Friday, August 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: In Search of a Good Teacher


In Search of a Good Teacher
Jaime O'Neill
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical


“The teacher is like the candle which lights others in consuming itself.”
—Giovanni Ruffini

“I am not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as of you.”
–George Bernard Shaw


Not long ago, I stopped at a local bakery for coffee and a bit of pastry, accompanied by my wife and visiting daughters. A woman ahead of me in line said hello, and though I recognized her face, I couldn’t place her.

“Do you know where you know me from?” I asked.

“I took English from you,” she answered.

That comment is always a little fraught with tension because, when I can’t remember a former student, there’s a possibility that person left my class with bad feelings caused by a bad grade. Sometimes, they just didn’t like me, or they hated the fact they were required to take the course I taught, and they blamed me for that requirement.

Over the years, whenever I was at a party where people were making small talk by asking one another what they did for a living, I had grown sheepish about admitting that I taught English because, more often than not, the reply was, “Oh, I hated English when I was in school,” followed by the confession that they weren’t good at it, though they rushed to assure me that they had excelled at other subjects.


In other words, they fell back into the role of being students again, and casting me as the teacher, a person to whom they had to make excuses.

The woman in line at the bakery was kind enough to tell me how much my course had meant to her, and I made the awkwardly appreciative noises one makes at such a time. And, as we talked, I gradually began to remember her, albeit a bit dimly. She was that rare student in community college, one of those who always turns up for class, is always prepared, always does the work. Most probably, her assessment of my skills as a teacher owed as much to her dedication to her studies as anything I did or didn’t do in that class she took from me. Good students are often likely to give the teacher credit for things they did themselves, and poor students are more likely to blame teachers for the things they, themselves, did not do. They would have studied harder if the teacher had been more interesting, or they would have been more conscientious if the teacher had somehow convinced them that this stuff mattered.

I spent most of my working life as a teacher, sharing what I’d learned about language and literature from those who had taught me. I took several dozen classes in order to acquire the degrees that allowed me to presume I had something worth hearing to students who signed up for the courses I taught. By rough estimate, there were 320 of those courses, taught over a span of four decades spent in classrooms at four different colleges. Figuring a low-ball average enrollment of 20 students per class, that figures out to well over 6000 students, nearly all of whom have evaporated from memory. Similarly, the teachers who taught me are mostly forgotten. Those professors who still hold a place in my recollections are a mere handful of truly exceptional people–both exceptionally bad and exceptionally good. The good teachers served as role models for what I should do when I began my own teaching career, and the bad teachers lingered in memory to remind me of what I should avoid doing.


The exceptionally bad were conspicuously lazy, determinedly dull, or utterly unmotivated, dead to all enthusiasm for students or for the subjects they taught. If there had ever been fire in these people, it was lost by the time I sat before them in classes I was required to take, or had signed up for because the material seemed interesting until I learned it was being taught by people who no longer found it interesting themselves.

I sometimes wonder how many students sampled certain subjects and then rejected entire disciplines simply because of one bad teacher who turned what might have been a lifelong passion into an abandoned intellectual exploration.

Fortunately, the truly bad teachers were few, but then so were the truly great teachers. 

My experience on both sides of the lectern has brought me to the conclusion that 10% of teachers are simply awful, 10% are truly inspiring, and the rest can be found somewhere along a sliding scale between those two poles. Those in that broad middle are varying degrees of serviceable, people who can convey information, organize material, administer tests, and evaluate student performance. But few of them are likely to be remembered by former students, and even fewer have the capacity to reawaken curiosity and the keen desire to learn that is so often squelched by the dull routine found in far too many classrooms fronted by sausage grinder teachers who crank out students from whom the natural desire to learn has been successfully extracted. Uninspired and uninspiring teachers inadvertently teach students  that serving the system supercedes substance.

They teach students how to play the game, subordinating learning to racking up points awarded for complying with whatever systems of measurement the teacher or the school have contrived to evaluate student performance.

