|I thought I was a good teacher. |
(I also thought the Bengals would win.)
My name is John and I have a problem. For thirty-three years I was a bad teacher. And I thought was good.
Denial. That’s all it was.
Then, Sunday, I stumbled across an excellent article by Dr. Michael Flanagan and his words gave me strength. You see he’s a bad teacher too.
Dr. Flanagan had to battle through the same agonizing process I must now endure, although he does admit there were sometimes “free bagels and donuts involved.” And I am a complete sucker for donuts.
(I’m sorry. When I salivate I digress.)
For nineteen years he taught, successfully, or so he thought. Oh, sure, he heard school reformers say that the big problems in education boiled down to bad teachers at the front of too many rooms. Still, he refused to face the truth. Like me, he kept pretending he was good. He’d get awards for excellence…and he’d believe those awards meant something too.
As for me, I’d be grading papers at 11:30 on a Wednesday night and I’d tell myself, “John, you’re doing a good job.” I had an addiction you see.
Grading papers was a crutch, like a bottle of booze to a drunk.
Grading papers was a crutch, like a bottle of booze to a drunk.
I’d go to work on Monday and students would tell me they loved my class, and I’d delude myself and think they were telling the truth. I would arrive at school early and let kids come in for extra work and I’d skip lunch to help and stay late too. I was hooked.
I thought I was good.
Sure. There were times I wondered. I’d pick up the New York Times and read what the latest school reformers had to say. These reformers didn’t have the same problem I did because they always avoided trying to teach. But I wouldn’t listen, not even when Brent Staples said schools did a terrible job of screening and evaluating teachers, so that they hired “any warm body that comes along.” I heard what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told an audience at M.I.T., that the big problem in schools was too many teachers were plain dumb and still I refused to face the demons.
I’d go right back to my phone. I’d call Vicki’s parents and say, “I love having your daughter in class.” Too late now, I see that call was a cry for help. I loved teaching like a crack addict loves crack.
Again and again, reformers tried to show me how wrong I was. Michelle Rhee bashed teachers every time she opened her mouth. Campbell Brown hinted that teachers were sexual deviants, protected by powerful unions. Arne Duncan, Steven Brill and Joel I. Klein all agreed that tenure and unions must go. Yet, I kept going back into my classroom day after day. I had to have that fix. I had to keep helping kids.
I know one step toward recovery is admitting a problem and trying to make amends to anyone you hurt. So let me say I’m sorry. I apologize for spending most of my adult life working with 5,000 kids.
I’m sorry, Steven Brill, that I called your book, Class Warfare: The Fight to Save America’s Schools, a steaming pile of dung. I should have known you were fighting harder than I did—just not in an actual classroom—or with actual kids. I should have known that you and Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America but never taught, were going to fix the lives of children with bold words.
I’m sorry for so much.
I’m sorry for doubting politicians when they passed No Child Left Behind more than a decade ago. Now I see that lawmakers in Washington knew exactly what they’re doing all along. I’m sorry I said that law was flawed from the start.
I’m also sorry that No Child Left Behind is totally dead.
I’m sorry I don’t believe Common Core will work. I’m an addict, as I’ve said. I’m sorriest of all because I doubted politicians in 2010 when they said they supported Common Core and doubted them again in 2014 when they said, never mind, we’re not for Common Core after all. In fact,
Governor Jindal I apologize particularly to you.
I’m sorry I didn’t face my problem when it might have meant something to all the wonderful young people I taught. I’m sorry for saying the standardized tests I saw during my long career were weak. I’m sorry I thought the social studies portion of the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT), implemented in 2004, and the last standardized test I saw before retiring, was a farce. I was wrong to think you couldn’t prove anything with a single fifty-question test if it covered three years of material (grades 6, 7 and 8).
I’m not just sorry. I’m sad. I’m sad the State of Ohio spent millions designing that social studies sub test as part of the OAT—and then dumped it in 2009—and will soon dump the whole sorry OAT and have to start from scratch again. Common Core is coming you know, or maybe it’s not. I’m sorry I said when I heard this kind of news that lawmakers in Columbus had absolutely no clue.
I’m sorry I once brought in fourteen veterans (from five wars) to talk to 700 Loveland Middle School kids. I realize now—too late!—that nothing they said could help any of those teens when it came to a standardized test. Especially now, since all those old tests are kaput.
Today I understand it wasn’t just me. I hung out with other junkies who thought they were good. We had an outstanding band director at Loveland Middle School who thought it mattered if he turned teens into musicians. We had great art teachers who imagined that if they taught kids to sketch beautifully they were passing on something of value. We had a great drama teacher, who for some reason felt drama was worthwhile, and a French teacher who expected kids to speak French with skill, and we had fine coaches, who were all in denial too. Those coaches thought that teaching young men and women to work hard, to strive to improve, to win with character, might help them in life.
Poor souls—trying to help kids who were bullied—counseling pregnant teens about choices they’d have to make—wondering how to help a boy who lived with an abusive father at home. Who were my colleagues trying to kid?
Now I know we were all addicts, kidding ourselves, and I look back on my career and theirs and think, “How sad!”
But I do feel better today. I’m getting this off my chest and see I’m not alone. I can finally admit I was a “bad teacher” all along.
I imagined that learning could be enhanced in ten thousand ways. And I was wrong. If it can’t be tested, can’t be reduced to A, B, C or D, it’s not learning at all. I have looked in a mirror at long last and have seen reflected an image I cannot like. Still, I can hope my colleagues and millions of public school teachers will get the help they need. As Dr. Flanagan has shown it’s never too late. We can all be “good teachers” if we choose.
The politicians with all the bold plans—those zealous reformers with their millions of words—they’ll show us the way.
They’ll show us all how to teach.
If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.
My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot.
Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.