Are There Bad Teachers?
Written by Jim Knight.

We had a conversation about “bad teachers” in my workshop the other day. President Obama used the term in his state of the union address, and fresh from reading Robert Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss, I had mentioned my plan to write a series of columns exploring how Sutton’s ideas apply to teachers.

Ed Stavnitzky, a principal from a school in Ontario, Canada spoke about his belief that the term “bad teachers” carries such negative connotations that using it might actually make it harder for us to reach our shared goal of empowering schools and improving teaching.

Teachers who are not as effective as they need to be, Ed pointed out, are not “bad”–they simply lack the skills they need to become effective. Furthermore, Ed said, most ineffective teachers are victims of a system that has failed to serve them more than they are people who are personally flawed. If we have teachers who do not reach students, Ed explained, we need to first look at how the system can be improved.

Ed’s comments did what I love comments to do: they made me think.  And I am still thinking.  When people use the term “bad teachers,” or when they celebrate “good teachers” (implying others are bad), they often create the impression that the solution to the so-called crisis in education is to simply weed out the bad apples so that our schools can flourish.  Cut the bad ones, keep the good ones, and every child goes home a winner.

If only life were that simple.  I have met several thousand teachers in my day, and very, very few of them are bad people. At a minimum, what teachers need is respectful, effective professional learning that empowers them to do what they most want to do: make a difference in children’s lives.

But I still plan to write my columns. Let’s look at two examples of teachers who make it impossible for me not to:

Example One: When I was a student in grade seven, one of my teachers, in front of the entire class, accused me of stealing a pencil from another student’s desk.  I had moved to the desk for an activity as I had been asked to do, and the pencil was not on the desk after I moved, so his logical conclusion was that I must have stolen it. The only problem, of course, was that I had not; I knew nothing about the missing pencil.

When I told him I hadn’t stolen the pencil, the teacher grabbed me by the shirt, pushed me up against the wall, and told me, “tell me where the pencil is or you’ll have to answer to me.”  Since I had no idea where the pencil was, I couldn’t tell him. He kept getting angrier, but I told him my only answer. Eventually, another student spoke up and said, “I don’t think the pencil was there when Jim sat down,” and the teacher let me go.  There was, of course, no mention of an apology.

Today, I still feel angry and humiliated thinking about how I was accused, attacked, and embarrassed in front of class.  This man would never treat another adult that way. Why was it OK, for him to treat me that way.  Was my teacher a bad teacher?  I think he was.

Example Two:  In another workshop a few years ago a teacher talked about her daughter’s experience in grade two. One week after school had started, her second grader, who had loved to learn, sat at the kitchen table and asked her Mom a very sad question:  “Mom, when does third grade start?”

When she asked her daughter why she said that, the second grade girl who had loved learning, sighed and told her Mom, “my teacher doesn’t like kids.”

“And you know what,” that teacher told our group in the workshop, “my daughter was right.  The teacher didn’t like kids, and my little girl had a terrible year.”

A few years after her daughter had moved on to grade three, this mother was still visibly upset at the cold and mean-spirited way her daughter had been treated and the change she saw in her daughter’s love of learning.  Was that teacher, who extinguished a little girl’s fire for learning, a bad teacher? I think she was.

Ed was eloquent, and kind-hearted, and deeply committed to doing what would help children. And I agree with him that the term “bad teachers” is divisive and potentially counterproductive.

I would add, however, that when teachers are negligent or abusive, we need to speak up. For that reason, over the next five columns, I’ll be exploring Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss.  And, with a great deal of caution and concern, I’ll be talking about Good Teachers and Bad Teachers.

8 Comments

  1. John Golden

    I have my preservice teachers read (and sometimes reread) Brian Cambourne’s article with the Conditions of Learning. In it, he mentions how difficult it is to engage students if you don’t like them. The preservice teachers laugh openly at this, “yeah, right!” But when I ask them to think back, they all can think of at least one teacher that makes them realize, “ohhhh.”

