The Worst Teacher You Ever Had

I’m not sure how many people use Plinky or even know what it is, but last week they had an interesting prompt. Plinky is a website that offers writing prompts to help people, well, write stuff. Last week one prompt was “Describe the worst teacher you ever had.”

I was rather depressed and discouraged that this was even a prompt. Call me an optimist, but I prefer to focus discussions on the good rather than the bad. I would have preferred “Describe the best teacher” instead of the “worst” teacher, but that’s just me. I did, however, read through some of the posts – and there were 297 people who responded (though I only looked at about 60 posts) (how many people would have responded to talking about “the best”? Would it have been more, less, or the same?)

There were several common threads through many of the posts, and some are the traditional rants and raves that we as educators have heard time and time again. Like this post that describes the teacher who “talks AT us”, “didn’t listen” or ask questions, and who made “learning boring.” But the key phrase in this author’s post is that the teacher, “didn’t know us. didn’t care to know us.” How about the this one who “was apathetic towards his job and his students,” or the one who “lectured all day about things we don’t care about.”? Or even the author who gives us the generic “The worst teacher is the one who gives up.”

If you’re not easily discouraged read the author who starts his post by saying he had “more ignorant, apathetic, lazy, opinionated and biased teachers than one can shake a stick at.” The thing that saddens and discourages me is not that this person used bad examples to inspire himself to become a good teacher, but that one student can actually truthfully write that line! How can a student go 12 years in an educational system where it is acceptable that he experience more bad teachers than “one can shake a stick at”? That’s what’s discouraging!

And this isn’t a new problem – Dom Belmonte wrote in this article from October of 1999, “The teaching profession has been…masterful in the perpetuation of incompetence,” and that “teaching has become the egalitarian wasteland, where the primary purpose of its unions is perpetuation of membership.” Ouch – those are hard words to swallow.

So here’s the question: how do we change the image that is out there? I hear plenty of teachers blame everything from the students to the parents to the government. (After all – isn’t it because of NCLB that schools (and as a result teachers and administrators) are labeled as “failing”?)

We need a better way to not only identify good teachers but acknowledge them as well. It’s obvious that the teacher “who gives up” or who “doesn’t care” is ineffective and needs to go. But what about the teachers who care a whole lot but just aren’t any good at their jobs? Just because someone loves to sing doesn’t make them a good singer; just because someone loves basketball doesn’t make them a good player; and just because someone loves kids and education doesn’t make them a good teacher. Teaching is both science and art – the two go hand-in-hand.

What makes a good teacher? To start, it’s the one who is the opposite of all the above complaints – one who actually cares, who connects with kids makes learning fun, who doesn’t spend the day lecturing, and who doesn’t give up. But it’s more than just passion, it’s good technique, too. Teachers need to have a good command of their content area, yes, but they more importantly need a comprehensive command of how to teach. Good teaching should be defined by good learning, and that is a completely different concept than many people have today.

I spent eight years teaching music, and my biggest complaint about my music education program was that it focused more on music than on education – and I still have that criticism of most undergraduate and graduate programs I come in contact with today! Our universities seem to believe (based on course requirements for teachers) that in order to be an effective teacher one has to have a vast storehouse of knowledge from which to draw. That may have been appropriate and acceptable in a culture where teaching was primarily focused on the transfer of information from one person to another, where learning was defined by how much one knew.

But that’s not the case anymore. Teaching requires so much more than simply transferring knowledge because learning requires more than simple memorization. In the 21st century students need to know how to apply what they know; they need to be able to create solutions to questions that have not even been asked before they are asked. Shoot, they need to know how to ask the right questions. They don’t need to know more, they need to know how to do more; they need to know how to find information when they don’t know it.

What all these people are saying is that the worst teachers they had were the ones that were out-of-step with what they needed to learn. Who cares if a student knows that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Life isn’t Jeopardy and we don’t need people who can walk around as “Encyclopedias of useless knowledge” (as one of my college roommates used to call me). What students need to understand is how to apply the knowledge of the Battle of Hastings to their present day lives; they need to understand not only how it impacts them today but how they can use it to build a better tomorrow.

And the sooner we accept that and adjust ourselves the sooner we will become the great educators we all long to be.


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