Bad teachers are having their moment in the sun this summer. The message from the mainstream media right now is that teachers are the problem.

Whoopie Goldberg is a talk show host and opinionator on teacher tenure, also known as due process, who wants bad teachers fired.

Vergara v. California declares that students’ rights to an equitable education are being violated by “teacher tenure” guarantees. It is being appealed by the California Teachers Association.

Students from Fremont and Castlemont High Schools in deep East Oakland have filed a suit in Alameda County Superior Court saying that “students have been denied equal access to teaching time compared with students who attend schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods.” These students have suffered through round after round of ineffective substitutes.

We are a society that is obsessed with bad teachers. Even Cameron Diaz has staked her claim in the discourse, playing a drunk and horny teacher who wants to quit the profession to marry rich.

A more accurate, if not way more boring, version of the movie would be called Good Teacher. It would star me, the opening shot focused on my hand whacking my alarm at 6:00am, suiting up with a sensible pair of clogs so I can facilitate play during recess. All day, I am transitioning kindergarteners with autism from one 20 minute academic session to another, literally singing and dancing as I go. Then the camera would pan to me laminating individualized folder activities for 12 students, cutting out the materials that I bought myself while sitting on my sofa. I’d be wearing a fetching sweater set and an increasingly strong eye glass prescription as I finish writing an IEP late into the night – late being 9:00pm. My bedtime, like a young child’s, is 9:30. And Justin Timberlake never kisses me good night or pays my bills.

While this makes for bad cinema, it makes for good teaching. And there is a lot more good teaching going on than the media presents. Making good teachers feel eclipsed by bad-teacher-hysteria isn’t going to close the achievement gap.

Cartoon - Good T

There is no doubt that students in high-need school districts are being denied access to excellent educations. But bad teachers aren’t the root cause. Racism and classism are.

Segregation along the lines of race and class is thriving the the American public education system. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the country, and in the Bay Area, are desegregated in legislation only. Segregation widens the achievement gap.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, then we need to shift our priorities from firing bad teachers, to hiring and retaining talented teachers and desegregating schools.

We need to learn a lesson from Finland, the going gold standard of education: we need to make the standards for admittance to schools of education very high, train teachers incredibly well, support teachers in the beginning of their careers, pay teachers like professionals, accept teachers’ assessments like we would a prescription from a doctor, and make teaching a job to brag about at a cocktail party.

We need to remember Brown v. Board: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children… A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.

This is not an excuse, this is the truth: we are a nation that enslaved African-Americans 245 years. It is not a coincidence that African-American males continue to suffer the most in the public education system. The bad teacher discourse is a distraction from the reality that our political and social systems are hurting, not just our education system.

There are optimistic examples of revolutionary work to close the achievement gap that transcends the bad teacher discourse and includes acknowledging teachers who serve students tirelessly. The Harlem Children’s Zone commits to not only to academic excellence, but also to wrap around services that break patterns of poverty. Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement is doing work to coach young men outside of the classroom and is getting positive national attention.

We need to turn our attention to both cultivating and retaining a robust teaching force as we fight poverty and segregation. We need to spend time and money on preventative efforts like pre-natal care, public pre-school, and health care to close the achievement gap. We need to stop mythologizing the bad teacher and start supporting all teachers to be the best they can for their students.



One thought on “Thinking Beyond Bad Teachers

  1. Fully agree, Caitlin. The rhetoric around what people perceive teachers do needs to change, just as our understanding of the privilege that benefits the white, male, able-bodied, and affluent needs to change. You bring up segregation and slavery, and additionally, there are still de facto barriers in place for students of color, especially our black males (more specifically suspension rates and the ways in which classroom culture and environment is designed).

    The work that is required of teachers that are consciously teaching to dismantle systemic inequities is hard, and it takes a lot more than what teachers are trained for, which is why it’s so important that teachers are experienced, mentored, and supported rather than increasingly burdened as their financial and stability supports fall away. I’m tired of seeing great teachers be punished on the whole for the inefficiencies of a few teachers. Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are so many more great teachers, as well as so many factors outside the control of a teacher who is potentially great, but is receiving so little guidance and development that they remain inept. I think punitive conversations should be phased out, so we can actually think about being asset-oriented and start talking about what we can do to keep the good teachers in the classroom. Stay Teaching! 🙂

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