Bad Teachers: A must-read report for every parent
By: Ronnie Polaneczky
Reprinted with permission from Redbook magazine, September 1997 issue.
Later published in Reader’s Digest, September 1999 issue
Hen Delynn Carrier’s 7-year-old son came home from his first day of second grade at Liberty Elementary School in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, complaining that his teacher was mean and grouchy, Carrier reassured him that he was probably taking his teacher’s comments the wrong way. “You know how kids are,” says Carrier, 32. “I figured she was strict and probably didn’t have the best personality for small children.” She became concerned, however, when, over the next three weeks, her son became increasingly upset each morning as he prepared to leave the house. “He’s always loved school,” she says. “First grade was great for him.” Then he began using rude, sarcastic language at home. “I said, ‘Hey, you know we don’t allow talk like that. Where are you getting it from?'” His answer: “My teacher says it in class.”
Puzzled, Carrier sat in on her son’s class one day, just to observe the relationship of the teacher to her students. “She seemed okay, but the class felt tense. My son told me later, ‘Mommy, she was only being nice because you were there. She makes kids cry.'” So adamant was he, that Carrier agreed to let him secretly tape-record his teacher with his Fisher-Price cassette recorder. Later that day, when she listened to the tape her son had made, Carrier felt sick to her stomach. “I was appalled,” she says, “to think my son and the other kids were enduring that kind of abuse every day.”
To one little girl, who Carrier’s son said was routinely taunted by the teacher, the teacher is heard saying, “You don’t have time to be playing at anybody’s desk…that’s probably why you can’t read very well…because you’ve been spending all your time messing around, bothering other people.”
As she attempts to do a math problem with the class, the teacher says, “You know, I could just sit down at my desk and just let you do this yourself, and there would be about eight of you out there at my desk going [whines] ‘I don’t know how to do this…’You’d miss every one of them because you can’t read, much less figure out what to do with numbers once you did read them.”
Later: “I can’t wait till next year when some of you get to third grade. I can’t wait. I’m gonna be checking on your grades…about half of you will be making Fs…because you won’t grow up. You don’t try anything on your own. You just sit there and wait for me to write it down. Duh!”
Carrier confronted the teacher in a face-to-face meeting, where the teacher implied that she was blowing things out of proportion. “Then I played the tape,” says Carrier. “Instead of being embarrassed that she’d been caught in a lie, she was furious that she’d been recorded in secret.”
But the principal, with whom Carrier met later, seemed stricken and agreed to move Carrier’s son to another classroom immediately.
That wasn’t enough for Carrier. “I said, ‘But what are you going to do about this teacher? She’s abusive and the other children shouldn’t be in her class, either.'”
When the teacher remained, Carrier took her complaint to the school superintendent, the school board, the state education commission, and, finally, the press. But, a year later, the teacher is still instructing second graders. (Although Sapulpa officials declined comment for this story, last fall Sapulpa schools superintendent Charles Dodson, Ed.D., told the local Sapulpa Daily Herald that the district had investigated Carrier’s complaints and had taken “appropriate action.” Confidentiality laws, however, prevented him from discussing what that might have been.) The Carriers eventually removed their two boys from the Sapulpa public school system altogether and placed them in private school, the tuition for which sorely strains the family income.
“I spent years with Liberty Elementary, working as a homeroom mom and volunteering for fund-raisers and carnivals. And most of my sons’ teachers were really good,” says a still-upset Carrier, who, to her amazement, ended up being vilified by many parents for holding the Sapulpa school district’s feet to the fire. “But I couldn’t keep my children in a school that allows an employee like that teacher to stay on the job. However, just because we were able to remove our kids from an untenable situation doesn’t mean I don’t worry about the children who are still being subjected to that teacher’s disrespect. Why is she still there? Why can’t they get rid of her?”
“A FEW BAD APPLES”?
