THE BLOG
01/08/2011 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Teachers Go Bad

Communism, terrorism, bad teachers -- the new enemy of freedom, finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Ineffective. Disorganized. Boring. Lazy. No class control -- or too much control. Bad things go down in those classrooms. Fights break out. Things get vandalized. Minds get wasted. So do millions of dollars of public funding.

Of course, you're not one of those bad teachers -- and neither am I, though I have often thought that there is at least a little bad teacher in all of us and that one of the greatest challenges of being an educator is guarding against those impulses. I suppose I should speak for myself on that account.

I have never seen or personally heard of anyone entering the teaching profession for the purpose of stealing money from the tax-payers and sabotaging the lives of children. They all seem to start out with the right intentions.

Like Mr. D who came to our school with passion and energy and a desire to rewrite the destinies of his at-risk students. He taught English and drama gushing with his love for literature and creative expression. He threw himself into the work and set out to mount a production of Romeo and Juliet from the ground up with virtually no budget and a drama class of more than 30 students none of whom had ever before been in a school play. They were students who had been incarcerated, who had been expelled from other schools, sometimes for assaulting teachers and administrators. He worked long hours and the results were stunning. The rest of the faculty watched the performance in awe. It contained moments that transcended the lives of everyone involved, even though the original Romeo had disappeared two days before the production (on the run from gang rivals, according to his associates) and Mr. D had to find a last-minute replacement -- who performed the role with a script in hand.

Mr. D was never the same after that play. By the next fall he'd become sullen and temperamental. He missed days, then weeks of school, lost control of his classes and curriculum and found himself in combat with disgruntled students. One day he completely lost it and was taken from his classroom in handcuffs. A sad and sobering day -- especially for those of us who remembered what he'd been like before Romeo and Juliet. We understood that this over-extended overly-passionate too-thin-skinned soul-fried man wasn't so different from any of the rest of us. He'd made mistakes, lost his way. He might have had personal problems we weren't aware of. Maybe we could have given him more support. Perhaps he would have survived or even prospered in a different situation with less challenging students and more external structure in the school. On the other hand, he had done serious damage to our students by not really teaching them for a few years. He probably shouldn't have lasted as long as he did.

Like those aging burn-outs. That's the kind of bad teacher I'm most afraid of one day becoming -- once effective, even inspiring, but having let it all slowly slip away. We had a math teacher, Mr. T, around that same time as Mr. D, who taught probabilities by playing cards and shooting craps with students and letting them sleep and come in and out of the room as they pleased. If anyone demanded some real math instruction, he would direct the student to a table with tattered math books and say, "Do some problems." He was in his thirty-second year with the school district. More recently our school received a must-place social studies teacher, Ms. B, who showed animated movies and gave students rudimentary worksheets of seemingly arbitrary subject matter which they would pass around and copy from each other when they weren't talking on their cell phones, braiding and trimming hair, polishing sneakers, practicing graffiti or snoozing.

Perhaps I'm idealistic to believe that either of them had ever been effective teachers but in other cases I've witnessed the devolution: first the complacency, then the exhaustion, a year or two with particularly recalcitrant students, over-heated and/or freezing classrooms, combative administrators, nasty parents, a personal crisis or two -- then they go into survival mode. I am determined never to let it happen to me -- but I think it would be arrogant to believe that it couldn't have or couldn't still.

Now that bad teachers have been identified as a public enemy, the fear of becoming one makes new teachers particularly susceptible to the fraud that if students are quiet and obedient -- and can bubble enough right answers once a year on a test -- then they must be learning. That belief can create surreptitiously bad teachers who control students without really teaching them very much.

An even greater challenge for new teachers is defending themselves against the collective resistance and seemingly intractable disinterest and apathy of students. It is easy to interpret this as an unwillingness to learn. There is, of course, a profound subtext to this behavior. The overwhelming majority of students want, somewhat desperately, to be made to work hard and get and smarter -- though the students themselves may not fully understand this. I have seen teachers allow the apathetic bravado and feigned recalcitrance to erode the integrity of a curriculum and surrender to a career of low expectations and uninspired instruction.

There are probably many ways to succeed as a teacher, with differing combinations of temperament, talent, knowledge, pedagogy and even luck. But the most essential element might be empathy. Unless a teacher understands what it is like for his or her students -- the tedium of school, the fear and anxiety of life, the insecurity and narcissism and exhaustion of the adolescent culture -- it may not be possible to reach them in a meaningful way.

I was lucky. Having myself been a marginal-to-bad high school student, I have always understood the quick-triggered boredom, the tortured restlessness and pent-up rage, and the vexation at adult authority that so many of my students feel. That understanding -- above everything else -- has kept me from losing my effectiveness.

Without empathy -- and, for that matter, without a sincere affection for the students -- I don't see how anyone can endure six hours a day in a classroom.

It's what I've admired -- empathy and a love of students -- in the teachers who've inspired me. For those in education and government who are infatuated with objective measurements, I'm not sure there will ever be an accurate one for empathy or love -- but perhaps the testing industry ought to make an effort.

Meanwhile we should have more empathy for struggling teachers. Right away! Eradicate that pervading sink-or-swim attitude. Get over the false belief that more mandatory training and test-driven pressure will improve the quality of teaching. Re-direct those resources into a real, extensive, meaningful and sustainable support system.