Today, when I finished teaching my classes, a thought struck my mind, am I truly a good teacher? What makes me a good teacher? I started my reality checklist; are my lessons plans submitted on time? Are my students happy with me and my teaching? Are students’ parents satisfied with me? Is my school management confident with me? However, this checklist unable to prove that I am a good teacher? I always think that if my students love my teaching and engage in my planned activities and lessons, then it means I achieve my goals to become a good teacher. Today, the question is not how good I am in my teaching; the problem is how bad I am in the eyes of my students? But why my students would see me as a bad teacher?
When I scolded them or when I angrily react to their mischief behaviour during class sessions, sometimes things have gone far, worse than I ever anticipated or experienced. Today I experienced a similar kind of class where things went out of my control, and I scolded my student badly. Even though the session ends with an apology from both sides but somehow, I felt disappointed. Am I a lousy teacher based on my behaviour with my students? It is when I encountered an article by an experienced Ellie Herman who was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.
She was also an English teacher at South Los Angeles charter school where she taught drama, creative writing to English 11 and 9th grade until 2013 when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year observing classrooms and learning from other teachers. The Washington Post’s editor Valerie Strauss published one of Herman’s article (or I can say a teacher reflection) in 2014. Initially, this entry was published on Herman’s Blog Gatsby. However, the blog is now unreachable.
Entry by Ellie Herman
“I once had a student who was on crack. It was a nightmare. Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro. But crack turned him nasty and out of control. He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him. We did an intervention. We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help. Nothing worked. Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on Facebook during winter break, he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity. He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls.
I lost it. I only dimly recall what happened next. I’m sure I didn’t drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember. All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut. When I finished, I was shaking. He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.
All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher. I was ashamed of my loss of control. Even the next day, when I had had a chance to calm down and try to have a more rational conversation with Jorge, I couldn’t reach him. None of us could. He bombed his classes and did not graduate on time. The incident with Jorge was the most extreme I ever had, but for all the five years I taught, I was dogged by the worry that I was a lousy teacher. Despite everything the books tell you, teaching is above all a profoundly messy human endeavour; for all the exhilarating highs, there are terrible days when you feel like a profound failure, and those are the days when you long for a reality check. Am I a bad teacher? How would I know? I know, I know: teacher evaluation rubrics are supposed to alleviate this worry, but if like me you don’t believe that the rubric measures what you’re doing, they’re no comfort and can actually be crazy-making when you score low on something you don’t even value, as the robotic re-iteration of a three-part objective, which would send me into a tailspin of that’s insane! And then no, what if I’m crazy? And then a dystopic the whole world has gone mad, and I’m utterly alone because nothing has any meaning anymore! A conviction that rarely leads to good teaching.
Now, with the benefit of time, sleep and the chance to observe many, many teachers across Los Angeles, though the vast majority of teachers I’ve watched are excellent, every so often schools will allow me to go from class to class, and occasionally I’ll find myself in the classroom of a horrible teacher. And let me clear one thing up right away: bad teachers are scarce, but if you’re in the presence of an awful teacher, as opposed to a good teacher on a bad day, you will not doubt what you are witnessing. So in case, you’re like me, wracked with uncertainty about whether you’re a terrible teacher, I’ve identified five fundamental tendencies that I’ve observed in the classrooms of awful teachers. Take this short quiz, and at the end, I will tell you if you’re a terrible teacher.
- Do you dislike children? I don’t mean that you love every single one of your students every day. I mean, do children in the age group you’re teaching generally fail to delight you in any way? The number one quality I’ve observed in bad teachers is that they do not seem to like children very much. In high schools, this means they do not seem to find teenagers charming, funny or exciting—ever.
- Do you see your subject matter dull? If asked “why are you teaching this?” will you respond “because it will be on the test”? Do your eyes glaze over at the thought of your subject area? Every teacher has dud lessons from time to time (believe me) but what I sense in the classrooms of bad teachers is that they have no interest in their entire subject.
- Do you know what you’re talking about? I recently sat in on the class of a teacher who was teaching students incorrect grammar. Teaching it—she’d put an incorrect rule on a slide and then was forcing her students to rewrite sentences to conform to this incorrect rule. It was especially upsetting because several students were shyly raising their hands and going “Miss…are you sure? That sounds wrong.”
- Do you ignore a large subset of your students most of the time? The terrible teachers I’ve observed tend to engage only with a small number of very compliant, eager students, ignoring the rest except to reprimand troublemakers.
- Are you disengaged? I don’t mean those bad days when you want to flush your head—or someone’s head—in the toilet, or even those days that you’re so burned out you can hardly keep going. I mean have you checked out emotionally as an operating philosophy, day in and day out? A central quality in awful teachers is that they seem to have stopped caring; this lack of engagement is reflected not only in their interactions with students (or lack thereof) but in their seemingly random choice of lesson topics.
So, are you a bad teacher? No. How do I know? Because if you’ve read this far, you care. You may not be great (yet). The inspirational movie of your life may be set several years hence. It may be that you have a tremendous amount still to learn. But you’re not a bad teacher. Because the overriding quality of terrible teachers, as Azucena Gonzales observed, is that they have given up. And you haven’t.
Why does this matter? It matters because as a country we seem to be convinced that our classrooms are infested with bad teachers who must be driven out, and this conviction seems to be the driving force behind most of our supposed “accountability” measures, which are designed like self-guided missiles dropped down to locate and destroy bad teachers first, before installing good teachers. I agree that there are some bad teachers and that they should be coached or, if necessary, fired.
After reading this article, I realise that there many teachers, like me, who want a better and secure future of their students. No matter how bad we, teachers, scolded our students, in the end, all we need is to see them growing as a successful and responsible human.
Have you ever scolded your students that bad? Share your thoughts in the comment below.