Bad or incompetent teachers may be verbally or even physically abusive. They may not know the subject matter, or be unable to communicate it. They may be incapable of running an orderly class or may be lazy or burned out. But whatever a teacher’s particular sin or shortcoming, he or she will probably never be fired.
For that, a bad teacher can thank tenure laws negotiated by powerful teachers’ unions. (There are two national unions representing teachers in the U.S., the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The NEA is the bigger and more powerful.) While tenure doesn’t actually guarantee a teacher a job for life, it does make the conditions for dismissal–including lengthy documentation, reviews, and appeals–incredibly costly and time-consuming.
As a new generation ushers their children through school, teacher competence and tenure have become hot issues today. At least 23 state legislatures have grappled with it in the past two years alone.
But powerful forces are at work to preserve the status quo. Union-backed politicians block legislative attempts at real reform in teacher certification and tenure. Teachers’ unions battle tooth and nail to protect jobs, no matter how egregious an accusation against a member. School principals look the other way rather than face the fight and budget drain of trying to fire a teacher. Parents deny the problem or simply keep quiet for fear of having their child targeted by a vengeful teacher.
And schoolchildren live with the result. A study by researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville found that students who have just one bad teacher get lower test scores two years later than do comparable students who had solid teachers. Other results of poor teaching may include low self-esteem, bad grades, and lack of interest in education.
How big is the problem? Since no national statistics on teacher competence are kept, most opinions are anecdotal. NEA president Bob Chase characterizes it as a matter of “a few bad apples” among the 2.6 million U.S. teachers. But Mary Jo McGrath, a Santa Barbara, California, attorney who specializes in helping schools terminate bad teachers, puts the number at about 18 percent of all teachers, based on her own survey of 50,000 administrators nationwide.
Even if the percentage of incompetent teachers is closer to 5 percent, writes Stanford University education professor Edwin Bridges, Ph.D., in his book The Incompetent Teacher, “the number [of students] being taught by these teachers exceeds the total combined public school enrollments in 14 states: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. The large number of students who are being shortchanged each year by incompetent teachers underscores the importance and seriousness of this problem.”
Heartbreakingly, the youngest children may be most at risk because when they complain, as Carrier’s son did, their observations are often dismissed as unreliable. “Some of the most incompetent teachers are working in the lower grades, because they can get away with lousy behavior in front of small children,” says Saul Cooperman, Ed.D., former commissioner of education for the state of New Jersey and author of How Schools Really Work: Practical Advice for Parents from an Insider.
BEHIND THE CLASSROOM DOOR
Nationwide, stories abound about teachers whose behavior ranges from lousy to frightening. A handful of real-life examples include:
- Alice Collier, a Jacksonville, Florida, second grade teacher who was suspended for, among other things, allegedly pulling her students’ hair and bruising their arms. According to The St. Petersburg Times, she reportedly told a child, “I might as well punch you and get fired.”
- Two cases in Philadelphia, in which at least three-quarters of the entire teaching staffs from Olney High School (where fewer than 3 percent of students were reading at even the basic grade level) and Charles Audenried High School (where fewer than 2 percent of students performed at the basic level in math) were transferred for failing to improve student performance. The local teachers’ union has strongly protested the transfers and filed a lawsuit.
- A San Francisco teacher who would place her 6-year-old students in a trash can, close the lid, then kick the can. She was finally brought up on criminal charges when a fellow teacher caught her threatening to cut off a child’s “private parts” with a pair of scissors. “This teacher was thought highly of because her class was always so well-behaved,” says Mary Jo McGrath. “The students were basically terrorized into behaving.” The woman was able to find another teaching job while she appealed her ultimate dismissal.
- A Nebraska shop teacher who was selling the furniture his students made in class and keeping the money. “The kids were having all kinds of accidents in the shop class because they were unsupervised half the time,” says McGrath, whose firm, McGrath Systems, consulted on the termination for the teacher’s school district.
Less dramatic, but much more common, is the bad teacher who simply can’t teach her class the information or skills they need at their grade level. That’s the experience Rosemary Earl*, 39, an Indiana mother of two, had with her daughter’s third grade teacher.