Rather immodestly, I count myself among the “good” teachers, though I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that self-assessment. But, if I wasn’t as good a teacher as I’d like to think I was, it surely wasn’t for lack of trying. The job consumed me, woke me up nights, made me toss and turn with worries or with ideas for things I wanted to try. Like parenting, teaching can always be improved upon, and each new semester provided the opportunity to finally get it “right,” an elusive and perhaps unachievable goal. If there was a single student I felt I hadn’t reached, or a day when I couldn’t seem to capture their interest, those failures took up residence in the back of my mind, often overpowering whatever successes I may have had. Though it will seem immodest to say so, I think that the nagging sensitivity to the prospect of failure is one of the primary reasons I can call myself a good teacher. I’ve known more than a few colleagues who seemed not to care too much about whether they succeeded or failed at the task of actual teaching, an attitude of indifference that ensured their status as not very good teachers.

Throughout my long classroom career, it was common for students to ask me to recommend other teachers I thought were especially good. Most of the time, I evaded the question, telling them how difficult it was for teachers to assess one other. After all, we were seldom, if ever, in one another’s classes. Someone who seemed interesting in casual conversation in the faculty lounge or at a staff party might turn out to be a martinet or a malingerer in the classroom, one of those who shirk their responsibilities by dividing students into little learning circles and then letting the blind lead the blind while he or she circulates among them like a supervisor on an assembly line.


These are the people who eschew the word “teacher,” redefining themselves as “facilitators” as a way of doing less. There’s lots of stuff offered as rationalization for this approach, anodynes for whatever bouts of bad conscience might afflict teachers who have found this way of evading the time and effort of classroom prep, or the energy required to bring off an engaging lecture or maintain the thread of an engaged classroom discussion. Because it decreases the demands of actual teaching, the “collaborative learning” approach is persistently peddled at teacher conferences, and it’s a pill that goes down easy, eagerly swallowed by those who really don’t like teaching all that much.

Many, maybe most, of the people who make their way into ranks of education management are teachers who didn’t make a good “fit” in the classroom, people who beat a hasty retreat from contact with students in favor of better paid jobs overseeing their former colleagues. In their new roles, they hire consultants, form committees, draft mission statements, attend conferences, count various varieties of beans, and issue occasional documents defining just what constitutes good teaching. At the highest levels of ambition, these former teachers scrambled out of schools entirely, making their way to political appointments, or garnering national attention by proposing “reforms” that nearly always boiled down to less power for teachers, and more “accountability,” which always meant defined “outcomes” that could be charted on graphs. Perhaps the only real purpose those graphs served was to make the case for effective management because, when the “outcomes” spiked upwards, that was always a cause for administrative self-congratulation.

And, in these realms, way leads on to way, ever farther from students and classrooms, ever closer to the abstractions and numbing clich├ęs that constitute the talk of educrats who take as their model the captains of business and industry, and who come to think themselves entitled to comparable pay.

So it is that we have a system of higher education in California, for instance, where university presidents and chancellors command salaries larger than the one earned by the President of the United States, where tuition costs rise along with those administrative paychecks because, we’re told, talent this rare cannot be purchased for less.


And, as these corporatized academic CEOs proliferate, so does the view that education should emulate the business model. As that view gains dominance in “the ed. biz,” the less measurable “outcomes” continue to make themselves plain as we grant degrees to people who cannot find jobs, or who leave their colleges weighed down by levels of indebtedness that will blight the very futures they’d hoped to brighten by seeking advanced degrees in the first place. That doesn’t matter much because the system is still churning out “product,” granting degrees to ever more students.

The fact that the broader system doesn’t know what to do with all that product is of little concern to the people who run the colleges and universities, but maintenance of their pay and perks surely does, and lots of their time seems to be spent schmoozing with their trustees and boards to keep that notion firmly in place that without people like them in charge, the system just might not be so good, and that people like them need to be paid handsomely or they’ll take their balls and go home. And they’ve got some pretty big balls, no matter their gender, because they make these claims in a job market where nearly everyone else is taking hits, and in the face of lots of criticism of just how well their leadership is serving either students or the society that pays their salaries.

If the ratio of good teachers to not-so-good teachers isn’t as high as everyone would like, we might begin by looking at the people who are creating the environment for teaching, and defining just what teachers are supposed to do.

Over the course of four decades spent in classrooms, I’ve known lots of people like Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC school system. Rhee has gained mega media attention as the latest savior of American education. She’s made the cover of Newsweek, won accolades from Oprah (a kind of secular sainthood), and she was the heroine of Waiting for Superman, a well-intended documentary that played upon the audience’s legitimate sympathies for DC area students trying to win a lottery to get into better schools, and out of the bad schools they’re in. Rhee has emerged as the Joe Arpaio of ed. reform, anointed by the media as a tough-talking woman who cares only about students, and who is willing to take  on lazy, incompetent, and indifferent teachers in order to better serve them.

