When Teachers Struggle

Although I live in Pennsylvania, I have worked in the New Jersey public school system my entire professional career, first as an English teacher, and currently as a school psychologist.  If you follow politics in NJ, you know that much of the new governor’s platform rhetoric is built around getting rid of “bad teachers”.

This, unfortunately, is a microcosm of the larger “debate” (is it really a debate?  Really?) happening in the US surrounding education.  Politicians, celebrities, filmmakers, and everyone who has ever attended school (and is therefore an expert in education) are calling for the heads of bad teachers.

I want to keep this as apolitical as possible, but I just need to get this off my chest: nobody likes a bad teacher, myself included.  Nobody likes a bad anything – that’s why they’re bad.  But for all their bluster, the wonks still haven’t quantified what makes a teacher “good” other than their students’ standardized test scores (an argument so fallacious I don’t even know where to begin).

Let’s take this to the local level (let’s also, for the sake of argument, set aside the major contributing factors to academic success, like family SES and parent involvement).  Maybe you know of a teacher in your school who struggles, for whatever reason.  Maybe his classroom management is weak.  Maybe she doesn’t know her subject as well as she thought.  Maybe the kids don’t like him or he’s just not connecting with the kids on some level.  Instead of cutting her loose and hiring a brand new teacher, doesn’t it make more sense to provide that person with supports to help her become a better teacher and thereby strengthen the school community?

Here’s a fun fact about which I’m not proud: I almost lost my job after my first year of teaching.  I readily admit I was in over my head and did not have the skills – coming in over a year after graduating college and two since I started student teaching – to do my job effectively, or at least not while coping with the stresses of the job, for which I was wholly unprepared.  The period from September 2000 to June 2001 was one of the worst periods of my life; however, with some good supports in place, I was able to stick it out, learn from my mistakes, and start what would become, by all accounts, a successful eight years of teaching.  These supports included:

  • Mentoring: I was paired with a veteran English teacher who was able to provide me with advice and act as a sounding board on a variety of topics – curricular and otherwise.  She helped me get through my first year in one piece, and also provided me with helpful insights about my practice, on both what I was doing poorly (which was a lot) and what I was doing well (which allowed me to build on my strengths and apply them to other areas).
  • Collaborative Colleagues: I always like to say that I had 30 mentors that first year.  While I worked closest with my ‘official’ mentor, the other folks in my department were only too willing to share materials, experiences, and even let me observe their classes in the name of improving my practice.  Nobody locked their file cabinets when I came snooping around, and folks were happy to let me grill them on how they overcame some of the problems I had.  It was also helpful to know that these fantastic teachers I respected so much did have the same problems I had at one time, and that I wasn’t defective.  It was also nice to have someone other than my direct supervisor to talk to and learn from (see below).
  • Support From Above: At no time in my first year did I think my supervisor or principal were out to get me.  I knew they wanted me to succeed because they backed up their verbal well-wishes with helpful, constructively critical observation writeups and providing access to teaching and classroom management resources.  My supervisor at the time also encouraged reflection and was available to me to sit & talk about what was troubling me and help me to troubleshoot and problem-solve my own issues.  It was often easier for me to do this with my colleagues during my first year because of my fear of being judged by my supervisor, but I did take her up on this offer in my second and third year of teaching.  It was a habit I continued through the rest of my time teaching with two other supervisors.

These supports all helped me to get my head around my new profession and what it means to work with young people.  If Year One was all about surviving, it was all about thriving from my second year on.  Once I had the basics down, I felt free to take more risks and explore new methods of learning with my students.  I had to learn to ride my bike before I could pop those wheelies, and while my first year was tough, you know that by my second year I was smiling well before Christmas.

Of course, there comes a point where losses need to be cut.  If a teacher makes it to the end of a probationary period and still has no control over the class, still is ignorant of their subject matter, or still can’t communicate in ways that reach young people, or for some reason chooses not to take advantage of the supports provided them, then perhaps it’s time for that discussion about finding a different line of work.  But to do so without providing some kind of rehabilitation (or, as in my case, regular old habilitation) smacks of arrogance – teachers are not interchangeable cogs.  Good teachers are not manufactured, they are grown. Nobody leaves an undergraduate education program as a “good” teacher – people can come in with a great deal of promise or potential, but good teaching is an art that takes years to develop, and there are no guarantees that substituting younger teachers for old ones will bring about any improvement whatsoever.

It seems to me what “bad” teachers need foremost are guidance and support, not ultimatums and pinkslips.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention When Teachers Struggle | Apace of Change -- Topsy.com
  2. Michael Wacker

    Great post! Maybe if we put our heads together we can come up with an evaluation system that not only encompasses student achievement, but also self evaluation, peer observation, student feedback, admin feedback, and community comments. Then when we receive this (and I would love to have this feedback as a teacher) we will be able to provide and have access to: differentiated, targeted, specific PD, that has been vetted by my community and peers. While we are at it, I would love instant access to teacher leaders in my school, my district, my state and beyond; and the spaces and places where real collaboration, sharing, and learning can take place.
    We can do that, right?

  3. Joyce Cerbasi

    As a Teacher, Mentor,and Instructional Coach, I thank you for your keen observations of this profession and those who choose to enter into it. In all professions, one grows into excellence, it does not happen overnight. Growth cannot happen without nurturing, and there should be many opportunities to become the teacher you want to be. The few who cannot achieve excellence should consider another career, but I work with MANY outstanding educators, some new to the field and some quite seasoned. It is the balance that makes our school what it is. The day I stop learning is the day I leave teaching.

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