As prep for a state exam, the teacher created a lesson to review the cause and effects of WWII by having students view an amateur cartoon on YouTube, and then fill out answers to previous state exam questions. On a different occasion, a teacher was reviewing geometric concepts in prep for the next day’s in-class exam. However, students were listening to electronic devices, texting, holding side conversations about best lyricists, some had heads down on desks, and one exclaimed after a previously heated exchange with the teacher, “Don’t you sometimes feel like slapping the shit out of_____?” In a third instance, students were sitting in groups, and then asked to do a do-now of answering questions followed by textbook reading and answering more questions. The teacher spoke only to give announcements of what to complete in the textbook.
As a witness to such classrooms, while not pleased and genuinely concerned about the delivery of instruction and the management of classroom dynamics not matching a path leading toward successful evidential learning outcomes, my job is to support teachers where they are into the best they can be. Consequently, this work does not match the recent outcries of terminating bad teachers. In this vortex of disconnect, two questions emanate. Given these examples (and many like them) is this evidence of bad teachers or bad teaching moments? Going further, is there such a thing as a bad teacher or bad teaching? Having been a high school teacher and now an educational coach, I am trying to broaden my territory of investigation and support. But, in the fury of media and politics advocating the eradication of bad teachers, I also have to start asking more clarifying questions.
The problem, in part, is “badness” is collapsed and universalized. A teacher who chooses not to lesson plan is equated to one diligently struggling in writing and delivering effective lessons. A teacher who is indifferent to whether all students learn is equated to one genuinely trying to figure out how to manage a class and differentiate instruction (which could be addressed through familiarizing the teacher with different strategies in both classroom management and instructional approaches and modeling them). A teacher who is trying to practice students collaborating in groups in creating bridges of social interaction and practicing the use of them (as required in the world) is collapsed into the same category of those disinterested in such enterprise. The point of these examples is that one could see similar outcomes–disengaged disgruntled students, poor instructional delivery, below par student performance–without taking into account the “badness” within context. Training our eyes less to demonize a person, sharpening them to ascertain other factors in play such as skill and context, can better help us improve the educative experiences struggling teachers can give, and therefore (ideally) improve the learning possibilities of our students.
Perhaps what is needed during this moment of reform amidst calls to fire “bad” teachers based on student test scores, institute merit-based pay, and eliminate hard-earned tenure–all of these responses to aftershock–is (1) a reexamination of the criteria for defining a “bad teacher,” (2) distinguishing “a bad teacher” from “bad teaching,” (3) learning and understanding the context and situations that such teaching occurs, and (4) what reform initiatives match outcomes for improving teaching and learning. The most immediate solution is to lessen the rhetoric. The over-sweeping judgments, placements of blame, and generalizations are rampant and fuel hysteria. They focus our energy and efforts less around understanding the situations and contexts within which some teachers are struggling, and our duty to provide targeted support. The next is to start asking questions. What are a teacher’s goals for students, how are they matched with the teacher’s skill set, what is the evidence of effectiveness, and what are places where there is weakness that support can ameliorate?