Which is all well and good, I suppose.

Who wouldn’t support that narrative, especially in the current climate, where unions–especially public employees unions–are so consistently vilified and scapegoated for woes we are suffering? Who is not against lazy and/or incompetent teachers? And who is not in favor of giving young people the very best possible education we can provide? Who wouldn’t oppose unions, portrayed by Rhee and the opportunistic politicians who praise her, as special interest advocates for less work, more pay, and bad instruction? After all, in the popular script Rhee reads from, unions do little beyond gouging taxpayers and protecting the jobs of bad teachers.


Americans are suckers for bad narratives, any tale that neatly compacts our problems into a fable featuring heroes, villains, and victims. Ronald Reagan got lots of traction laying the blame for government deficits at the door of “welfare queens” while masterfully overlooking the engorged defense budget. And the debate over health care was muddied by bogus stories of death panels that imperiled “grandma.” Similarly, Michelle Rhee’s rise to prominence has been buoyed by the story she’s telling, one in which she is cast as the brave heroine, willing to take on the bad guys who, unlike her, are not putting students first.

Throughout my own decades of “putting students first”–reading millions of their words, correcting their mistakes in writing, listening to their excuses as well as their legitimate woes, struggling to find ways to engage their interest and keep their attention, attempting to build their confidence, worrying about their attendance, fretting over grades, and sharing what I knew about writing–I also taught classes in literature. When I started teaching, I believed in the power of stories and, after all those years in the classroom, I believe in that power even more. Stories can convey understandings in transformative ways, allowing those who read or hear them to see things in clearer perspective, more refined nuance, and greater depth. But stories can also be used to sentimentalize, oversimplify, or perpetuate misconceptions and lies.

Even big lies.

Each of the years I worked as a teacher began with a series of mandatory meetings in which administrators much like Rhee would tell assembled faculty members their business, providing lectures for people who dealt with students every day delivered by people who’d decided that dealing with students every day was just not their cup of tea. It always galled me to be told to value students by people who didn’t share my experience in valuing them daily. That gall rises in a similar fashion when I turn on cable news to see Michelle Rhee talking about how so many teachers are sub-mediocre, and the standards for teaching so low that “anyone with a pulse” is welcomed to our ranks.

As it happens, my youngest daughter is a middle school teacher in Sacramento. On some nights, while my daughter is grading papers, doing classroom prep, or an assortment of other duties, Michelle Rhee can be found at a Kings’ game, squired there by her hubby, the mayor. While Rhee gains accolades for her willingness to denigrate hardworking teachers, my daughter, and most of her colleagues, volunteer time and money to make up for the budget cuts that chip away at their ability to put students first. These teachers do that work while incurring and enduring the kind of disrespect nourished by ambitious and self-serving people like Michelle Rhee.

Education needs reform. I’ve never known a time when that wasn’t so. But, generation after generation, the calls for reform lead to scatterbrained and scattergun “programs” touted in thousands of conferences for “educators,” forums to which teachers are seldom invited. Led by bureaucrats who mostly stand apart from the process of teaching and learning, these confabs bring up ideas that get discussed, briefly implemented, then discarded in favor of the next new orthodoxy. The leadership circles of the ed. biz promote fads that boost careers, but in the trenches where the teachers are called upon to enact the latest notions and also, incidentally, deal with the myriad personal demands of actual students, the struggle to teach young people is engaged and successes are routinely achieved. That work gets done, often in spite of the burdens imposed by educrats who keep reinventing wheels and finding substitutes for the passion that motivates real teachers and facilitates real learning.

Though Michelle Rhee has a few words of criticism for the often bloated and overpaid administrators who oversee the educational enterprise, her primary message is to blame the troops, not the generals. There’s not much new in that story, though it draws an appreciative audience every time it gets told. It’s difficult to see, however, ways in which insulting generalizations glibly offered by storytellers like Michelle Rhee are going to create legions of better teachers. Sweeping indictments of teachers don’t make the task easier for the people who occupy the ranks of a profession people like Michelle Rhee fled from long ago.