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  2. Theresa meikle

    The abusive teachers identified here are clearly “bad”; however, I wonder about the lack of support and mentoring of these teachers. To me, both of these teachers require personal and professional career counseling. Their treatment of students indicates bullying and insensitive behavior, but I suspect that this has not been brought to the teachers’ attention in a way to show the need for change. How can teachers be supported to reflect on their practice if they are never called upon to do so and they continue to plan, deliver and evaluate students in a silo. The case for deprivatization of practice could not be illustrated mor clearly. There are bad teachers, but I believe we all have potential to grow and become our best selves with support.

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  3. Jim Knight

    Great comments John and Theresa. John I am grateful for you mentioning the Conditions of Learning as that is new to me. Theresa, I sure do agree that we need to coach and support teachers, and WAY too often teachers receive too little meaningful respectful support. I wonder, though, is abuse of power different than lack of skill? Do we cross a line when we as adults start to bully or neglect children? These are complicated questions, but I do know that I agree 100% with you that we all have potential to grow.

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  4. Julie

    I’m curious about the global term “bad” for teachers. It seems from this that Jim’s perception of a “bad” teacher is aligned with abuse of power, disrespect of student, lack of support or inspiration for the child that is in his or her care. I agree that these are indicative of a teacher who will likely have little academic success with students. However, I’m wondering about how others outside our field are using the word “bad.” How do people outside a school know the quality of the teacher? Would they consider the bully teacher a “bad teacher” if he also happened to have test scores in the 80th percentile? I have worked in schools where the scores are over 80% but the teachers are archaic, refuse to consider change, and are frankly mean. I thought the school was “bad” for these reasons and refused to send my child there. I chose instead the school with scores in the 60’s where they teach character education, have diversity and the staff embrace coaching. However, the other school is held up in the community as a symbol of a good school.

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  5. Erin Hickman

    I think that both of your cases are illustrative of people who are just not suited to the job of teaching. The behavior in the first example was actually pretty common for that period of time (sorry, Jim – I have a pretty good idea of how old you are!). I remember teachers in my high school exhibiting similar behaviors, which at that time was perceived by parents and admin. to be good, strong discipline. I am not in any way excusing or condoning the behavior: I think abusive teachers should be removed from the profession, but I think that I prefer your friend, Ed’s, thinking on this idea of “good” and “bad” teachers.

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  6. Robert Price

    The one thing that I have become very sensitive to in discussing the issues of public education is the level of institutional thought that limits the discourse. The teachers described are clearly wrong for the profession if not “bad” and it appears that we agree on this. I believe the solution lies in taking responsibility for this bad behavior. If these teachers remain unchecked as teachers there is an administrator or supervisor who is also wrong for theirt position. Additionally, if there are teachers at these school who are also ignoring this wrong behavior and believes that it is not his or her responsibility that teacher is also wrong.

    The days of closed door teaching are OVER this is the day for collaboration and teacher leadership. A community of learners has to be a community of shared responsibility. I know this is a different way of thinking about responsibility in our school communities but I feel that old argument over “good” and “bad” teachers are just dragging us down and certainly not winning over the nay-sayers of our profession. Let’s start taking responsibility for the actions in our school community and not just behind the door of our classrooms.

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  7. Mia

    I concur with Ed Stavnitzky, the principal from Ontario, Canada our leadership book this year is “The Art of Possibility” In the Zanders’ book, chapter three entitled “Giving an A,” Benjamin Zander relates a classroom technique that allows students to envision their own futures: all students in his class receive an A if they write him a postdated letter relating “the story of what will have to happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.” We did this at our Coaching Meeting, everyone went to the website http://futureme.org/ to write a letter and send it to themselves for the end of the year. Whether a teacher is a Bad or Good, we need to practice “Giving an A,” whether to yourself or to others. It creates possibility in an interaction and does away with power disparities to unite a campus in its efforts. Sometimes we label teachers to fast.

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  8. Kathryn Coffey

    This post makes me think about Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words”. The unspoken implication of our words as teachers affect students in ways we would not necessarily expect, unless we are aware of that potential. For example, when a teacher uses a phrase such as “that’s what good readers do”, if a child is not doing that particular thing yet, then there is the very real potential that the child will infer he/she is therefore a bad reader. It has caused me to try to be more conscious of using value labels, because each value has an implied opposite.

    This now has me thinking more and I’m looking forward to reading your other posts on this topic.

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