Miracles and the “Bad” Teachers Who Can’t Perform Them

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 my last 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.

2 thoughts on “Miracles and the “Bad” Teachers Who Can’t Perform Them

  1. Good response to the standard criticism of composition instructors. Indeed it is not possible for writing teachers to carry the load alone—all teachers should be reading student writing and providing feedback on it (a task far too many science and engineering professors neglect, to the detriment of their students).

    There are some aspects of writing, however, that only composition teachers have any training in, and those aspects of writing are the ones that composition teachers (and high school writing teachers) should probably focus on. I’m thinking of audience assessment, creating flow between sentences and paragraphs, and the use of topic sentences. These are a step up from punctuation and grammar (which are properly the job for middle-school teachers to teach), but a lower level than “marshalling an argument”, which turns out to be very discipline-specific and best left to the professors of the specific discipline. Teaching students how to construct arguments in literary analysis does them very little good in other fields, where the structure of an argument is quite different. Teaching them how to construct coherent paragraphs that are not factoid dumps is more universal.

    Some of the assignments I’ve created and taught for tech writing classes are universal (like writing letters of recommendation), others are very subject-specific (in-program documentation and algorithm descriptions), while others are intermediate (user documentation). I do not expect composition instructors to teach the details of these forms, or even to be aware of the conventions of some of them—but it sure would be nice if the students knew what a topic sentence was and how to check whether their paragraphs had them.

  2. Defiant refusal to be defined by the unrealistic and unfair expectations formulated by ideological enemies of public education is a necessary and important first step.

    But we need to move beyond being defensive to actively and pointedly critiquing the alternatives proposed by the self-declared “reformers” as relentlessly as they have been leveling criticisms at us.

    The truth is that they have been much better at highlighting the failings of public education than they have been at providing alternatives that have been consistently more effective than–or even as effective as–the public schools whose performance they have so vehemently derided.

    Some charter schools have been extraordinarily successful, just as some graduates of the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and Corinthian have been very successful. Most of the successful charter schools, however, are being run by non-profit foundations, but the vast majority of charter schools are being operated by highly profitable corporations. Following the model of the online, for-profit, post-secondary institutions, those corporate-operated charter schools spend much more on administration and much less on instruction than even the public schools do, and a disproportionately large percentage of them, according to the “reformers” own standards, have student scores that have earned them “emergency” or “near-emergency” rankings.

    However “bad” public education may be at its very worst, no one is actually providing more than largely anecdotal, very selective, and heavily slanted evidence that the alternatives being promoted by the “reformers” are any better–or even that they are not distinctly worse.

    Indeed, one can argue that in diverting public funding away from the public schools and to these corporate-operated charters, we are simply making the public schools worse and accomplishing nothing beyond enriching the executives and stockholders of corporations that in the euphemistic name of “privatization” are actually sucking more voraciously at the public teat than any teacher of public employee ever has.

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