What is “Bad” Teaching?

Let me start off by saying, I hate this question. I don’t think it solves anything when we consider it. It doesn’t bring us closer to resolutions that help our teachers, our students, or our schools.

It’s more of a divining rod that is used to single out people we don’t think fit in.

It’s fairly simple to say what Newsweek did last year: “we must fire bad teachers” because it provides a villain to root against.

If you’re a parent who can’t understand why your child isn’t succeeding then “Ah! blame the teacher.” If you’re a principal concerned with low test scores and bad attendance, “Must be bad teachers.” If you’re a teacher yourself and you’re fed up with attitudes around you then you really know who the “bad teachers” are.

What does that word “bad” really tell us though? I was pushed a bit deeper into thought yesterday when Teach Hub, an education resource website, posted a quote on their Facebook page:

“Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more.” Bob Talbert

It was a jab I felt not because I see myself as a defender of “bad” teachers, but of language and rhetoric. I think the way we frame our discussions about teaching, education, and success in those areas is directly related to what we will see come to pass.
I don’t usually style myself as an Internet comment combantant clammoring for a fight, but I felt strongly about this idea. Any time I hear a person debase or celebrate teachers, I try to find a way to understand what exactly they are speaking to. The “good” as well as “bad” is deceiving.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck writes often about the nature and definition of success as something founded in our minds. If we have a growth mindset, we believe (as the title suggests) that growth in ability is possible. On the contrary, if we have a fixed mindset, we become solidified that peoples’ talents and skills are just innate.

When if comes to talking about education–a subject everyone wants to speak as an expert on–the idea of success is hard to pin to one area. Is it graduation, attendance, state test scores, ACT, SAT, AYP, growth from year-to-year, poverty, marital status of parents, participation in extracurriculars…? The list goes on indefinitely.

When people speak about teaching using only the words “good” or “bad” they are making a jump. What they miss is information vital to understanding the challenges inherent in their school. If you exhibit a fixed mindset about schools, then succeeding is simply a matter of staffing, sorting, and widget manufacturing.

As Dweck and others have written, finding success is not a matter of rating, ranking, and measuring who is already good or bad. In fact, success isn’t something you “find” at all; you have to create it.

I’m sure parents wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that their child is simply smart or dumb and that’s that. If that attitude was allowed and accepted, schools wouldn’t stop at firing the bad teachers, they’d be firing bad students too. So why would we allow for our discussions about teachers and schools to be reduced to the same? Teachers need to grow in the same ways as students. When they grow and learn together, a community begins to form.

Rather than using unhelpful adjectives to modify and amplify our rhetoric about education reform, why don’t we look at the verbs?

It is more helpful for me to say to a student, “I can see in your writing that you defend your position about for-profit colleges with clear and relevant details” than “this is great, what a good essay!” In the same way, it is more honest for me to say ” I can see you are writing a lot of valid topic sentences, but not including any bridge between them” than “this is a bad paragraph, you need to work on this.

Adjectives are deceptive because they help name something but don’t provide any real sense of truth. They are so often subjective rather than objective. “Mrs. Abernathy is a good teacher” says something completely different than “Mrs. Abernathy builds rapport with students quickly and uses that to facilitate learning.”

In one description, we get an opinion, and the other gives a clear picture of action in connection to value. Compounding the two would create something decent, but Strunk and White would probably question your introductory clause, “Mrs. Abernathy is a good teacher because…” it is completely unnecessary. When you say “good” what you are really trying to do is show the good thing; in this case, the good thing is building rapport with students and facilitating learning.

The challenge is, it’s much harder to be deliberate and intentional in our critiques. That’s why the lure of binary good/bad language is so strong.

I dare you to cut the words “good” and “bad” completely from your functional vocabulary (don’t forget their synonyms too). Watch how your language shifts from something vague, emotional, and subjective, to a tool of description that leads to action. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, principal, student, or citizen, it is your duty to have dialogues that mean something real and don’t just label.