What does a bad teacher look like?

What does a bad teacher look like? Well for starters they sure as heck don’t look like Cameron Diaz. This week the focus is on the misleading and unhelpful tendency of labeling teachers ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

I felt that much of the rhetoric in the recent ‘Q and A’ program (see previous blog) hinted strongly at the idea that there is a troublesome minority of bad teachers out there causing damage to Australian education. Not only that, but the very strong implication was just how important it is to the future of the nation that these baddies are weeded out. I’m sure, although I’ve not checked, that similar rhetoric is being peddled outside Australia too.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the merits of this argument. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very willing to accept there are lots of teachers in schools who are underperforming in a variety of ways. I intend to discuss this shortly but first, let’s be clear that this sort of debate only serves to demonise a poorly defined collection of teachers in the minds of parents. In fact, it positions parents to believe that some sort of tough decisive political intervention is all that will save their vulnerable children from the risk of disadvantage.

Teachers’ professional reputations are coloured by all sorts of personal attributes. If parents ask their kids what their teacher is like, the response usually references qualities such as funny, cool (or uncool), good with computers, goodlooking, trendy, musical or sporty. None of this is particularly insightful though. ‘Good’ gets mixed up with ideas of popularity. Parents will have a fair idea of how entertaining their child finds a teacher, but just how effectively they are being taught remains unclear.

So, gentle reader, if you’re a parent please consider this; teachers are professional people who work in a specialised service industry. Unless they are criminally negligent or malicious, I can see no value in talking about them as being ‘bad’ at it. As for teachers who are thought of as ‘good’, well it’s such a broad and subjective term I don’t want to waste much time on it. Better to just forget the whole ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thing entirely.

For what it’s worth, here’s my personal opinion based on experience. If a teacher knows their stuff, has a clear plan on how to run a class, and cares about the kids and the school, than they are a teacher I want to work with and I hope they teach my kids.

In almost 20 years in this job, I’ve been surrounded by colleagues who ticked all three criteria. The great majority in fact. However, I’ve also worked with a whole bunch that didn’t. The reasons why they didn’t are not really my business. However, here are a few possibilities to consider.

Some teachers just ‘teach to the course’ and are considered less than inspiring because of it. Also, sadly, personal hardships affect teachers as much as everyone else and this impacts on the quality of their professional life. And finally, let’s be honest and recognize that many a teacher has lost some degree of their original diligence, effectiveness and passion as the years have passed. Perhaps their world view has shifted, perhaps their role has changed and they are disillusioned with their career…or perhaps their role has not changed and school life resembles ‘groundhog day’. None of this constitutes bad, it constitutes not their best.

Despite what it looks like, I’m not an apologist for these teachers. If politicians and parents expect teachers should endeavor to perform at or near their best at all times I’m completely on board. So is every other conscientious educator. Just drop the rhetoric that advocates getting rid of bad teachers like they’re an old piece of fruit because that kind of thinking is dangerously close to Willy Loman’s story in Death of a Salesman.

Thankfully, it’s been my experience that underperforming teachers aren’t discarded. Principals and school leadership teams I’ve worked with have always shown a duty of care to staff as much as students. It would seem there’s similar attention being established at a national level also. That ‘Q and A’ show was the first time I’d heard a reference to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. I’ve since had a chance to look over AITSL’s website and I like the direction this is heading in. A national body “promoting excellence in the profession of teaching and school leadership” is a far more constructive alternative to the tough talk that promises to dump underperforming teachers.

If you’ve read previous posts you’ll know that I think teaching suffers from a few unfortunate misconceptions. Another one to add to the list is that bad teachers are out there in worryingly large numbers and parents live in fear their child might suffer as a result. Well, I can’t guarantee the quality of every teacher out there, but I can assure you if you’re a parent of one thing at least. These days teaching is a dynamic profession and teachers are being encouraged – or challenged – to improve their art with increasing regularity. Some teachers will have more areas to strengthen than others but let’s not continue with the ‘bad teacher’ witch-hunt. No one is looking to manage ‘bad students’ by dumping them as some sort of bad investment. Teachers deserve no less consideration.

If you’re interested in AITSL here’s the link