Good Teacher, Bad Teacher
When I first had children I had a rude awakening: messages about “bad mothers” were everywhere. If you didn’t nurse, you were a bad mother. If you let your baby “cry it out”, you were a bad mother. If you ran out of diapers and took your baby to the grocery store buck naked (yep, I did that), you were a bad mother.
Of course, there were plenty of messages about “good mothers.” But many of them were conditional on certain behaviors. Good mothers attend to their babies when they cry, never yell at their babies, don’t keep their babies cooped up in carseats all day, don’t let their babies sleep on their stomachs. This is all good advice, but it’s absolutely impossible to follow perfectly, which leads new mothers to wonder: am I a good mother or a bad mother?
Fortunately, not everybody expects perfection from mothers. Pediatrician Winnicot pioneered the concept of a “good enough” mother. She is an “ordinary devoted mother” who attends to their children most of the time, but she leaves them to fend for themselves sometimes. She might slip up and yell, but then she takes a step back and apologizes, and she tries to do it better next time. As it turns out, children actually benefit when mothers and fathers make mistakes, because they learn to rely on their own resources. They learn to cope in an imperfect world.
Now, in the media, there is a lot of talk about “bad teachers” in our K-12 school system. Just as I take affront with the concept of “bad mothers” (and “bad children,” for that matter), I am offended by the concept of “bad teachers.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom — sexual offenders, adults who otherwise abuse children, and teachers who don’t care or who gave up.
But these teachers are vastly outnumbered by good teachers – who, unfortunately, often get dissed right along with the bad ones. When people start talking about “bad teachers,” sometimes they’re talking about people who are or could become good teachers. In the first five years on the job, teachers are still learning their trade. They make mistakes. The first year, especially, is a hard one. I learned that when I taught at the college level. My first quarter, I agonized over all the things I was doing wrong, but I also had a friend who was more experienced and helped me put it in perspective.
“It’s a dirty secret and nobody likes to talk about it,” she said. “But the first year, everybody’s a crappy teacher. Just don’t tell your students you’re new, or they’ll eat you alive.”
Was I a “bad teacher” then? One of my students, who cussed me out, thought so.
Or was I a “good enough” teacher – that is, a teacher who made some mistakes? I learned from them, and after some experience and professional development, I got better. Some students called me a “good teacher” or even “one of my best” teachers. Some learned a lot, and others didn’t learn anything at all.
Was I a “good teacher”? Or was I a “good enough” teacher? How could anybody know? And on what basis could anybody make that decision? I got good course evaluation ratings – but not as good as the teacher who neglected to stop his students from plagiarizing.
Although it’s important to have high expectations of teachers, it’s equally important to make sure they’re reasonable. Not everybody will win the “Teacher of the Year” award. But the vast majority of teachers are good – or good enough. Their kids learn. They take professional development courses and continue to improve their teaching. They’re the ordinary, devoted teachers who make a positive impact.
But when the media obsesses over bad teachers, to the point of ignoring the vast majority of good teachers, it hurts teachers overall.
Even worse, good teachers run the risk of losing their jobs. This focus on bad teachers is also paired with an attack on teacher seniority, so that the concepts of “bad teacher” and “senior teacher” have been getting muddled together. But most experienced teachers do better than new ones – so if the experienced teachers lose their jobs, our schools will be left with lower teaching quality overall. This is bad for our schools, bad for our teachers, and bad for our children.
My kids have excellent teachers this year, and I’m glad of it. But I also understand that some years won’t be like that. Some years, the teaching quality will go down a little. My kids might learn less academically, but they might learn better how to cope in an imperfect world.
And that’s plenty good enough for me.