Miracles and the “Bad” teachers who can’t perform them

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Miracles. That’s what the American public has been conditioned, this last decade, to ask from educators. No matter the level, not matter the economic background, no matter the differences in abilities, no matter the preparation of the students, teachers are expected to vastly improve them in a short period of time.

In a recent post, I alluded to the fact that we teachers are expected to do too much in too little time with students coming to us often without the necessary background, skills or abilities. Today, thanks to Diane Ravitch, I read this:

I was a bad teacher because I was a teacher. Today, “bad teacher” and “teacher” have become almost interchangeable. Listen to billionaire “visionaries” such as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, as well as “experts” such as Michelle Rhee. The problem with our schools is bad teachers. Almost immediately, I realized that I was destined to be a bad teacher because many of my eight- and ninth-graders had learning problems, and I couldn’t fix them in the 46 minutes I had them each day. Many of my students had behavior problems, and I couldn’t fix those problems either. And I wasn’t very good at masking these problems, so my “scholars” didn’t look like they were learning when they weren’t learning.

The mythical “good teacher” (that miracle worker) takes any student and, in a short period of time, reaches clear, pre-set goals with them. It doesn’t matter who the students are, where they come from, or what they have done before.

Nonsense.

And it is nonsense, too, in the teaching of writing.

We are asked to take students who have never learned to marshal an argument, who have never tried to convince through words, who have never discovered the joy and value of reading and turn them into college writers in the space of one semester. It’s an impossible task, yet when we admit that we cut corners–I, for example, do not spend as much time on grammar as I could, preferring to encourage students to communicate first and revise once they have managed to learn to find something to say–we are dismissed as “bad teachers.”

This is one of the reasons so many who teach composition (particularly those who have not had training in ‘Rhetoric and Composition’) default to the teaching of the five-paragraph theme and focus on the mechanics of writing (this, and the fact that most standardized teaching requires the following of the formula). Teachers can’t do everything, and they are going to be criticized no matter which way they turn–as John Owens makes clear in the quote above. The five-paragraph theme is something that can be taught in a short period of time and that has clear internal benchmarks that can be distilled into a grading rubric that provides armor against criticism.

Does it provide anything useful for the student? Not really. But it does protect the teacher from being called “bad.” And most teachers have been running from that for decades.

That’s changing, though. Not only is Owens taking “bad” as a badge of pride, but there is now a group, growing at an astonishing rate, called Bad Ass Teachers that is organizing in response to the continuing and growing failure of the educational “reform” movement (which, even though it is not working in k-12 education, is now trying to expand into higher ed–witness President Obama’s newest proposals–and the AAUP response).

Personally, I’m going to stop being defensive about not being able to do everything for a student in a single semester. If that means I’m “bad,” so be it. I’ll be in good company.

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