Teaching Under Fire

When I was in the fourth grade I had an absolutely horrible teacher. I will call her Mrs. Bahr to protect her anonymity. Mrs. Bahr, looking back on the behavior of my fellow students, had a terrible time of keeping the class in order. It is entirely possible that she had a particularly rambunctious group of kids on her hands, but she was clearly in over her head and that does not excuse what made her a bad teacher.

I was a really quiet kid. I liked to read, I day dreamed a lot and mostly I just wanted to be left alone. I did my work as instructed, at least at that point in my education, and did not bother anyone. For whatever reason, Mrs. Bahr decided to react to all this the way a bully my own age would have. She needled and made a spectacle of me in front of class. She browbeat me for being shy. When my schoolwork temporarily suffered the week after my grandfather’s passing she told me “life goes on.”  This was not said in a consoling fashion but in a matter-of-fact, “just get over it brat,” sort of way. Not that I am making excuses, but I wonder, sometimes, if my overall reaction to authority figures as an adult has something to do with how this woman treated me.

Now I’m not writing this for sympathy. The intention here is not to explain why this or that in my life didn’t turn out right, despite the above comment. I just want you gentle readers to understand: I know from bad teachers and I know there are bad teachers out there. So when I jump to the defense of the profession in general, and the need for those in it to be represented by organized labor, you know I am not coming from a point of raising all educators up on a pedestal.

Teaching can be an amazing and rewarding profession, but it comes with some serious challenges. If a teacher is lucky, they have maybe fifteen students in the class. This means, under what would be considered idea conditions by many teachers, they have to organize fifteen young, human beings who as bright as they may or may not be have not completely internalized the habits needed to interact in polite society. That is not a vicious dig on the young, by the way, simply a matter of fact. It isn’t their fault.  They’re still learning. The teacher, however, still has to manage them and impart knowledge at the same time.

People outside of the profession often make light of the teachers’ easy schedules. They have summers, most weekends, a few week long holidays over the year. It must be nice, right?  How many of you, though, think you could manage even one day of the last paragraph? How many of you think you could even last an hour? It is hard, stressful work. Besides the students you have administrators, bureaucrats and parents breathing down your neck. The popular narrative blames you, and you alone, for the downward spiral that education is in. For some,you have far more than fifteen students, maybe fifty or more, and they are poor, hungry and angry.

I know there are bad teachers out there. I have had a few. I have seen a few teachers that make Mrs. Bahr look worthy of sainthood. I also know that sometimes the unions are a bit too knee jerk in their reaction to teacher discipline, but that is part of their job. There are many teachers, though, that are good people that want to do the best by their students that they can. Some may just go through the motions hoping for the best and fearing the worst, but as I said, it is harrowing work sometimes. Some of them are amazing. Some, like my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Perlo (her name is not protected for her anonymity, because the world needs to know how great she is) go above and beyond. Managing the class and paying attention to each students needs. Overworked, without necessary materials and often unappreciated, she and many like her help their students to reach their potential.

I have no easy answers to improving our education. Too many young people are graduating under prepared, if they graduate at all. I do know it is more than just a failure on the teachers part. To throw the entire profession under the bus, as is popular to do around the dinner table, in our op-ed columns and on the campaign trail is an insult to the many good teachers and a failure to honestly examine the problem and our young are those that suffer for it.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Under Fire

  1. I do have an easy answer for the improvement problem: put the focus on learning instead of teaching. (That is one of the “secrets” for the success of Finnish education.)

    I am sorry you have had bad experiences and bad teachers – but to be fair, I must say that I think we all have had that. Maybe not as extreme as yours, but there are better and worse teachers everywhere. Very few of us like unnecessary power applied over us, and when teaching is made to be a power struggle, learning goes out of the window – just because we humans cannot focus on multiple things at the same time (at least not with the same level of intensity). Teacher must be students’ ally instead of being their enemy, because good quality learning only happens in a collaborative environment.

    The one key for better teaching is the teacher’s desire to help students become autonomous learners (and in the end this means the teacher making herself unnecessary by empowering students to learn on their own).

    • Absolutely Nina. Like I said, I wasn’t mentioning my experience with “Mrs. Bahr” to give a negative view of teaching. I’ve had absolutely amazing teachers that have done just what you describe. I wanted it to be understood that, having had a teacher like “Mrs. Bahr” I don’t have some sort of hero worship relationship with the teaching profession, so that when I defend teachers it isn’t with stars in my eyes.

      It doesn’t help that in Anglo culture in general and American culture in particular that education is treated as stricltly a means to an end and not a potential end unto itself.

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