Monday, March 19, 2012

The Benefits of a Bad Teacher

(Let's try this again - sorry for the original post disappearing...)

Bad teachers are all the rage right now, appearing in news reports, teacher rankings, Congressional and legislative hearings, USDOE white papers and summits, and even movies starring Cameron Diaz. If you are a bad teacher, get a PR person, 'cause this is your 15 minutes. Everybody wants to know your name.

But just as teachers in general are getting a bad rap, so are bad teachers. Bad teachers are not what they seem to be. Yes, there have been and are some truly bad teachers out there - if a teacher is molesting kids or leaving them unsupervised or cheating on standardized tests or totally neglecting their duty, that is more than being a bad teacher. That's being a criminal. I'm not talking about criminals. I'm talking about teachers who don't seem to be getting the job done because their scores aren't good or the kids are complaining or the parents are calling for their jobs or the administrators are annoyed by them. I'm talking about your run-of-the-mill, below-average, not well liked, bad teacher.

Defining a bad teacher is in the eye of the beholder. Some define a bad teacher as one who does not raise students' test scores during the time that teacher is in charge of those students (so called value-added measures). Others define bad teachers as those who are boring or who lecture too much. Still others define bad teachers as those who are too strict or too lenient, uncouth in parent conferences and with students in class. They are those who ask annoying questions in faculty meetings and who don't collaborate well with their colleagues. They don't grade every single assignment they give to students. They don't teach engaging lessons every day. They give out worksheets and "busy work." They lose their patience with students and their parents. They sometimes "phone it in."

The bad teacher is the one whom everyone wants to avoid, but no one can. They can pop up in any grade and any subject. They are the poster children for getting rid of tenure, and the ones parents call about to complain. Everyone has a "bad teacher" story, and these stories are the fuel that keeps the fire of outrage burning against the current status quo of schooling. Everyone knows bad teachers are out there, and they believe that getting rid of the bad teachers will solve what is wrong with schools. Simply putting a good teacher in the classroom will help all children learn and learn well. 

My "bad teacher" stories involve two math teachers and a history teacher. My math teachers were very good mathematicians, but they were pretty bad at explaining math to those with little number sense. My history teacher was the stereotypical "coach," who used my name and those of my classmates as multiple choice answers for questions ranging from who was the president during the Civil War to who signed the Treaty of Versailles. My son's bad teacher was his first grade teacher, who was so rigid in her expectations that he hated going to school each day. 

But the "bad teacher" stereotype is just that - a stereotype. The worst teacher I have ever worked with had a 27% failure rate - pretty bad, if not horrible - but don't neglect to note that he did have a 73% success rate. The majority - perhaps even the vast majority - of students did well in his class, many passing with flying colors. My son's first grade teacher was excellent with kids eager to please adults and follow directions. I succeeded in the classes of my own "bad teachers," learning about algebra, calculus, and American history enough to do well in subsequent classes and in college. My son also learned enough in his difficult, stressful, miserable first-grade class that he went on to subsequent grades and has since thrived. 

Aside from the curriculum, what I learned from my bad teachers, and what my son learned, was how to be a self-advocate, how to negotiate with someone whose perspective was vastly different than my own, how to handle conflict and how to entertain myself without distracting others. Just as everybody has a bad teacher, so too do they have a bad boss, a bad relationship, a boring meeting, or a bad customer-service experience. While we can teach conflict management and social skills all day long, we don't know what we're made of  until we are in a conflict. We don't know how we'll react to someone criticizing us or being unfair until they've criticized or been unfair. Strengths such as bravery and courage are unknown quantities until situations that require bravery and courage present themselves.

Calling a teacher a "bad teacher" attributes their teaching to some internal, personal flaw that  probably cannot be fixed. No amount of professional development can fix "bad teacher," according to the pessimists who are running education reform these days. And children who have these "bad teachers" are doomed if they go through even one year of "bad teacher." And blaming classroom conflict, learner misunderstandings, or boring lessons on a "bad teacher" takes all the responsibility for learning off of the students. They don't get an opportunity to take perspective, analyze interpersonal dynamics, and apply conflict-resolution skills. 

I'm not writing this to advocate boring, neglectful, disengaged, irrelevant, inflexible teaching. My goal is to shed light on the complex interpersonal dynamics that exist in a classroom and use even the "bad teacher" experience as a teachable moment for everyone. There were times where I was a bad teacher - I didn't grade every assignment. I didn't engage my students every single day, and not all my students passed the AP or state tests. I was named Teacher of the Year on more than one occasion, but I still had my days when I phoned it in instead of doing my best. But if I explained my bad teaching moments as merely "bad," I would have likely quit teaching a long time ago. I would have given up on myself and my future students. I would have thought there was no fixing those bad days, so why even try to have some good ones. I did not let my bad teaching moments define me, just as I would hope my students don't define themselves by their bad learning experiences.

Explaining teacher behavior in personal, pervasive, and permanent terms cheats both teachers and students out of teachable moments and the ability to grow from failure. Let's give our students the cognitive and social skills they need to succeed both because of and in spite of the teacher. If students can learn how to thrive with both good and bad teachers, then they can thrive in just about any situation they encounter.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Real Education Reform? In Alabama?!?

I'm going to write something that I never thought I'd ever write in the entire scope of my life and work: 

The state of Alabama might have the answer to education reform.

After you stop laughing, keep reading. Our new state superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, has developed quite a reputation in our state for thinking outside the box and, quite frankly, freaking people out. As a former special education teacher, school principal, and district superintendent, Dr. Bice knows what it's like to work in a school and deal with regulations, rules, and standards - and he knows that these things can be used for good and for evil. He's shaking things up at the State Department of Education, reorganizing offices and asking whether programs are truly worth the state's time and efforts. He's advocating some reforms that are making people uncomfortable, but that just might work. 

One reform that I'm a little geeked out about is Innovation Systems, in which schools can apply to waive or modify regulations in exchange for targeted accountability. Schools can waive certification regulations or modify expenditures. They can extend the school day or provide more flexible learning opportunities. In actuality, they can propose just about any change they want, as long as it benefits the students and teachers in their school or district. In return, the school must propose to track a minimum of two accountability measures - one dealing with student achievement (broadly defined) and another negotiated with the State Department. 

Two districts have taken the state up on their offer to be an Innovation System - Florence City Schools and Lawrence County Schools. In Florence, they have created a magnet school for fine arts, an industry-based program for at-risk students, and a project-based history/language arts program designed to increase success on AP Exams. In Lawrence County, they have developed a comprehensive, integrated agricultural curriculum that awards co-op credit for after-school agricultural work and integrates economics into agriscience and business courses. Both districts agreed to be held accountable to their own goals, which includes increasing overall and subject-specific graduation rates and scores on AP Exams and the ACT.

In essence, Innovation Systems are charter schools, without the charter.

These systems are publicly run and publicly funded. The schools are still run by the principals. The classes are still taught by the teachers. No federal or corporate money was spent. No parent triggers were pulled. Schools are simply being allowed to have the flexibility of a charter without having to give up all those things that make a school in the public domain. Dr. Bice believes that what's good for a charter should also be good for a public school. If charter schools are designed to do what's best for kids, why can't public schools be allowed to do what's best for kids? 

I think this program has two strong things going for it:

  • Schools can do what's best for kids.
  • Schools can determine how to measure what's best for kids.

I believe if we let schools out of their boxes, we will get ideas and innovations that meet students' needs and help students figure out what they want. I hope more school districts in Alabama take Dr. Bice up on his Innovation Systems idea. And I hope more states offer an Innovation System approach to their districts so they can see what educators can do if they are allowed to teach outside the box.