Saturday, July 5, 2014

A bad teacher?

Several colleagues who have read my comments on Teacher Supervision, Evaluation, Merit Pay, have asked me if I think there is such a thing as a "bad teacher". Yes, I do. I have worked with bad teachers, too many frankly, and yet I hesitate to label someone as "bad". My concerns are over definitions, and thus measurement, and blame. I believe that a "bad teacher" may be less common than we think, and is invariably the result of bad leadership.

I recently consulted in a school where I noticed a particular elementary teacher. "Joe" was in his late twenties, about his fifth year teaching, humorous, affable, a nice guy. But Joe was by any measure a bad teacher. 

One of my data-collection methods is to walk past a classroom and record what was happening inside. In over 50 such walk-bys on different days at different times and in different weathers, I observed that 94% of the time Joe's nine year-old students were at their desks, working individually and quietly. On every such occasion, Joe was at his desk, at his computer, with his back to his students.

I attended several IT committee meetings of which Joe was a member. The principal and high school specialist teachers wanted to move to schoolwide classroom-based IT teaching which would mean completely integrating IT into regular classroom teaching and learning. This would have meant closing the elementary IT lab and moving the equipment into classrooms, intensive staff training and ongoing professional development. 

Joe  was resistant to closing the elementary lab to the point of obstruction and his insulting his colleagues. He insisted that the lab approach was the best and only approach to teaching IT skills, and would not listen to the research presented by his colleagues or to their professional and informed opinions. He vehemently claimed that it was used so intensively, he struggled to find time for his own class. Yet, the official lab reservation-sheet was almost blank with 1 - 3 weekly bookings only, and my walk-bys had noted it as empty 97% of the time. I had in fact not seen Joe and his class in the lab at all.

When I conducted my individual interview with Joe, he revealed that he did not plan as he needed to be flexible to meet their everchanging needs. Finally, standardized testing showed his students to be 2 - 3 levels below their reference-group, and many had dropped their level from the year prior.

Joe was clearly teaching badly. However, I do not know if he was a bad teacher. The elementary principal did not see supervision as within her purview. She felt teachers are professionals and so should be left alone to do what they saw best. She knew Joe spent most of his time with his back to his students, but did not know the extent and did not see it as concerning. She did not know he did not use the IT lab; she did not know that in essence none of her teachers used it. She did not see her role as including requiring teacher planning, reviewing teacher plans, or in counseling teachers on their practice. She did not see the stagnation or even the drop in student results as a consequence of Joe's approaches; to her, it was due to the effect of two new ESL students on the group. She had never had his students read aloud to her, or show her their books, or tell her of what they were doing in class.

In fact, many other issues connected to this principal showed how poor she was, but to be fair, no-one was supervising her. She had been hired and left alone.

I suspect to that most observers and against most criteria, Joe would be seen as a bad teacher. I can not say that. He could perhaps be effective with proper supervision. He could even be a good teacher. However, as he did not have proper leadership, he should not be judged until such direction, policies and procedures are in place. Teaching badly is not the same as a bad teacher.

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