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Adam Bessie: Retiring the “Bad Teacher” Boogeyman

By Anthony Cody — June 16, 2014 8 min read
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Guest post by Adam Bessie.

“I support our teachers, but my daughter was traumatized by an unfirable 1st grade teacher,” so read a tweet I received after expressing concern that Vergara v. California decision - which declared K-12 teacher tenure unconstitutional for violating the civil rights of students - had nothing to do with civil rights, little to do with students, and everything to do with the continued efforts to privatize public education. If you publically critiqued the Vergara verdict, you no doubt received a similar reply, which I’ve described by the following equation, dubbed VAM [Vergara Attack Method]:

Compliment of teachers in general [“I love teachers”]

- [BUT] there are “bad teachers”

+ vague and/or extreme personal anecdote about “bad teacher”

= you must be a “bad teacher” and hate children if you support tenure or any other rights for teachers. Also, you are against civil rights, likely a socialist, and most definitely are destroying the economy.

Rhetorically, it’s almost impossible to respond to VAM - Who can disagree that there are “bad teachers?” Who wants a child to be subjected to such a horrible person? Who wants a child to be traumatized?

VAM works especially well when coupled with civil rights rhetoric, as I wrote about in my last essay “A Tale of Two Vergaras: Of Stardom and Civil Rights”. Who could be against civil rights? And so, in a masterful rhetorical twist, if you’re for tenure, you’re also against helping impoverished minority children - you’re standing in the way of equality. In more advanced versions of VAM, civil rights rhetoric is seamlessly connected with fixing the sagging economy as we see in an op-ed in USA Today claiming “There is no war on teachers.” The author assures us that there is “no such war,” and that if anything, the focus is on firing just a “very small minority of teachers” who are not just harming children, but according to his calculations, would actually fix our current financial crisis:

The gains according to historical economic patterns would be measured in trillions of dollars and would be sufficient to solve our national fiscal problems as well as the vexing income distribution issues currently being debated.

Yes, that’s right - firing this “small minority of bad teachers” will ultimately create trillions of dollars for the economy, along with solving civil rights. It’s a magic bullet - one that just needs be fired in right direction, towards “bad teachers.”

In short, VAM rhetorically checkmates those who are critical of the Vergara decision. This pervasive linguistic trick pins all of the nations problems not on teachers (who are wonderful), but on those “bad teachers,” who are destroying lives, destroying civil rights, and destroying the economy. No wonder, in the exact same issue of USA Today, a shocking ad illustrates a teacher throwing a child into a garbage can - and this doesn’t seem an act of war, given the current zeitgeist. After all, it’s only about “bad teachers” - not you. You’re a good teacher - that is, unless you think tenure is acceptable. In which case, what do you have to hide? Who are you protecting?

Outside of the outlandish, ill-supported leaps in logic which are now in the realm of “common sense”, the biggest problem VAM, though, is the impossibly vague term “bad teacher,” or the slightly more technical sounding, but equally meaningless “grossly ineffective teacher,” which Judge Treu used in his decision. Since the propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman, the “bad teacher boogeyman” has been in heavy linguistic circulation, which I noted in my 2010 essay “The Myth of the Bad Teacher:"

The Bad Teacher is no one specific, but rather, a sort of free-floating, ill-defined stereotype: he is an inept, uncaring, self-interested bureaucrat waiting for his pension, not only disinterested in students, but actively engaged in standing in the way of student achievement, rather than encouraging it. I imagine the Bad Teacher as slovenly dressed, with stains on his shirt, showing up to class late, and once there, reading the newspaper while his students throw paper airplanes at each other. He looks up at the clock occasionally, waiting for his time to be up in order get out of school as fast as possible, so he can get home and watch “Glee” on his plump, faux-leather couch. Or he could be a really “Bad Teacher,” such as the one soon to be depicted in a 2011 movie of the same name, which is focused on a “foul-mouthed, junior high teacher who, after being dumped by her sugar daddy, begins to woo a colleague - a move that pits her against a well-loved teacher.”

