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Bad Teacher: The Unexpected Consequence of Teacher Accountability

Edweek published an interview with John Owens, the author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher. It is a fascinating look at an outsider’s experience trying to break into the pressure cooker that is now public education.

The interview focuses on the highly volatile relationship between Owens and his principal. The adversarial relationship between teachers and administration has definitely become much more prevalent in the last decade. It is a shame that his experience is echoed in many schools throughout the country. The pressure that both administrators and teachers have been under creates a tense and hostile work environment.

The interview points out another maxim of today’s educational philosophy, the belief that a teacher can make every child achieve to same the level at the same time. The obvious consequence of locating the complete responsibility for perfect student achievement with teachers is that most of America’s teachers must be deemed failures even if most of their students are achieving. Living day in and day out with this oppressive expectation of perfection (100% achievement) brings about the work environment described by Mr. Owens in the interview.

Along with teacher frustration, student apathy is an unexpected consequence of this emphasis on the all-powerful teacher. Under the current system, students and parents believe that learning is not possible without a good teacher. On the surface this sounds credible, but in reality it is even more insidious than blaming teachers for their students’ failures. This belief turns learning into a passive activity of receiving knowledge from a teacher. In this atmosphere, students who are doing well often attribute their success to having a particular teacher. If these students land in a class that requires hard work to understand the material, they assume (based on what they had been told throughout their lives) that the teacher must be bad. If they just had the right teacher, it would be easy to learn. Similarly if the class is easy for them to master, they assume that they have a good teacher. These students can develop a pattern of blaming their success or failure on others. Students should see their part in learning as active and participatory rather than passive. A student’s hard work can overcome bad teachers, bad textbooks, bad environment, and bad whatever else. The classroom contains two jobs, teaching and learning. It is a bad idea to assume that teachers can do both.

Teachers do have a great impact on student learning. Good teaching can help students to learn better and more quickly; it just can’t learn for them. Students who see the locus of their ability to learn as themselves will spend their lives acquiring the knowledge that they need or want. Students who see the locus of their ability to learn as the teacher will spend their lives looking for perfect teachers.

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