My usual reaction to someone posting the typical feel good meme about how great teachers are is to roll my eyes and click the unfollow button. Teachers are great, right? With very few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of the K-12 teachers I have encountered in my lifetime have been pretty rotten people. Whether it was my grade two teacher who used to humiliate lower performing students (i.e. children) by calling them up to the front of the class for a pants-down spanking, or my teacher in grade six who took some grotesque pleasure in verbally mocking and abusing her students, my personal experience with teachers has lead me to conclude that, collectively, they are a malevolent group of power tripping sociopaths who must compensate for their low self-esteem by imposing their dark will upon a classroom full of unsuspecting children who are only there because their parents have to work.
Certainly, Sociologists have a name for it, the tendency for people to associate broad attributes of a group to its individual members, even though, statistically, people can deviate substantially from the value of the ascribed characteristic. It is a social syllogism that goes, all teachers are great; you are a teacher; you must be great. Except, if all teachers are as great as they say they are, then why do so few great ones stand out in my memory? My feeling is that the bad ones are the majority, and the great ones are pressured into conforming through a peer review process managed by underperforming faculty members.
My second grade teacher’s sister was found dismembered in a suitcase that was hidden in the trunk of a car that had been abandoned at a junkyard (the police suspected foul play), so I can understand why she may have needed to release her frustrations through deliberate acts of in-class degradation. She may have been able to do better, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt.
Most often, the bad teachers I have had focused the bulk of their attentions on their favorite students, the ones from the good families, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. Right from the start, my parents were routinely informed that, although I would grade this year, it was unlikely that I would grade next year, and that I lacked the intellectual capacity to finish high school. When I scraped through grade nine and was about to start high school (high school began at grade ten back then) several of my teachers advised me to only take the general education level of high school courses, since university would be out of the question for me. They thought me quite stupid.
The bulk of the good teachers did not appear until I got to high school, but even then there were the really awful ones. My eleventh grade Math teacher would stealth up behind students sitting at their desk and choke them with his hands if he was displeased with the work they were doing. Had he been around back then, Homer Simpson would have approved. My grade ten History teacher reduced the study of world history to memorizing a series of top ten lists worthy of BuzzFeed. Top ten reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire (you won’t believe #6); Top ten causes for the start of World War One (#3 is simply shocking); Top ten sociopolitical outcomes from the Plague in Europe during the Middle Ages (#5 is heartbreaking). Yes, it was just a ton of memorizing pointless banal dribble.
There are also the experiences that I have had as a parent with my kids’ teachers. Like the kindergarten teacher who put my oldest out in the schoolyard minus one mitten on a day when it was -35°C to freeze while she had her mandated 45 minute lunch break. Or, the principal who tried to justify the action with a sentence that started, “Union rules…” to which my response included the words child abuse and police.
My daughter’s high school Math teacher told her that using logarithms to solve problems of the form, Ax = B, was a trick that could not be relied upon to work all of the time. Math is routinely taught by someone who is really the Gym teacher, but has been coerced into teaching Math by an irresponsible school principal. My daughter’s English teacher once accused her of plagiarizing an essay solely on the basis that it was too good. The teacher was so mired in her own mediocrity that it prevented her from seeing anything exceptional in her students.
Oh, and there are the countless, nameless Science teachers I have had the displeasure of meeting, the ones who prefer to hide behind their desk while making their students endure endless hours of Bill Nye pseudoscience videos rather than actually teaching science. These ones seriously disappoint me; freezing things in liquid nitrogen and then breaking them is not science—it’s just doing stuff for the sake of entertainment. If I stabbed you in the face while a class of students watched, would that be a lesson in Biology? As entertaining as it may be, it is not science. Real science is a rigorous, meticulous process by which the validity of a hypothesis is tested through repeatable experimentation. If you are a Science teacher, and you consistently hold classes that are nothing more than watching metascience videos, you are a bad teacher and a bad person; bad things should happen to you.
There have been so many bad teachers throughout the years that bad is the norm. All of the negative experiences coalesce into a single solid homogeneous mass of putrid night soil, so it is impossible to individually identify them all and unproductive to even try. The majority of the bad ones fixate on making the students fill out piles of photocopied worksheets. They regularly use stolen copyrighted materials in their classrooms, and then wonder why kids these days have no appreciation for intellectual property rights.
Then, there is all of the make-work projects involving macaroni, glue, and glitter. When my youngest had to write the soundtrack of his life (he was 14 at the time, so his life experiences were rather limited), we searched for ideas on the internet, only to discover that this project was a notorious student time waster. It is a shame that we have to spend nearly the first twenty years of our lives with people who are only there to waste our time.
Notwithstanding university, the positive education experiences I have had are the result of just a few good teachers. There was my grade one teacher, Mrs. Guzman, who was a wonderful and kind human being, the first to appreciate my creativity, and she encouraged me to write about the silly stuff that goes on inside my head. Unfortunately, she became very sick with a life threatening illness that kept her out of school after a few months, so I ended up with a frustrated and angry substitute for the remainder of the first grade.
My tenth grade Math teacher, Mr. Gahagan, was the first one to realize that perhaps I was not so stupid after all, and encouraged me to take the higher level Math courses, not the general education ones for dummies. My Biology teacher, Mrs. Perry (Miss Biology), taught me lots of stuff about science and Biology, and she never once stabbed me in the face as a classroom demonstration. There was my grade twelve Math teacher, Mr. Murphy, who was just an all round awesome individual and an excellent teacher. My French teacher, Mrs. Savoy, made studying a dead language, a terrible and useless subject, totally bearable. Mr. Meade, my eleventh grade English teacher, taught me the process for writing essays that I still use today for writing research papers.
While your list and experiences may be different, six out of the dozens of teachers I have had throughout the years have been great. These people were not great because they were teachers; they were outstanding human beings who happened to become teachers, and I consider myself to have been bettered (not buttered) by having learned from them. If I include the set of all of the teachers I have met or had dealings with, the result is a pretty poor ratio of #great : #awful.
Teachers should be evaluated by the respect their students have for them, and the long-term results they produce. Teachers are a fundamental ingredient in an education system that is becoming increasingly scrutinized for its failings and shortcomings. Education reform needs to start with the redefinition of a what makes a teacher great, and escaping the notion that I teach, therefore I are great.