Earl and her husband had moved to their town in large part because of the school system’s good reputation. “My daughter’s first grade teacher was great, and her second grade teacher was very good.” But her third grade teacher, a 20-year veteran we’ll call Mrs. Henderson, appeared disorganized and scattered. “She sent home work assignments with misspelled instructions, presented parents with curriculum outlines scribbled on ripped loose-leaf paper, and let weeks pass before inspecting and grading homework–if she ever got to it at all,” says Earl. The teacher was good-natured and seemed to like children. But Earl could see that her daughter’s reading and math skills were barely progressing.
After a series of misunderstandings about homework assignments, Earl finally arranged a meeting with Henderson and the principal to discuss her concerns. Earl found the teacher’s behavior during the meeting disturbing: She was nervous, distracted, prone to bizarre flights of thought that had nothing to do with what the three of them were discussing. “The principal had to keep her focused,” says Earl. “It was like we were talking to a child.”
The principal was patient and understanding as the three of them worked out a plan to have Henderson communicate more clearly with Earl’s daughter about assignments. But Earl also had the sense that the principal had run interference for Henderson before. She later learned, through talks with other parents, that Henderson’s incompetence had been an issue for years and that parents who were plugged into the school grapevine knew enough to request a different third grade teacher for their children. The students assigned to Henderson’s class tended to be new kids in town, oldest children, and others whose parents hadn’t known enough to request another teacher.
In addition, one insider told Earl that school officials had placed her daughter in Henderson’s class because she was a smart and resilient child, “someone who can learn on her own.” Kids who needed more focused instruction were placed with better teachers.
“The teachers know she’s bad, the principal knows she’s bad, but instead of getting rid of her the school has organized its system around her,” says Earl, amazed.
A teacher like Henderson can bumble on for years before being confronted, because most of her work takes place away from the eyes of parents and administrators: When teachers close the classroom door, they’re on their own. Says Maureen DiMarco, former education secretary for the state of California, “If a principal isn’t regularly observing his teachers, he can’t build a case against a bad one. So bad teachers can remain in the classroom for years.”
When parents like Rosemary Earl do complain about miserable teachers, says Victor John Yannacone Jr., an attorney, activist, and former Patchogue-Medford, Long Island, school board member who has also served as legal counsel to other New York State school boards, “The classic response is to placate them for a year, until they can move on to a teacher who’s better; then they quiet down and go away. The next year, the newest round of unsuspecting parents comes along and the cycle starts all over again.”
How can terrible teachers like Henderson coexist alongside outstanding teachers in the same school? Because, overwhelmingly, the salary-and-compensation packages negotiated by the unions are based more on a teacher’s time spent in the system than on individual merit, says Dr. Cooperman. “There is no incentive for a bad teacher to improve and no reward for a good teacher’s dedication. So parents have to hope that their child will get a teacher who cares enough about teaching on its own merits to do a good job.”
THE PROBLEM WITH TENURE
When stories like the ones above circulate among concerned parents, fingers are usually pointed at the teachers’ unions, which have been credited over the years with helping teachers get better pay and working conditions. No one would argue that such improvements weren’t due, says Lou Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, which is supporting tenure-reform legislation in that state. “Teachers used to be underpaid and overworked. Things needed to change.”
Tenure became an issue mandated by state law. Tenure in this context means that teachers, after a certain number of years on the job (usually three to five), are guaranteed due process in matters of discipline–they cannot be dismissed without documented evidence of a transgression, academic or otherwise, and they are given ample opportunity for improvement. It prevents abuses such as a teacher being fired for holding unpopular political positions or having an idiosyncratic teaching style.
“There was a time when tenure made sense,” says Grumet. “Teachers, like people in a lot of other professions, quite frankly, were poorly paid and dismissed at whim. Now, though, all citizens have civil rights protection against firings based on sex, race, color, creed, or exercise of free speech. At this point, all tenure does is protect jobs at all costs.”
