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Bad Teachers

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I’ve been thinking all night about Robert’s comment that he doesn’t quite accept the idea that teachers are going against the entire policy of “boost self esteem”  in order to make their kids feel like failures, and it occurs to me that a) the two things aren’t incompatible and b) that the self esteem project might be less widespread than it was assumed to be for a while.

I do encounter students who seem to have emerged from programs designed to make them think well of themselves at the expense of all else, but those students are invariably at least middle class.  It’s the lower academic levels of the rich suburban districts and the lower rung prep schools that produce students like this, and they’re a disaster in a college classroom, no matter how remedial.

Not only do they not know anything, they know they don’t know it, and their entire modus operandi is a desperate defensive strategy meant to shield themselves from ever having to admit it.  When they find out that a C paper is a C paper no matter how hard they work on it, they panic and then they explode.   “Working really hard” is supposed to be the only criterion for a grade, and the teacher is supposed to accept their assurances that they “worked really hard” whether they’ve shown evidence of that or not.

But my inner city students are not like this.  They do have a certain amount of investment in the “work hard” theory of grading.  I think it’s possible that our need to emphasize how important it is to “work hard” has some unintended cosequences.

But my inner city students are not only convinced that they’re stupid, they’re convinced that they’re incapable of ever being anything else.

What’s more, this conviction is tied to one they would never voice out loud, but that’s as clear as the logos on their T-shirts:  they’re convinced that black people are incapable of ever being anything else.

I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the years.  I don’t believe that their schools, no matter how bad–and really, I’ve only hinted at how bad things can get–are coming out and telling them this sort of thing explicitly.  I don’t even think that it’s a matter of “the culture” only showing images of stupid black people and not the other kind.  After all, every day today, we’ve got at least one very smart black person talking to us from our television sets.

I do think that part of the problem is the level of economic segregation that exists in many public school systems.  

The economic part is important because when students judge themseves as “smart” or “stupid,” they’re not talking, as an expert would, about raw intellectual ability.   What they’re picking up on is ignorance, and they’re aware that they’re ignorant.   They’re aware that most of the people around them are ignorant, too.

Ignorant depends on what’s called in the literature “opportunity to learn,” and it is almost never enough to be presented with knowledge in classrooms.  Classrooms can be good if there’s no other place for you to pick up what you need to know, and they can be good if you know it and want to expand it, but if the only things you know about, say, the way the federal government works, the chances are that what you know is both limited and difficult for you to remember.

“Smart” students in this sense, therefore, tend to be found in the suburban districts.  They’re the ones with parents who know the names of their state’s senators, the basic facts of American history, the vague outlines of literary history, and all the other little, nit-picky things “everybody” knows and that teachers, books, magazines and movies simply don’t bother to expand on.

It’s extremely unlikely that a black student with parents like this is living in the inner city, for the same reason that it’s unlikely that a white student with parents like this is living in the local trailer park.  And more power to them.  I wouldn’t stick around in a crummy neighborhood if I didn’t have to.  

But there was one great advantage to the old, insular small town school, the one in a town so small that there would only be one, and that everybody went to together–schools like that always had the full range of smart to stupid kids, ignorant to knowledgable kids.  Students could see other students, just like themselves, who had achieved an academic level they might want for themselves.

Okay, I’m not trying to valorize the small town here.  I also know hat’s wrong with it, and I’ve made it my business not to participate in that kind of thing as an adult, or to put my children in the position of having only that to live in–but my complaint about economically segregated schools is still valid.

Even intellectually gifted students in inner city schools are surrounded by a sea of ignorance, so wide and so deep it’s breathtaking.   What’s more, they’re not getting much advantage from their teachers, because their teachers are invariably the worst the system can breed.

Good teachers do not tend to seek jobs in inner city schools, and if they do, they don’t tend to last long.  Fir better or worse, inner city schools are home to the children of lots of people who are not only poor, but in trouble, and often in trouble in violent, brutal and destructive ways.

I once got accused, on an Internet forum, of saying that poor people are poor because they’re drug addicts and criminals–but that wasn’t what I said.

What I said was that being a drug addict or a criminal (or both) was likely to make you poor.

The guy who thinks it makes sense to hold up a liquor store to get party money for Friday night, the woman who thinks heroin is the only thing worth living for, the couple whose entire marriage is a mess of binge drinking followed by domestic violence are unlikely to be able to afford to live in Westport, or even in Naugatuck. 

Making enough money to afford to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood takes a certain amount of self-discipline, things that most of us take for granted that are not second nature to everybody.

Setting the alarm clock every morning and making yourself get up early so that you’re not late for work,  not going to the party on Friday because you have to study for a math test, mapping out a plan for working ona project instead of letting it wait until the last minute–most of us learn this behavior by watching our parents, not because somebody in the front of a classroom forced us to toe the line.

Inner city schools are full of kids whose parents do not behave like this–and that’s rue no matter what the racial make up of the inner city neighborhood.  This is New England.  A fair number of our inner cities are all whiite, and the behavior I’m talking about can be found just as readily in certain kinds of rural schools (say, for instance, in parts of Appalachia).

I’ve had students who have never seen any member of their family work at a legitimate job, who have never sat down at a table and had a meal with other people until they were faced with the school cafeteria, whose families live for weeks and months with an exhausted light bulb over their front door without ever thinking to change it.

I’ve pointed out, before, that one of the reasons I like the work of Theodore Dalrymple is that he’s the only person I know writing about things like this, but I want to point out something obvious here–it is extremely difficult to teach students who come from situations like these.