Back in the 1980s, I was asked to serve on a panel of “educators” assembled by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, headed up that agency at that time, and she’d selected me to serve on that panel not because she had any idea at all about my qualities as a teacher, but because something I’d written about education had attracted her attention. That’s usually how it goes whenever educrats assemble panels, whether at the national level, or at the local campus. Administrators gather little posses of the like-minded from their own ranks, add a token teacher or two, people selected either for their qualities as toadies, or because they’ve earned some recognition that usually has little or nothing to do with what they do when they’re with students, and then they have some chats and collect some data based on an agenda set by the “chair,” who then has the results written up in a report never really meant to be read by anyone. 

These circle jerk confabs always involve lots of studies of studies, lots of “breakout sessions,” and more jargon and cant phrases than you’re likely to hear anyplace this side of the Pentagon. Jargon is almost always dehumanizing, and the language used to discuss education is no exception; the phrases are mechanistic and abstract, borrowed from the worst bins of sociology. This specialized language betrays a mechanized and largely dehumanized approach to learning. It’s also mostly stupid in the way that jargon always tends to be stupid, replacing clear and concrete ideas with numbingly pretentious abstractions designed, it seems, to make what is obvious seem more profound and/or scientific. Go to a meeting or a conference of “educators,” and you’re going to hear words and phrases as soul depleting as these: criterion check, differentiated instruction, constructivism, extrinsic motivation, formative evaluation, standards-based teaching, summative evaluation, verbal-linguistic intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, manipulatives, attitudinal assessment, and cooperative learning.

This sort of language issues from the graduate-level courses in education teachers or would-be teachers are usually required to take in order to earn credentials. Few people in their right minds would take such content-free courses by choice, of course, but administrator wannabes flock to them, nonetheless. Perhaps you’ve heard that old joke that makes the claim that PhD stands for “piled higher and deeper.” When it comes to education as an academic discipline, that ain’t no joke.

So, if you’re looking for what defines good teaching, the last place you’re likely to find such a definition is where good teaching goes to die.


When I was a junior in high school, my English class was assigned to read The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s early 20th century novel about working conditions in the Chicago stockyards and meatpacking plants that galvanized public opinions in ways that ultimately lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. We also read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, and poetry by Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Shakespeare. This was not an honor’s class, I hasten to add. If it had been, I wouldn’t have been in it because both my grades and my attitude precluded my presence in such a class. I also read the James Joyce story, “The Dead,” that year, as beautiful a piece of prose as I would ever come across in the half century that was to follow. Miss Luebbing, the woman who taught that class, instilled in me a love of reading that would reward me through all of my days after high school, an invaluable gift. Would I have developed the habit of reading had it not been for the stroke of luck that put me in a room with such a teacher? Perhaps. But I know far too many people whose curiosity or love of reading were killed off at the hands of bad teachers to take away any credit away from Ms. Luebbing for the joys I’ve since found between the pages of books.

In the years since I sat in her classroom, I’ve taught college-level English to a couple generations of high school graduates. With each succeeding year, I’ve seen fewer and fewer of them who enter college having read anything as challenging–or as interesting–as that old Upton Sinclair novel, let alone Shakespeare or James Joyce. Many of my students over those years told me that they’d never been required to read a novel throughout their high school years, and some of them bragged of having gotten their diploma without ever having cracked a book at all.

I took a look at Emerson’s essays as I was getting ready to write this little piece, and I also dipped back into The Jungle for a few pages, and I know from experience that the sort of vocabulary found in those texts would confound most college students these days, in part because what they have been asked to read has generally been dumbed down with readability formulas that expunge any vocabulary that is likely to be unfamiliar. And, because it has been expunged from what students are asked to read, it remains unfamiliar.

I’m certain that back when Miss Luebbing was exposing her students to the thoughts of a man then thought to be one of America’s thinkers, much of that vocabulary I encountered was unfamiliar to me, too. But, as I did the work that learning requires, some of those unfamiliar words adhered to me, enlarged my ability to understand things, and broadened by capacity for further learning.

There are, I have no doubt, teachers like Ms. Luebbing in schools across America, though people as inspiring as she was will always be exceptional. But everything I read, see, or hear from students convinces me that it is more difficult than ever for the really exceptional teachers to challenge students in the way Ms. Luebbing challenged–and changed–me.



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