Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find


Bad teachers need to be fired. You hear it all the time. It’s part of most education reformers’ guiding philosophy. Most people would have a very hard time justifying any opposition to it. Sometimes, in order to appease actual teachers and soften the harsh message, the phrase “after being given an opportunity to improve” is added, but the sentiment is the same:

Our education system would be so much better if only we could fire the crappy teachers.

What strikes me most is what happens after someone says it. Never is the logical follow-up question asked:

Just what exactly is a bad teacher?

Teachers are unique. I’m not just saying that because I am one. Unlike many jobs, there is no one metric that can be used to assess a teacher’s performance. If you’re a salesperson and you don’t sell stuff, you’re a bad salesperson. If you’re a lawyer who can’t get clients, you won’t be a lawyer for long. If you’re a preacher whose sermons cause parishioners to switch churches, you probably went into the wrong line of work. If you make widgets and nobody buys them, you’re going to go out of business. If you’re a chef that makes food nobody wants to eat, you’re not a good chef.

Reformers want to equate teaching to other jobs because it makes their agenda easier to accomplish. So they have to come up with a metric and the one they’ve settled on is:

 If you’re a teacher and your students don’t learn, then you’re a bad teacher.

The need to have a single metric creates some other problems that garner a lot of attention. You have to be able to say how much learning is the right amount. Then you have to have a way to figure out if students learned that much. Right now the US uses standardized test results to provide the numbers that are necessary to justify the labeling of teachers (and schools) as bad. Putting aside for a moment all of the problems inherent in rendering a verdict based on the results of a single test, the method has other obvious flaws, all of which stem from the initial error of viewing teachers the same as other professionals.

Let me know which of the following four teachers is bad. Which ones would you fire?

Ms. Jackson is young, smart, and energetic. Just out of college, she wants to make a difference. Although she could probably get a job in the suburban district where she grew up, she wants a greater challenge. She gets hired at a poor district where many of the parents didn’t graduate high school, much less college. A lot of them work two jobs, which means they aren’t home with their kids much. Many of her students read well below grade level. A lot of them don’t want to be there. She sends home books for students to read but they don’t read them. Additionally, she spends much of her day dealing with behavior problems and feels like she can’t teach. When she contacts the parents about these problems, they sympathize; they have the same behavior problems with their kids at home. At the end of the year she gives the state test, and despite her best efforts, many of her students perform poorly.

Mrs. Davis is old and set in her ways. She doesn’t like to try anything new. She’s got her way of doing things and it’s worked pretty well, thank you. She teaches in an affluent district where many of the parents are professionals. They volunteer in the classroom. They send in extra supplies. They follow through with homework and assigned reading. Mrs. Davis doesn’t worry too much about her students. Most of them already read well when they get to her and she figures that as long as she doesn’t screw them up they’re going to be okay. She’s right. Despite ignoring best practices and an over-reliance on worksheets, her students regularly pass the state test. They will again this year.

Mrs. Jones is one tough cookie. She’s the teacher kids don’t want. You can’t get away with anything in her class. There is no fun allowed. It’s work, work, work. And if you don’t work you can forget about recess. Mrs. Jones regularly calls parents when students don’t turn in assignments or if they slip up in class. The parents don’t like her much either. She’s opinionated, blunt, and often confrontational. A lot of parents skip out on parent-teacher conferences. This is fine with Mrs. Jones. She doesn’t need them anyway; her kids are going to learn come hell or high water. And learn they do. Every year, Mrs. Jones’s students outperform the other classes in the school. Her students are too scared to not do well, but they don’t enjoy school much. They’re frequently stressed. Many of them pretend to be sick. Some cry in the morning. Shelby in the back of the room is so worried about getting in trouble she goes through most days with a stomachache.

Miss Violet isn’t too bright. She doesn’t know the curriculum very well and isn’t very effective at teaching what she does know. She doesn’t have great control of her classroom. What Miss Violet really likes–no, loves–is the kids. She spent her high school years babysitting every chance she could and there’s really no better way she can spend a day than with a group of students. She loves talking to them about their lives. She asks about their weekends. She tears up when she finds out about the challenges some of them face at home. She greets them all with a smile every morning and is always nice. Her students adore her and they can’t wait to come to school. In fact, if you ask them their favorite place in the whole world, a lot of them would tell you Miss Violet’s classroom. At the end of the year, Miss Violet’s students don’t do very well on the state test, but they love school and the idea of coming back next year is exciting to them.

Which teachers are bad?

Which teacher would you want for your kid?

Would your friends agree, or do their kids have different needs which would be better met by one of the other teachers above?

Which teacher would a school district value the most? What about the state?

Should students get a say? After all, aren’t they the “clients?”

If the answer isn’t the same for every one of those questions, then can we truly identify any of the above teachers as bad?

The problem is that the single metric of student achievement doesn’t come close to measuring all of the things we want in good teachers. Yes, we want effective educators. But we also want professionalism and kindness and energy and creativity.  We want collegiality and good communication skills. Some want teachers to lead, others want them to follow. Ultimately, each of us wants what’s best for our kid and what’s best for my kid isn’t necessarily what’s best for your kid. We have different values and those values are often not the same as the state’s.

So here’s a crazy idea: Before we start labeling teachers as “good” or “bad” maybe someone should actually watch them work. Maybe we should measure the impacts they have on things other than test scores. Maybe we should stop trying to measure things that are immeasurable. And maybe we should recognize that teachers are unique, which is a good thing, because so are our parents and students.

7 Replies to “Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find”

  1. I was always happy with my teachers. I was a above average student and I learned a lot of common sense. I am a successful adult and have excelled at life and my career accomplishments. I can remember being happy with all of my teachers and liked going to school but hated the peer pressure. I believe they should come up with a way to remove the bad teachers and keep the good. We owe that to the students and the adults of our future.

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  4. It’s so hard to define what is good and bad in teaching. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I think the teachers who need to be fired are the ones who refuse to be teachable. For the ones who love the kids, but can’t teach, maybe there is a different position in education for them.

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