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On Bad Teachers

Who is the worst teacher you have ever known? If you are involved in education, you should know the answer to this question, even if you don’t say the answer out loud. You should put some time and thought into considering what makes a bad teacher bad. An image of a bad teacher should be easy to conjure up in your imagination, and you should live in a little fear of becoming like this bad teacher.

Caricatures are not permitted. Bad teachers are human beings, not demons. A bad teacher is somebody’s child, somebody’s baby. A bad teacher’s feelings are hurt when no one remembers his birthday. A bad teacher smiles and laughs and says, “Thank you!” when you give him a Christmas present. A bad teacher goes to Church, prays, and puts his hope in Jesus Christ. When I refer to a “bad teacher,” I do not mean a teacher who physically harms his students or berates his students, for the worst teacher you ever had was not bad because he was violent. Other, more subtle reasons have lead you to judge him the worst. If I asked you to imagine a bad baker, you would not think of a baker who beat his customers. You would probably think of a baker whose bread was bad, whose pastries were flat, who charged too much, and who was blithely unaware of how tasteless and overpriced his goods were. Like bakers, teachers can be bad without being cruel.

For a moment, imagine that before anyone could become a teacher, he had to write a sixty-thousand word novel about a bad teacher. Imagine the bad teacher had to be a believable and sympathetic character, and that by the end of the novel, the average reader had to say of the bad teacher, “I pity him, though he is a terrible teacher.” Imagine that the novel had to be constructed realistically such that it made sense that the bad teacher kept his job, and that few people told him how bad he was at teaching. At sixty-thousand words, the novel would have to get beyond the surface of the bad teacher. The author would have to explain why the bad teacher taught, how he became interested in education, what he did in his free time, how he spoke with students, what kind of books he read, and how he responded to criticism. Imagine asking a teacher who has ten years into his career to take a one year sabbatical to write such a novel. Imagine telling that teacher, “When writing the book begins to sting, you will know you are doing it right.” Who would you rather teach your child history—someone with a PhD in history from Yale or someone who had written a sixty-thousand word novel about a bad teacher? I would take the second, because the novel might actually be about someone with a PhD in history from Yale.

I only bring this up because I plan on spending this summer dwelling on the rather delicious possibility that I am not a very good teacher. I say delicious, because if true, my classes will almost certainly improve next Fall. I have nothing to gain in thinking myself good.

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