In essence, the “bad teacher” is a not just a basic strawman, but a hologram, an insubstantial projection of whoever you want him to be, whatever you - or your child - perceives him to be. He could be lazy; he could only lecture (or only use group work); he could be physically abusive; he could not know his content; he could take controversial positions; he could be a hard grader (or too easy of a grader). Indeed, at the college level (where I teach), high teacher ratings are highly correlated with teachers that give less work and higher grades, according to a recent study. In some cases - such as assigning “too much homework”, being called a “bad teacher” would be a compliment, in that the educator might actually being doing her job.

“In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher,” Dr. David Berliner says in a must-read Slate article, an expert whose testimony was primary evidence in Judge Treu’s decision. “I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.”

And this is a professor who has spent his career exploring teacher quality, and was asked to testify on the other VAM - Value-Added-Measures, a statistical measure which uses standardized test scores to rate teachers. VAM gives the comforting illusion of objectivity so cherished by education reformers. But this method, also, has major limitations - the American Statistical Association cautioned use of this measure. Further, even if these metrics work very well at showing growth in a particular area of learning in a particular subject, they don’t show a lot of the attributes that educators - and lay-people - would associate with “good” teacher. Berliner observes (as paraphrased by reporter Jordan Weissman) “low test scores [don’t] qualify somebody as a bad teacher. They might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show up on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math.” Indeed, a teacher can have great test scores - but could have earned them through abusive methods, ones which make the student great at test taking, but not learn anything about the subject, and hate it to boot.

Thus, a “grossly ineffective teacher” could be inspiring, could be challenging, could be wonderful. In short, this “bad teacher” could be any of us - especially those of us who believe that the current set of reforms that are focused on standardized testing and common curriculum are harmful to students. Indeed, our very best teachers - those who stand up to the intense pressure from parents and students to be “easy,” those who refuse to submit their students to the testing regime that kills the love of learning - could be labeled as our very worst. As a case in point: one of the teachers accused of being a “bad teacher” in the Vergara case was Pasadena Teacher of the Year, and received numerous teaching awards.

What message is Vergara sending to committed, competent educators, those who love children, and who hate what NCLB and Race to the Top is doing to those children?

Now, don’t get it twisted: this is not a defense of child-molesters or otherwise horrible people; it’s not a defense of poor practices, such as giving worksheets to students every day (which is encouraged under the standardized testing regime). Nor is it a defense of the “status quo” - which, need I remind readers, is No Child Left Behind, which most teachers abhor. To defend tenure - due process in a highly-politicized workplace - is not to defend whatever horrible projection of “bad teacher” the reader has conjured.

Please, don’t VAM this essay.

And please, as the post-Vergara dust settles, as we’ve gotten our rants out of the system, let’s retire the “bad teacher” - in all its euphemistic forms. Rather, let’s work to foster constructive, explicit discussions about what it means to be an excellent educator - not just in terms of outcomes (which are framed in the most limited, unimaginative way under the current regime), but in terms of the actual practices that happen in the classroom, and as critically, the environment in which our teachers teach and students learn. Keep in mind, California is first in poverty (and in billionaires) in the nation - and discussions of “bad teachers” allow us to avoid substantial conversations about the impact of inequality on our children.

In letting the “bad teacher” go, we’ll find educators and the public - which are one in the same, remember - have shared interests and goals, despite the best efforts of corporate reformers to undermine public confidence, and put us in conflict with each other. In this fashion, we will repair the damage done by Vergara, and more broadly by the corporate reform movement, which has used VAM (both of them) to disrupt and destabilize the public commons to maintain the real status quo - of massive economic inequality and top-down elite control, which is the primary cause of the civil rights and economic emergency in our schools.

What do you think? Is it time to banish the “bad teacher” boogeyman for good?

Adam Bessie is a professor of English at a San Francisco Bay Area community college and an essayist. He is a regular Truthout contributor, most recently writing a five-part series illustrating the privatization of public education in comics form, including original interviews with Diane Ravitch, Bill Ayers, and Pasi Sahlberg. Follow him on Twitter: @adambessie

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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