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Education 101: The myth of good teacher/bad teacher

An idealistic white female English teacher clad in jeans and black leather faces a rebellious class of inner city multiethnic “at risk” teens whose disrespect for authority establishes a new high-water mark for adolescent menace. Driven by a burning desire to reach her felonious wards, she does what any right thinking educator would do—teaches them karate, followed by a series of equally unconventional educational tactics. Bucking bureaucratic apathy, student hostility, and the looming threat of violence, she gradually wins over her students—who morph into lovable poetry-quoting literature buffs. Following a melodramatic tragedy, our heroine decides to leave teaching at the end of the year, upon which her students persuade her to stay using her own poetic words of inspiration to sway her. Everyone dances. I cry.

Then I remind myself that the woman playing real life teacher LouAnne Johnson in this movie is Michelle Pfeiffer. No wonder her students came around; their teacher is Catwoman. That would’ve motivated me as an adolescent. Dangerous Minds does not, strictly speaking, reflect reality. Unfortunately, this movie follows a well-trodden filmic path that reinforces public misconceptions of the “good” teacher, that elusive creature everyone wants in the classroom. But do we?

Over the course of the film Catteacher takes students on an unauthorized amusement park field trip (paid out of pocket, naturally), and lies about it to her principal. She flirts with students and bribes them with candy bars, the latter having the distinction of being both educationally and nutritionally unsound. She visits high crime neighborhoods alone after dark, throws herself between fighting boys, takes a male student out to dinner while fronting the cash to pay off his loan shark, and offers her home to another male student as a refuge from a rival gang. In other words, she engages in behaviors that in the real world would be both unprofessional and stupid. But it’s justified of course because she “really cares.” The real Johnson—who is in fact Latina—says Dangerous Minds is “very, very loosely” based on her story, kind of like Hogan’s Heroes is very loosely based on life in Nazi concentration camps. In reality the antics depicted in the movie would result in Johnson’s dismissal, if not criminal charges. Moved by sentiment as I am, the teacher in me knows this is fiction.

Another movie contributing to the good teacher mythos is Stand and Deliver. Real life math instructor Jaime Escalante, on whom the movie is based, describes the film as ninety percent true. That last ten percent must be the yeast in this cinematic pastry. In the movie Escalante, who taught at Los Angeles’s Garfield High School, berates his mostly Latino students, literally getting in their faces when they fail to perform to his standards. “This is easy,” he taunts one student struggling at the board, “baby stuff, for boy scouts.” He mocks a tardy male student telling him his guidance counselor suggested he enter cosmetology class. These are exactly the sorts of inflammatory tactics real teachers wisely avoid. Another time Escalante asks a girl who has answered a question correctly, “Is it true intelligent people make better lovers?” My white lower middle class Western New York students would be forming a line at the office to complain. (See below.) Principals would panic at thoughts of litigation, media hype, and negative career repercussions. Movie Escalante suffers a heart attack due to stress. The lesson? “Good” teachers are willing to die for their students. (The real Escalante had an unglamorous gall bladder condition.)

More problematically, the movie shows Escalante bringing students from basic math to AP calculus in one year. In reality, it took a decade to achieve the results Escalante attained with help from fellow teacher Ben Jimenez, a supportive principal, and a dozen or so other educators who taught foundation courses feeding into calculus. His results, while spectacular, were not as impressive as the movie portrays. Very few students initially scored fours, let alone fives, on the AP exam. Many did not even pass. Escalante began teaching calculus with just five students. In my school, the Board of Education decreed that no classes could have fewer than fifteen students. Most schools have similar policies in deference to taxpayers. So today, Escalante’s fame rocket might never even be ignited.

I’m not suggesting there are no exceptionally good or bad teachers. It’s just that people like LouAnne Johnson and Jaime Escalante are extremely rare. And just as highly exceptional teachers are very rare, so are seriously bad ones.

The new boogiemen of education, “bad” teachers are easier to talk about than identify. A recent Associated Press-Stanford University Poll revealed that almost eighty percent of Americans think that it’s too hard for schools to get rid of bad teachers. But the term is not defined and means different things to different people. 

