Bad teaching

by CarlD

At some point if you’ve taught long enough you realize that you can get away with teaching badly. The kind of bad teaching where you do more harm than good, not just failing to communicate anything positive but actively turning students against learning. And not just once, on a bad day when your car wouldn’t start and you spilled your coffee on your notes and your hormones were in an uproar and your students had been replaced by evil alien replicants from Planet 13. No, you can get away with teaching badly over and over, and still get asked back to do it again.

Sometimes because of local ideologies or accreditation requirements or teacher ed fads or the politics of democratic legitimation, bad teaching is actually required. This has turned out to be the general lament about the (unintended) consequences of No Child Left Behind, for example. And sometimes bad teaching is more or less explicitly a device to sort out and eject students whose habitus does not fit the status profile of educational accomplishment. And sometimes lots of bad teaching happens because in a mass compulsory educational system with no access to infinite pools of great teachers and eager students, the odds of lots of dumbass teachers getting matched up with lots of clueless students are very high. These are instances of what we might call ‘structural’ bad teaching.

More contingently, you can get away with bad teaching because it’s a big bother to check up on you substantively (going through the motions of checking up is easy), and an even bigger bother to replace you. And because there are so many other bad teachers that the standards are actually very low, and it’s a crapshoot whether someone else would actually do better. You can get away with it because no one actually knows any better, starting with the students, and because just about any hack teaching will produce good outcomes sometimes to feed the confirmation bias. Like you try something once, it’s bad, but no one ever calls you on it and someone manages to learn something despite you, so you just stick with ‘what works’.

Because what actually needs to get taught in the 15-20 years of a standard educational career could be taught in 4-5, you can get away with bad teaching because there’s plenty of room for lots of waste. And therefore you can get away with it because most of what we teach is either useless or worse than useless, causing society at large to evolve defenses against the plague of formal education, efficient systems to train our graduates from scratch in the relevant skills and knowledge and to help them unlearn the harmful stuff. I’m just scratching the surface of why you can get away with bad teaching.

Any goober can teach well when they think they have to. I’m on a search committee right now and the teaching performances have been terrific. The hard part is guessing what each of these goobers will do once they figure out they can get away with teaching badly.


17 Responses to “Bad teaching”

  1. Have you watched the fourth season of the HBO series “The Wire”? If you have not, I feel like you would find it compelling.

  2. This was one of the disappointing lessons I learned during my short foray into teaching high school. There were some very effective, dedicated teachers at the school, to be sure, but they were in the minority.

    The only people at the school who seemed less adept than doing their jobs than the teachers were the administrators. Some of the worst new teachers the year that I entered, who were so bad that they knew there was no way they could hack it in the classroom, were going back to college at night to get the training they would need to work in education administration.

    The education reforms being put in place while I was there looked like they were just going to make things worse. We had many strategy meetings to discuss raising end-of-course exam scores, since that’s how the school’s performance was measured. Not all courses are measured by exams, so the principal began pushing the better teachers toward the courses that were evaluated. The non-tested courses became supplements for the tested ones; the non-tested world history curriculum was modified to sync with the tested U.S. history curriculum, so that everything in the world that happened before 1776 was taught in the first month or so, while world history events after 1776, especially wars the U.S. was involved in, were taught for the rest of the year.

    That was one of the more benign suggestions. The more galling suggestion was that we not focus our attention on the top 25% of students, whose scores will not increase substantially anyway because of what we do, or the bottom 25% of students, who will just hang around scoring poorly if we give them assistance instead of just dropping out and raising our scores. No child left behind, indeed.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is little incentive for teachers to be good teachers, and I have little faith in most of the reform incentive schemes I’ve seen to improve teachers either. It is disheartening if you think the public schools have something to offer in a democracy.

  3. Hey, Kid. These sorts of stories are depressingly familiar, and you’re right that given the current structure there’s not much incentive for good teaching. It ends up coming down to personal dispositions and moral commitments, which are peachy when you can get ’em but not a reliable basis for a mass democratic educational system. Heck, the whole idea that there would need to be some extrinsic motivation for good teaching already tells you we’re in trouble.

    As for administrators, you might find Confessions of a CC Dean interesting for another thoughtful perspective.

    From your photos I suspect you’d also find Rachel’s art interesting.

  4. Kvond, I don’t pop for premium cable but I swear I’m going to track down the dvds and start watching “The Wire” any day now. Just as soon as I start and finish with “The Sopranos.”

    Seriously, thanks for the well-contexted recommendation.