Take the case of Bob Kirk,* who has been collecting a teacher’s salary for almost a year and accruing benefits, even though he has not taught a day in that time. Kirk’s principal assembled a three-year file documenting charges that the Long Island teacher was frequently late, absent, and verbally abusive to students. He has also been charged with unsatisfactory teaching. The school board moved to dismiss him several years ago. Kirk appealed to his union, which provided him an attorney to fight the charges. Since then, the case has been tied up in administrative proceedings, and Kirk spends his days doing work assigned to him by the head of his department (though not working with students.)
“This case has cost the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, substitute teachers, and benefits for this guy,” says Yannacone, who was chairman of the school board committee that recommended going ahead with the proceedings against Kirk. “That’s why we have to get rid of tenure.”
But efforts to reform tenure laws are met with mighty resistance by the teachers’ unions, as are moves to improve standards for teacher certification. “I have been personally attacked, called a ‘teacher basher’ and ‘antichild’ because I introduced legislation that would replace tenure with renewable contracts and require that all teachers be competent in reading, writing, math, and the discipline in which they teach,” says New Hampshire state senator Jim Rubens, chair of his state’s senate education committee.
Likewise, New York legislators have been lambasted by the teachers’ unions for introducing laws that would abolish lifetime certification for teachers and force them to renew their licenses every three years. In Rhode Island, a proposed law that would require all teachers to take courses to stay current in their fields of interest was softened, after the state’s union intervened, to affect only those teachers entering the profession after April 30 of this year.
“Politicians who try to take on the unions put their careers at stake,” says Rubens. Look what happened to Bob Dole. Dole, of course, made headlines when, in accepting the Republican party’s nomination for the presidency in 1996, he declared that if elected he would wage war on the teachers’ unions.
THE UNTAPPED POWER OF PARENTS
Tenured teachers can be dismissed, but only with thorough proof of their incompetence. Building a “thorough” case, however, takes an enormous amount of a principal’s time: dozens of documented visits to the bad teacher’s classroom over at least a one-year period (and oftentimes several more years); a collection of complaints from parents willing to go on record as being dissatisfied; corroboration from other teachers, who risk the wrath of their colleagues for turning on a fellow teacher; and anecdotes and evidence of poor performance from students. “For a principal, it can seem a lot easier to hang on to the dead wood,” says McGrath. “But in the long run, it’s not. Keeping bad teachers demoralizes the good ones.”
Even so, it’s the rare principal who can find the will to take action without prodding from indignant parents. But too often parents are key players in the whole scenario that keeps bad teachers in place.
When Delynn Carrier took her complaint about her son’s abusive teacher to the local media, she was hurt by the reaction of many in the town of Sapulpa. “No one wanted to believe that this teacher was a problem,” she says. “I think they were more upset that my son had secretly tape-recorded his teacher than they were with what the teacher was saying. They don’t want to think that anything could possibly be wrong with our school.”
Rosemary Earl, too, has noticed that a crippling boosterism exists on the part of many parents in her neighborhood who, having relocated there for the good schools, do not want to admit that their schools are anything but the best. “A friend of mine was elected to the school board and she was really advocating for change–higher standards, more accountability, teaching foreign languages earlier. These were things that I thought any parent would want for their kids, but she’s regarded as a pariah. Everyone wants to believe that they made the right decision to move here, so when she pushes for improvements, it flies in the face of what parents thought was true. Rather than acknowledge that there are discrepancies, they’ll turn their heads.”
And then there are well-meaning parents who will complain to a principal but then refuse to allow their complaints to be put into writing or into the teacher’s file, for fear their child will be targeted by the teacher. “That’s a critical mistake parents make,” says McGrath. “In dismissal cases, parent and student complaints are given a lot of weight because they’re considered a good barometer of the teacher’s day-to-day performance.
And parents never know–a principal may be trying to build a dismissal case against a bad teacher, but confidentiality laws prevent them from sharing that with parents. Either way, to make a dismissal stick, a principal needs solid documentation from parents.”