A 2006 report from the Education Trust offers a very preliminary attempt at defining good and bad teachers and quantifying their effect. But would better teachers dramatically reverse declining student achievement? I’m guessing not. To begin with, “bad” teacher is a misnomer. The Johnsons and Escalantes of the world aside, most teachers are dedicated instructors possessing adequate knowledge of their core discipline, with individual strengths and weaknesses. They have their own families and personal demands; they are not 24/7 employees. Some less effective teachers have simply had their spirit beaten by the exhausting rigors of the very system that now looks to discard them. Teachers must adapt to an endless string of “new” educational philosophies and initiatives that bring little positive impact within budgetary, administrative, and parental constants.

In WNY there is a glut of qualified teachers. Inequities between districts could be greatly diminished with incentives to bring exceptional teachers to at-risk schools. But the economic will is not there. None of this is new, but the recent emphasis on “cleaning house” is a potential witch hunt waiting to happen. Genuine reform won’t be achieved by getting rid of “bad” teachers. The problems facing education are much more complex.



Scenes from a real life classroom


Reality is so tedious. I taught public high school for most of thirty years, and I was commended for my classroom skills. I stayed positive and engaged to the end. I’m confident, however, that there are those out there who consider me their worst teacher ever. Why? Perception. My entry-level art class was not talent-based, but I did have reasonably high standards. Some students resent having to take art, and their parents are often indifferent to their success. Students were sometimes disruptive. Some wanted to quit, although our school policy limited course drops to the first few weeks. Parents have the final say, though. So crafty students understood that the trick was to manipulate Mom and Dad—or administrators. What follows are some scenes you won’t find in Hollywood movies. Most teachers spending a career in the classroom will accumulate many similar stories. (The names are fictitious.)

Tammy is a loquacious student right out of Veruca Salt Charm School. She fails to turn in her work and accuses me of losing it—even after I locate it in her portfolio. She frequently becomes vociferously hostile, and is often caught texting in class in violation of our school policy. I arrange a parent conference with the principal, and it’s clear from the start that Tammy’s mom has made up her mind that I am out to get her daughter. She says that Tammy can’t possibly pass the class with me as her teacher. “I know exactly what’s going on with Mr. Adams,” she announces, “because Tammy texts me from his class every day.” Tammy is allowed to leave the class.

Maggie, the daughter of a board member, claims I hit her. Her friend Ashley vouches for this. I arrive at a meeting with the principal and Ashley carrying a book on civil law. I slap it down on the table and ask Ashley if she knows what slander is. I hand her the book and tell her to look it up. Without looking Ashley retracts her story and apologizes. This is good because I have no idea whether the book includes anything about slander. Flash forward fifteen years to a community fundraiser for a terminally ill student where I run into Maggie. Now a mother in her early thirties, Maggie is embarrassed, saying she hoped I wouldn’t recognize her. “I was so mean to you in high school,” she says, “I’m sorry.” It’s not the first or last time this scene occurs.

Brian transferred from a neighboring district where, his mother says, “He was treated unfairly.” One day I reach for a picture Brian is holding, and he belligerently yanks his hand away hitting my arm, which in turn bumps his chin. It all takes two seconds. The next morning I’m met in my classroom by the assistant principal, who ominously has me gather my possessions and follow him. “I can’t discuss anything until you have union representation,” he says, and leaves me alone in an office wondering what’s going on. When he comes back with our union president I learn that Brian had complained to the principal. I laugh in relief. Does he claim I hit him? No. Our stories match; it was an accident. Brian’s complaint is that I didn’t apologize. “He wants me to apologize for his bad behavior?” The assistant principal regretfully tells me I am suspended with pay while they conduct an “investigation.” I’m escorted out of school, and spend the day in my hot tub at taxpayers’ expense. Why? Because the fearful principal worries that to do otherwise invites public disapproval. The investigation confirms our identical stories, and I return the next day.



Bruce Adams an educator, artist, volunteer, activist, and father.
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