Teaching Opinion

Tragic Teaching Practices in the Harry Potter Series

By Starr Sackstein — December 24, 2017 5 min read
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Magical learning in a lot of ways mimics real-world educational systems and I’m certain that as J.K. Rowling was developing each of the professors in the Harry Potter series, there were teachers from her own experiences that were emulated.

As learners and as educators, we have an innate understanding of what purposeful education can look like which sadly isn’t always the same as what happens in schools. Instead, we end up hidden behind miles of red tape and new initiatives that often get gift wrapped as necessary reform but doesn’t always consider the folks who sit before us.

In my career as an educator, I endured many initiatives that didn’t often help my practice or kids’ learning but were still dutifully implemented for the benefit of my own fear of evaluation. Now as a lead learner, I’m cognizant of what I ask my team to do and always put myself in their shoes first and also in the shoes of their learners before asking them to try out new practices.

In the magical world, however, there seems to be a woeful disconnect with how best to teach students in a number of different situations. Now, I love Hogwarts and would love to be a professor there, but I’m glad I’m not the administrator in charge of many of their tenured educators.

Despite the obvious content knowledge, most of the employed members of the Hogwarts faculty have, they lack either the interpersonal skills for connecting with students and building relationships or they are tragically unlearned in best pedagogical practice, even though most of their content areas naturally lend themselves to student-centered learning.

For example, Professor Snape, although a gifted potions master and all-around wizard, mistreats his students, has clear favorites and often humiliates his pupils for his own edification. That kind of corporal punishment in the US system wouldn’t be tolerated, no matter how smart the teacher is. On a number of occasions, Snape calls Harry out wrongly because of how he interprets situations and then has no interest in hearing Harry’s side of the matter. As educators, it is our duty to assume the best of our students and help them find success, rather than shame them into fearing us.

Granted, Snape has a lot on his plate, but what teacher doesn’t? We all have personal lives to manage and traumas from our past which shouldn’t interfere with our abilities to help students learn.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Sybill Trelawny. She has a gift she doesn’t understand or control and is put into the care of children when she can’t even care for herself. Trelawny’s evident drinking problem interferes with her ability to teach effectively and her content knowledge is suspect at best. Granted, she does have some loyal students who have developed close relationships with her, but I can’t imagine any school leader ever rating her effectively based on the lessons she presents. How come Dumbledore doesn’t address this issue?

Albus Dumbledore, clearly a brilliant and powerful wizard who does care about the students of Hogwarts and magical learning, has some very odd blindspots as the headmaster. He willingly puts students in danger and has poor judgment particularly about Harry who seems to be a blind spot for him which brings us to another flagrant issue with the educators at Hogwarts... favoritism.

Each one of the professors we encounter clearly has favorites whether they be the students who reside in their houses or the ones who are most talented in their chosen subject areas. This favoritism impacts the way all students learn and if you aren’t one of these favorites, it seems that opportunity is extremely limited.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been raised and have worked in public school systems in the United States and have never been a part of a private school, here or anywhere else, I don’t always understand the different practices. For example, the House Cup and the ongoing competition that is promoted between the houses. We understand as educators that competition doesn’t necessarily promote collaboration and that is where we need to students behaving cooperatively.

All things told, the Defense Against the Dark Arts class has had a string of terribly unqualified teachers in it and that seems particularly dangerous given the subject matter. From Quirrell to Lockhart to Lupin (who at least has the humility and knowledge, but has a physical disorder) to Mad-Eye Moody to Umbridge to Snape, you have a full line of terrible teachers who are tasked with putting the most complicated, but necessary magic in the hands of young students. What kinds of regulations are there for teaching these subjects and who is doing their evaluations?

Although Professor Sprout and McGonagall are probably the closest to highly effective teachers, they too exhibit biases. Professor Sprout runs a hands-on herbology experience, offering minimal protection for students as they work with sometimes dangerous plants. She even leaves Neville Longbottom on the ground when he faints from the Mandrake cries. While McGonagall follows the rules almost to the point of inflexibility. She is stern but knowledgeable and respected by all. She also seems to have a soft spot for Harry as he is a Gryffindor and also a Quidditch player.

Despite the terrible lack of oversight at Hogwarts, the children get their magical learning done and make close bonds. But I wonder if they actually learn any other important, non-magical learning like English or Math or are these things written off as Muggle-learning essentials not needed in the magical world?

There are many things we can learn from the magical world from the bravery and tenacity of the students at Hogwarts, I fear that the classroom learning is a bit unbalanced. It breaks my heart to write any kind of negative critique of novels I love so much, but the characterization of the educational system is definitely not one we should emulate.

Learning clearly happens at Hogwarts, but not in the traditional sense. Students learn from experiences and relationships, but not from textbooks... maybe there is a lesson to be learned from that.

Have you ever thought the teaching and learning at Hogwarts? What are your thoughts as reader or educator? Please share

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