includes the above-listed absolutely crazy and is really just an umbrella term for those teachers that are so bad that any sane stakeholder needs only thirty seconds in their classroom to realize their role in the field should be that of copy clerk (maybe), not classroom teacher.

We all know there are bad teachers out there. It is not a secret. What seems to be a secret sometimes is that there are unbelievably good teachers our there as well. Most teachers in our classrooms are on the Good side of the spectrum, rather than on the Bad or So, So Ugly, but this majority needs reinforcements. The ranks of well-seasoned and master teachers are thinning as more and more of the not entirely seasoned and newbies throw in the towel. The field simply does not recruit a large ratio of applicants to teaching positions. The bottom line, however, is that there are students to be taught and teaching positions to be filled. Principals are often faced with choices reminiscent of too many elections in recent history: the choice between the bad and the worse. Hopefully in the near future we figure out a way to fix this problem, but in the meantime we need to make sure the efforts of those on the "good" end of the spectrum are not swept under the rug.

Until that day happens I'll keep paddling around in my dinghy trying to figure out how to become a master of the trade.

Today's Wine: Tilia Malbec 2008. Yet another from Cavatappo, our friendly neighborhood amazing Italian restaurant. A bit spicy and plenty of fruit.


  1. I remember my first day, over 26 years ago. Cynical vet teachers told me to get out of the business, to go to Long Island, and I don't remember what else. I decided right then and there I never wanted to be like that, and I'm happy to say I never even approached being like that. I'm still a pain in the ass, however.

  2. Dang- I could probably check off a box in each of these categories - I'd better get my meds adjusted!

    There is another side to this (isn't there always?); I have witnessed administrators not helping, supporting, or encouraging rookies with great potential, and getting rid of those rookies too soon because some of the "bad" teachers are still filling up slots, and those bad teachers are protected. I was trying to explain to my older son last night about the leveled playing field philosophy of a union to protect all, because like some unseen threat,"it could happen to you" is constantly there. (Meaning, you could be targeted for dismissal.) It's funny how in a system that's intended to protect people from favoritism, etc., humans still find a way to do the wrong things. Kind of like the Chinese income tax story I heard on NPR yesterday.

  3. Postscript: I'm still working on my sea-legs, too. (Just wanted to fit in with your metaphor.)

  4. NYC Educator- Thanks for not being bitter and please continue to be a pain in the ass.

    Kelly- You're right about administrators. They/the lack of quality support networks in schools squash many new teachers. I'm writing about administrators in my next post.

  5. I had a professor at my current ‘educational arena’ that fit the Ancient, Masterful & Growing description. This man was my medieval history professor and pushing 90. He was amazing an educator. He often joked about how living in the Middle Ages was why he was such an expert on the subject. He spoke five languages, was a professional translator of medieval literature, and apparently loved watching wheel of fortune to make fun of the skinny tramp who flipped the letters.

    Unfortunately, he was being let go due to health reasons which was understandable. He was wheeled into class everyday by his wife, had an oxygen tank, a very bulky contraption attached to him that kept his heart beating, and required breaks during class to catch his breath. On of his last statements, which I will never forget, “They will have kill me to keep me from teaching.” He then proceeded to spit on the ground.

    The level of enthusiasm that he showed was something I had never seen before. His method of delivery was extremely conducive to learning. I was also absolutely amazed by this tiny old man’s energy and passion for teaching. I wish half of my professors would the same spunk as a man over twice their age.

    Favorite line “the Americans would not only be leaders of the free world, but leaders of the universe…”