  5. Well you’re in a grand mood.
    I don’t know how well this would work in public school, but for colleges, here’s my hotlist for how to make a college lust after the badness of your teaching:
    – give lots of A’s, let students grade their own papers, end classes early, never take attendance, and then grade on attendance (but let no adminstrator know you’re doing this; your syllabus only mentions exams, essays, and oral presentations).
    – talk about how hard your classes are; go to forums and faculty development activities and complain about how your students complain.
    – hold classes in public places, like a side lawn on the first warm day of spring; tell jokes and let the laughter roll across the campus.
    – make homework assignments like, “Stop in my office and pick up some Smarties,” or “Go to the basketball game tonight.”
    – tell students to ask for your classes next semester and to whine when they aren’t available.
    – always overload your classes.
    – assign lots of reading but don’t test on it and let students know the book is optional (y’know, for eggheads)
    – hand out Hershey kisses on student evaluation day
    – ask for early summaries of your student evaluations (so you can “improve” your classes); leave them lying around by the mailboxes.
    – instead of a final exam, have your students draw their impression of what they have learned with crayons and markers; festoon the classroom with them, making it unusable for any other faculty. Yay! everyone gets an A!

    Yes [sigh] I’ve seen most of these used, successfully.

  6. Carl,

    I”m telling you, The Wire is not tv, its literature. Real, novelistic literature. Start from the first season, skip the second season, and go from there. The fourth season deals though explicitly with the problems of the American inner city school system, as it relates to the rest of the “systems”.

  7. Rachel’s art is lovely! I especially like the forsaken edifices and nature vs. nurture collections. Thanks for pointing me to them.

  8. Kvond: I’ll do it. Netflix here I come.

    Kid: Thanks so much! I’ll tell her.

    Dale: Mood? Me? Nah. And what about you with the annotated score of operatic ignominy?

    I’ll have to try the crayon thing, that sounds awesome. But you left out my favorite, “pad vita with vanity pedagogy publications describing in minute detail your rare and mysterious successes.”

  9. Dale, you are my hero now – seriously, where I can learn some mad skills like that? I mean all this time I was thinking that it is knowing your stuff that really mattered, but I can see now that I’ve wasted half my life reading books when I should have been developing a completely different set of habits.

    P.S. people who takes their classes outside and teach on the lawn either watched their Dead Poet Society tape too many times or are real jerks that secretly enjoy watching students try to find that one comfortable pose only to see them squirm for another one a second later…

  10. I’m on a search committee right now and the teaching performances have been terrific. That sample class taught by the job applicant — ignore it. It’s anecdotal data. Course evaluations by students who have sat through a whole course give you a better idea of how the person will be as a teacher, even though it’s hard to give more weight to what’s on paper than to what you saw with your own eyes. We had a candidate who had great evaluations but taught a lousy sample class. We hired her, and she’s a terrific teacher.

  11. Jay, this is my sense too. I’m only slightly more impressed with teaching evaluations, which depending on local culture tend to be cryptic and thinly judgmental, not to mention edited. A lot of what I look for is intellectual flexibility; I want to see if a candidate can perspective-shift, because so much of good teaching comes down to that. So I’m interested in how they respond to questions that ask them to think a different thought.

    Speaking of which, my compliments and thanks for the great work you’ve been doing over on that scatterplot thread. It’s been a pleasure working with you, “boring the hard boards” as Weber said.

  12. Carl, you should chase down the Wire and watch as soon as possible. Based on your posts on the infamous scatterplot thread, I think you’d find much to chew on in the Wire.

    Oh, and contra @6, I’d encourage you to watch Season 2 as well. That was my favorite chapter in the saga.

  13. Thanks, Corey, I’m on board! The Wire season 1 is now #1 in my Netflix queue. Looking forward to it.

    Would your appreciation for season 2 have anything to do with your current location in Criminal Justice?

  14. Carl.. yes my location within the institutional machinery of Criminal Justice attracted me to the Wire; the CJS is a major character throughout all five seasons. Never is the CJS portrayed simplistically (as “the good guys” or “the bad guys”; the epidodes deconstruct and problematize the cliche “to protect and serve”.

    The series Creator David Simon also wrote Homicide which is a journalistic account of Baltimore Homicide detectives. This is a book that I assign to my senior level capstone course on Criminal Justice Processes. Simon has a Sociologist’s eye for the ways that Institutions think and an anthropologist’s eye for how cultures are imprinted in place.

    I found season 2 to be powerful because it realistically portrays the consequences of Industrial abandonment. When Capital moves on, it leaves behind people embedded in culture who desperately try to adapt. I suppose it resonated with my experience.

    But all 5 seasons are worth it. Just give yourself 3 episodes in season 1 to get sucked in. There are multiple intertwined plot-lines and the writers drop you into the middle of an evolving story. You have to work to figure out what’s going on. But once you’ve done that work, you will be well rewarded.

  15. Threatening to side track the comments of the thread a bit, I just want to say that season two of The Wire would have been just fine if it hadn’t followed the incredibly unique form of season one. In season two they tried to break rather radically from what was new about one, and in many ways broke what worked (in my opinion). I would list the structural changes, but no spoilers). The rest of the show returned to much of what was unique in one, though as spectacular as all of them are (four is extraoridinary), none of them captured what one has…incredibile, palpable silence, actually silence (or sometimes literal static), bringing into concrete metaphor perhaps something of Latour’s insistence that all things must go through translation processes.

    Good point though Corey, about the lesson of Capital, and what happens when it moves on. Such a lesson might very well be the “lesson” of the entire show.

    Carl, I look forward to some future blogged comment on your experiences, even if you are disappointed with it.


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