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Subversive Teaching

Teaching Well is the Best Revenge

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Teaching Well is the Best Revenge

I began teaching at an early age, bribing my sister and neighborhood children to let me teach them to read. Yet it was not until fourth grade that I decided I must be a teacher. It was just my luck to get Miss Merritt that year, the worst teacher in the school. That was saying a lot, because in that time and place, a deep-rooted dislike for teaching children was evidently a job requirement.

I remember the occasion of my epiphany well. Miss Merritt had just finished violently shaking Nelton Schulbach's desk, with him in it. No doubt there was some provocation, knowing Nelton, but I decided this behavior was simply beyond the pale, an outrage and a disgrace. One day, I promised myself, I would become a teacher myself, and do it RIGHT! I would save children from the misery of school tedium and bad teachers.

I forgot all about my vow -- at some point decided I would be something more glamorous -- until I was in college. Since I was a ravenous and indiscriminate reader, I began idly reading a friend's books on education, and was immediately seized by the most intense fascination with teaching. It has never left me.

After seventeen years as a classroom teacher, I now provide special education support in other teachers' classrooms. I am no longer responsible for planning lessons, doing grade reports, or student performance on state tests. Yay! On the other hand, I have had to endure appallingly, mind-numbingly terrible classes presided over by individuals who are teachers in name only. It's not that the teaching is bad so much as it is non-existent: "teaching" consists almost entirely of handing out assignments, which may or may not be read, graded, or handed back to students. The assignments range from incomprehensible to intelligence-insulting. The closest anyone comes to teaching is telling students the answers to write on worksheets. Tests and quizzes, if given at all, are over material either barely or never mentioned in class -- the latter on the grounds that that students "ought to know" it.

Some of this is due to the practical impossibility of doing all that needs to be done to do a first-rate job of teaching, but more is due to 1) complete ignorance of how to construct a lesson that engages students, and 2) complete absence of any talent for teaching.

I've come to the conclusion that one is either a teacher, or one is not. Real teachers have talent, shaped by experience and education, and usually from an early age experience a visceral need to teach. These individuals are rare, at least at the secondary level. (Many of these are forced out of teaching by the need to support families.) To their credit, students invariably deeply appreciate these teachers.

The no-talent non-teachers, who cannot be trained to teach well by any means, enter teaching through some sort of default process. These days many of them have been laid off, decide teaching would be easy enough (and for them it is), and are hired before they have any experience or training to inform them of how badly suited to the job they are. More than half of them are gone within five years, but that gives them plenty of time to train students to hate whatever it is they are "teaching", while at the same time making them feel stupid.

I have always considered bad teaching morally indefensible; however, I realize that it's possible that habitually bad teachers have no idea how much damage they do. After all, they hold their jobs year after year, are invited to join committees, help plan the curriculum, and a number of other things that serve to confirm that they are proficient. On the other hand, they can produce no evidence that students are learning anything in their classes, which might be expected to induce some cognitive dissonance, but doesn't, since no one seems to have any particular objection to that, as long as class discipline is okay. Certainly it is inconceivable that any student has ever said to them "You have made a difference in my life. Thank you."

So, as my gift to the children who suffer, I take my revenge on Miss Merritt and all the bad teachers, by teaching well.