Why Bad Teachers Are Good for Kids

08/23/2011 07:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

With school starting again in a few weeks, parents already are agitating about their kids' teachers. I should know: I pleaded with my son's guidance counselor to spare him a year with the 8th grade English teacher who denies that "fishes" is a legitimate word. We fear that time spent with bad teachers is time wasted, and that adult intervention may be necessary to keep little Chloe from being bored, frustrated, or misled.

I like a good teacher. My teenage children, now 13, 15 and 16, have had many excellent ones. But they've learned important and difficult lessons from their poor to middling teachers who didn't care, were none too bright, and who lorded it over them from time to time. Unlike the great teachers -- who share enthusiasm, compassion, and dedication -- every bad teacher is bad in his own way. There are four main types.

The first is the dummy: the math teacher who can't master fractions, the English teacher who changes a correctly spelled word into a mistake--as my daughter's 2nd grade teacher did, circling "gecko" with her red pen and scratching in "geico." Parents complain the most about these kinds of teacher failings, and indeed it's easy to gripe about the 5th grade instructor who can't remember if it's the Atlantic or Pacific off the coast of New Jersey. (True story.)

The second type is the ideologue, the teacher who clings to a belief system and foists it on the class. My son's 7th grade biology teacher was such a man: he believed God created the universe in seven days and once asked the class, "who here believes in evolution?"

Next is the apathetic and uninterested teacher, who hates her job and possibly her area of "expertise." Sure signs of teacher boredom are extreme tardiness in returning assignments -- months, not weeks -- and even explicit instructions to students that they focus on perfecting the first page of their mid-term essay, because no one is going to read the whole thing. There's not a lot you can do when the teacher is sick again, or experiencing the sixth family crisis of the quarter, except hope that the substitute pool is felony-free. When my youngest son's 3rd grade teacher regularly voiced her longing for the weekend, he rightly concluded that she didn't like teaching. And that's too bad, because an apathetic teacher sucks all the air out of the room, transforming the sponge-like brains of enthusiastic students into bored and lumpen rocks.

The final and most important bad teacher is the petty dictator, the mini-Mussolini who is more concerned with making the trains run on time than ensuring that anyone's on them. One of these taught my son English in middle school, and she had mastered the bureaucratic arts: only double-spaced 8 ½" by 11" paper, name on upper right-hand corner of each page, essay to include introduction three paragraphs conclusion or points will be deducted, BE CREATIVE, you may see me only on Monday morning between 7:30 and 7:50, NO EXCEPTIONS, enter the class in single file or do it over until you get it right, and I WILL NOT WASTE PRECIOUS CLASS TIME WITH YOUR SILLY QUESTION. Rigid, in thrall with arbitrary rules, and delighting in their enforcement, she wouldn't allow mere learning to get in the way of her grand teaching plan. Nor did she hesitate to humiliate the homework deficient, yanking delinquents into the hall and announcing in a stage whisper that they needed to get their acts together, ASAP.

What's to defend, you ask? Beneath their surface incompetence, every one of these bad teachers taught something a superb teacher couldn't.

The dummy teaches that the all-powerful may not be all-knowing. In other words, just because you're in charge and have power over me, doesn't mean you're always right. It can take a long time to understand this truism, and some never do -- ask those in the press corps who lapped up every argument the Bushies threw out there to justify going after Saddam. There's nothing like a teacher writing "this paragraph isn't necessary" to introduce the concept to young children. Anyway, at least in elementary schools, such teachers are pretty harmless. Who among us never misspells a word, miscalculates a tip, or forgets the boiling point of water?

An ideologue helps a student challenge her own closely-held beliefs. OK, how do you explain fossils, T-Rex, and DNA, Mr. Creationist? Granted, it's an unfair fight when an adult steeped in a belief system takes on a pre-teen, but that exposure to unpopular or, um, wrong ideas forces students to think harder. It also introduces kids to mankind's endless capacity for self-deception. Warning: this lesson only applies when there's a rational adult in the mix to provide a reality check.

The lazy and apathetic teacher is harder to excuse, because the message he sends is "I'm bored, and you should be too." But an indifferent teacher can compel the self-motivated student to pursue his own interests. You've got to do this on your own, because I'll be no help, the blah teacher suggests. Expecting nothing from the adult in charge, some kids discover independently that Holden Caulfield is just like them, that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" holds hidden gems, even if the teacher's knowledge of them comes from SparkNotes. In my experience, the most profound learning occurs mainly in private--when it's just you and your books. The teacher who spends class time devouring People while students fill out worksheets might not inspire, but she might prompt a little self-directed learning just the same.

And the tyrant? To the extent that teachers determine grades, demand homework, and assign detention, they control students' lives, and that power doesn't dissipate merely because a teacher is inept or clueless or unkind. Alas, throughout life our children will encounter such injustice. What better place than a middle school classroom to begin to learn the delicate art of questioning authority while being respectful, polite, and firm? These skills will come in handy when it's time to renew a driver's license, contest an insurance payment, or dispute a cable bill. Having a tyrant for a teacher helps young people appreciate why abuses of power must be resisted throughout life.

Bad teachers have something to offer, even if it's not mastery of the Periodic Table or a deep understanding of Greek mythology. Of course we'd prefer smart, engaging, open-minded thinkers to teach our kids and everyone else's. Of course we'd opt for the good-natured, caring instructor who is not afraid to say "I don't know, let's find out" when confronted with an alien idea. Of course we covet the teachers who stay late when necessary, return phone calls within a day, and recognize when our child is struggling or unhappy. But as long as the main diet is healthy and sound, full of fresh vegetables and whole grains, an occasional Ding Dong does little harm. In fact, the artificial chocolate shell and chemical filling might be just the thing that dares your child to eat a peach.