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.
I also think that Mr. Owens has pointed out another problem of today’s educational philosophy, the belief that a teacher can make every child pass a certain test covering a defined curriculum in a set amount of time. The obvious consequence of locating the complete responsibility for student achievement (on standardized tests) with teachers is that most of America’s teachers must be deemed to be failures even if most of their students are achieveing. Living day in and day out with these oppressive expectations brings about the work environment described by Mr. Owens in the interview.
I would also suggest that student apathy is an unintended 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. What I witnessed as a parent and a teacher was a general disintegration in the belief that learning was anything other than a passive activity. Even students who were doing well often attributed their success to having a particular teacher. If these students landed in a class that required hard work to understand the material, they assumed (based on what they had been told throughout their lives) that the teacher must be bad. If they could just get the right teacher, it would be easy to learn. Similarly if the class was easy for them to master, they assumed they had a good teacher. These students can develop a pattern of blaming their success or failure on others. I personally believe that students should know that they can and should learn on their own. Hard work can overcome bad teachers, bad textbooks, bad environment, and bad whatever else.
I often think of the parent and her student who blamed me for her poor score on a history test. They claimed her lack of preparation was due to the fact that my website post on the day before the test had not reminded her to study for the exam even though we had been preparing for a week in class. Having heard their complaints, my administrator did require me to prove that I had adequately prepared the students for the test and did mildly chastise me for not keeping my website up to date. Looking back on this incident, I realize that it might have just been an excuse on their part to try and get a better grade, but it also might be that this student had been taught that she could take no initiative on her own to learn and be prepared. That, I think, is the real crime of making teachers all powerful. 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.