Good teachers have options.  They don’t have to work with students who are not only frustrating, but sometimes violent, and who come from families that will nt support the school when Junior needs extra help or a week of after school detention.

Bad teachers have fewer options, and they get shunted farther and farther down the totem pole until they come to a rest in the worst schools in the worst neighborhoods.  Tenure makes it difficult or impossible to fire them, or at least so much trouble it isn’t worth the effort if you’ve got an alternative. 

Inner city schools are the alternative.  Middle class parents will complain.  They’ll hire lawyers and sue.  Parents who will suffer in the dark rather than change a light bulb–to whom it doesn’t even occur that it is within their power to change it–aren’t likely to do either.

Bad teachers are failures, and failures have a nasty tendency to take out their resentment on whoever is handy–and the students are handy.

My inner city students do come to college with the conviction that they’re worthless and that everything bad that hapapens to them is just what they deserved. 

I think I know where they pick that up.

Written by janeh

September 25th, 2009 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Bad Teachers'

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  1. You’re definitely right that the self-esteem movement is centered on well-off middle class schools. I do know kids that go to these same middle class schools that work hard on academics and succeed by dint of actual work, though, too, so I tend to think that it’s not entirely the schools – it’s the parents who are, in some cases, demanding that their kids be treated with kid gloves, not expected to work, and to be entitled to a 4.0 GPA whether they do anything to earn it or not.

    The people I know whose kids work hard at school are people who make their expectations clear and work with their kids when they need help with homework and so forth.

    The schools may play a part, but I don’t think they can hold a candle to some parents when it comes to turning kids into spoiled entitlement queens.


    25 Sep 09 at 2:15 pm

  2. The mechanism sounds plausible. Testing the hypothesis: if this is what’s happening and why it’s happening, then the worst results should result from (a) unified school districts, so the suburban discards can be recycled to inner-city schools without losing seniority or having to apply for a job again, and (b) the political units with the strongest unions, to ensure that teachers aren’t actually removed for non-performance. A poor school district no suburban schoools and a weak teacher’s union ought to be somewhat better.
    Two stray points:
    There’s a vocabulary shift involved, with considerable confusion between “smart” and “knowledgeable.” “I need to be smarter on this” is a very common phrase meaning “I need to be better informed” and briefing books are almost invariably called “smart books.” Trust me, four star generals know the difference between ignorance and stupidity–but that’s not true of everyone who so abuses teh language.
    More importantly, while I’m sure Obama is an inspiration at among black middle and working class families, I would guess–purely a guess–he has less impact in the ghettos. He’s a TV phenomenon, and what happens on TV isn’t quite real. He’s not like seeing someone you know get a scholarship, or come back into the neighborhood with an expensive ride. And of course the hard work is somehow unvoiced. There is or used to be a small industry of Horatio Alger stories of which Lincoln’s was probably foremost–not generalized “he worked hard, saved and studied” but tales of specific sacrifice–walking miles to borrow a book, studying when everyone else was playing or sending one’s beloved cat out as trade goods. I think those stories are now mostly out of the repetoire, but it hurts less those of us who saw Dad wake up sick, take three asprin and go to work anyway and Mom working out the family budget.
    It might help to put those stories back in teh elementary readers.


    25 Sep 09 at 5:55 pm

  3. I have no personal knowledge of the US situation but this article showed up in Arts and Letters Daily


    This caught my attention and may be relevant.

    Perhaps the most vexing labor organizations are the teachers’ unions. These groups were the driving force behind Proposition 98, locking in mandatory spending on public education without regard to any other fiscal considerations. But that’s only where their transgressions begin. In 1992, the California Teachers’ Association — by far the most powerful teachers’ union in the state — blocked a ballot initiative to promote school choice in the Golden State by physically intimidating petition-signers and allegedly placing false names on the petitions. When asked about his union’s opposition to the measure, the CTA president responded: “There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters.” And in 2000, when testing results revealed that two-thirds of Los Angeles public schools were ranked as failures, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles announced that his union would accept a proposal for merit pay only on “a cold day in hell.”

    The result of the teachers’ flight from responsibility has been unadulterated dysfunction. In Los Angeles schools, one out of every three students drops out before graduation. And a research team from the University of California, Riverside, recently concluded that by 2014 — the year all students are required to be proficient in math and English under No Child Left Behind — nearly every elementary school in the state will fail to meet proficiency standards. Yet despite the atrocious performance of California educators, it is nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher (the percentage of California teachers terminated after three or more years in the classroom is just 0.03%). For example, in a May exposé on the Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Song revealed: “The district wanted to fire a high school teacher who kept a stash of pornography, marijuana and vials with cocaine residue at school, but a commission balked, suggesting that firing was too harsh.


    25 Sep 09 at 9:48 pm

  4. I belonged to a teachers’ unions for years, and although I had occasional differences of opinion with them, I can’t recognize them in those cariacatures that apparently exist in the US. We had common, high stakes final exams at the end of core high school courses – with the support of the union – and procedures that both sides agreed to for dismissal and other punishment. There were some administrators who claimed they couldn’t get rid of poor teachers because of the unions – but they didn’t want to show cause for termination or collect data to back up their claims against the teacher. In the most obvious case I can think of, the union wasn’t even involved. The teacher threatened a lawsuit (I won’t go into gossipy details in public) and no administrator touched him.

    I do think that having larger school boards like we do here would help in equalizing funding and teacher allocation and hiring practices over richer and poor neighbourhoods.


    26 Sep 09 at 6:18 pm

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