I was talking with a friend — a mother whose opinion I generally respect — so I was shocked to hear those words come out of her mouth. I was shocked, because I didn’t think she really knew what she meant.
“What does she mean by ‘bad’?’ I wondered. “Does she mean morally bad? Does she mean people with poor teaching skills?”
My suspicion was she was parroting a criticism she had heard and had not yet thought about critically.
“Bad” is such an imprecise term. If it was my English student who was using that word, I would ask for more precise language.
“What exactly do you mean?”
It was become fashionable in reform circles these days to blame “bad teachers” for all the ills in education. “We need to get rid of all the bad teachers.” they say. “We need to use student test scores to ferret out all the bad teachers.” “We need to threaten the incomes of all those bad teachers to make them perform in the classroom.”
First of all, I have news for all those critics of “bad teachers.” The teachers aren’t in charge of the system. They’re running scared these days. They’re afraid of being ridiculed. They’re afraid of being admonished by administrators. They’re afraid of losing their jobs.
All that fear does not help their students feel safe and secure in the classroom. And a glance at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will show you that students must feel a sense of security before they are able to learn. Stop blaming the teachers, okay?
Now, back to the language.
That sentence — “First of all, we need to get rid of all the bad teachers” — reminds me of the famous line from Shakespeare: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Critics of the legal profession are fond of that phrase. The thing is, it is spoken by a character who wanted to lead a mob to overthrow the government. In other words, that sentence is not an attack on the legal profession but a back-handed compliment.
Teachers, you should stop running scared and take that pejorative, “bad teachers,” as the back-handed compliment it really is. Claim the power the critics are vesting in you. They seem to think you are in charge of public education these days. Maybe you could turn that illusion into reality.
We might start by teaching more about thoughtful debate. Over and over again, while I was earning my master’s degree in teaching, I kept telling my instructors and anyone else who would listen that teachers need to use their skills to educate the public. Educate the public about the teaching profession. Let the public know that they should not fall for such a blatant propaganda trick.
Politicians use this one all the time. A criticism may be a lie. However, if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it is true. Often they will not even stop to ask themselves why they believe it. They will just repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat it.
“First of all, let’s get rid of all the bad teachers.”
Another thing we should educate the public about is the proper way to conduct a thoughtful critique. This is sort of along the line of Robert Fulgham’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
“Play fair. … Don’t hit people. … Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.”
When I was in high school art classes, the teachers taught us the importance of critique. Used properly, it is a tool that can help us grow. But when we criticize the work of another, we should also say something constructive.
In other words, if you want to blame all those “bad teachers,” fine. Okay. But start by defining what you mean by “bad.” And also say something you admire about teachers, something like, “They taught me to read. They taught me to value learning. They taught me how to offer constructive critique.”
And then let’s have a thoughtful public conversation, one in which the word “bad” is not used, because it lacks precision.
What do we really mean? That we’re concerned about the state of public education these days? Let’s talk about that. Let’s do something about that.
But let’s stop blaming each other. That’s bad.
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