By guest blogger Brenda Iasevoli
The portrayal of teachers in books and movies suggests that our view of teachers ranges anywhere from heroic to tragically inept. But what does social media have to say about our perceptions of teachers?
Two education researchers turned to the online discussion platform Reddit in an attempt to piece together an honest picture of how the public really views those who spend day in and day out schooling young people in reading, writing, math, and everything in between. Their study concludes that personal educational values inform a person’s perception of what makes a “good” or a “bad” teacher. (Watch Education Week reporters, editors, and staff share their memories of favorite teachers who made a lasting impact on their lives in this video.)
“We tend to think in terms of good and bad teachers, but reality is less clear-cut,” said Sandra Chang-Kredl, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Canada and a co-author of the study. “The teacher who is good for me can be bad for someone else; it depends on the student’s values, needs, and approaches to schooling.”
The authors’ examined Reddit discussion threads posted between 2009 and 2015 in which commenters reflected on their “best” and “worst” teachers. They sorted through the posts, choosing 300 “best” memories and 300 “worst” memories for analysis. Any more posts, the authors write, would likely be redundant.
The study’s key assumption is that Reddit users are being honest about their views of teachers because they are posting anonymously. Unlike Facebook and Twitter users, Redditors (as registered users of Reddit are called) don’t have to sign up using an email address, and they don’t often use their real names as monikers. Anonymity allows them to express their opinions more freely, the study’s authors say. The downside, of course, is that anonymity makes it difficult to pin down user demographics. The authors point out that, in 2012, a reported 74 percent of Redditors were men under 35 years old. So the findings may not provide a balanced view of public perception of teachers and rather more of a male view.
So what was the impression of teachers to this group of likely under-35 males? Redditors tended to remember teachers of core subjects: math, physical sciences, social sciences, and language arts. Many of the “best” teachers taught qualitative subjects like social sciences; whereas, the “worst” teachers taught empirically driven subjects like math. These teachers represented all grade levels, from prekindergarten through college.
Teachers in the “best” category were mostly male (65 percent), while those in the “worst” category were mostly female (60 percent). Most of the “best” teachers, 69 percent, taught high school. As for the “worst” teachers, 36 percent taught elementary school, and 45 percent taught high school. These findings may reflect the age of Redditors (mainly under 35) for whom high school memories are more recent, write the authors.
Redditors described “best” teachers’ professional qualities as intelligent (“he knew his field”), engaging (“able to capture everyone’s attention”), dedicated (“got in a car crash on the way to class once and still came in with dried blood and stitches on his head”), easygoing (“I never learned any sign language and still got an A”), and strict but fair (“scared the living hell out of us but lessons from there on were the best”).
There were contradictions. While some “best” teachers were valued for their dedication (27) a near equal number were valued for being easygoing (22). Essentially, teachers were being praised for opposing traits. The authors conclude that students who valued the easygoing teacher appreciated a more relaxed classroom environment, while others saw an easygoing quality as a lack of dedication.
The latter group even thought they were cheated academically: Of the “worst” teachers, 28 were called out for their lack of effort. Other “worst” teachers were pronounced incompetent (“told us Kenya is the capital of Africa”), lazy (“she never actually worked”), and unfair (“grade based on how much she liked you”).
As for personal qualities, “best” teachers were described as unique (“freaky, weird, over-excited old buzzard”), funny (“he had a brilliant, sick sense of humor”), down to earth (“human and almost like a friend”), and good-looking (“10/10 body”). Worst” teachers, on the other hand, were described as strange (“would just stop teaching and sit silently at her desk for 10-15 minutes”), prone to angry outbursts (“yelled at me for being late when I was on crutches”), condescending (“I’d ask a question and he’d say ‘are you serious?’”), and physically unattractive (“she was evil, fat, short, and wore rainbow sweaters”).
What emerges from these descriptions is Redditors’ personal education values, the authors write, and teachers in training might keep these values in mind. The rather uncomfortable topics brought up on social media should become food for thought in teacher education programs. The authors suggest teacher candidates reflect on how they would feel about their students judging them on their looks or sense of humor, and how they might keep their biases and favoritism in check. (You can read about what teachers think of the public’s perception of their profession and what might be done to alter it here.)
“The representation of teachers matters,” said Sandra Chang-Kredl. “Public perceptions affect teachers at every level of education—they reinforce policies and pay levels.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.