And, at this point, says Victor Yannacone, parents may be the only ones who have any credibility when it comes to pushing for fundamental changes in our educational system, because they’re the only ones who truly have the interests of children at heart. “Unions fight for teachers’ jobs. Politicians fight for the unions’ financial support. Principals may be too discouraged or lazy to try to get rid of a bad teacher,” he says. “When the parents of this country unite just as fiercely for change in the schools as they would for safe streets for their kids, then the system will change.”
Parents can do that by stumping for legislators who are not beholden to the powerful “status quo” unions. They can do it by joining with other parents to force a weak principal to do the hard work of getting rid of a bad teacher. They can vote out lackadaisical school boards that don’t have the will to fight truly egregious cases. They can let their politicians know they’ll vote them out if they don’t work for tenure reform and improved standards for teachers. “The only way the system will change is for parents to become as strong as the forces they routinely come up against,” says Dr. Cooperman. “It can be done. The best schools are the ones where the parents scream and yell so long and loudly that the system has no choice but to change.”
But parents who have dealt with bad teachers all seem to agree on one thing: Your effectiveness during such times of crisis will have a lot to do with how involved you were in your child’s education before the teacher problem cropped up.
“Education, at its most basic, is the business of relationships, and that’s why we advocate developing a relationship with your children’s school at the very outset of their education,” says Kelly Butler, executive director of Parents for Public Schools, a Jackson, Mississippi-based nonprofit organization with 50 nationwide chapters that helps parents, teachers, and school communities find new ways to work together. “I think that, too many times, we tend to think of education as simply a business enterprise, and that’s how problems can get caught up in bureaucracy–the system becomes very impersonal. But if you are known as a parent who takes time to be interested in the school as a whole, as someone who is aware and sensitive to the enormous burdens that teachers face, you will have an easier time finding a receptive audience if a problem does arise.”
You can establish that involvement from the start by meeting with your child’s teacher in the first week of the school year, if not sooner, and asking to see a lesson plan for the year, asking what support the teacher needs from you. In short, you need to make it clear that you expect to be as integral a part of your children’s learning process as the books that will be used to teach them.
The time has never been more ripe for your involvement. We have a president who, pushing for more accountability in education through rigorous standards and testing, is creating a groundswell of support beneath him. Even the unions, in some areas, are getting on board. In Florida, for example, a law was recently passed that reduces from one or more years to 90 days the time teachers have to improve their performance before they can be fired, among shortest periods in the nation.
Contends NEA president Chase, “I think everyone realizes that educated minds are not easy to achieve–it takes a lot of input from teachers, schools, communities, and parents. We can no longer afford the adversarial relationships that have existed for too long between teachers and schools.”
So if you’re pleased with your child’s education, now is the best time to get involved. Consider the time spent an investment. You never know–an incompetent teacher could be just a semester away.
*Names and some identifying details changed.
HOW TO TAKE ACTION
1. ACT IMMEDIATELY. “Don’t wait until midway through the semester,” advises Saul Cooperman, Ed.D., White House-appointed chair of the Education Advisory panel of the New American Schools Development Corporation. “If you do, the teacher or principal may try to persuade you that, since the year is almost halfway over, why not hang in there till the end of the school year? That’s not good enough.” 2. FIRST, SPEAK DIRECTLY TO YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER ABOUT YOUR SPECIFIC CONCERNS. If you don’t see immediate improvement, schedule a meeting with the principal. Put your complaints in writing and attach any materials–misspelled homework assignments, for example–that will document your allegations. “If you don’t put your complaints in writing, the teacher’s union rep will say that parental complaints are only hearsay,” advises attorney Mary Jo McGrath. 3. ASK OTHER PARENTS TO JOIN YOU. There’s power in numbers. “A principal confronted by a dozen disgruntled parents will feel greater pressure to take definitive action,” says Dr. Cooperman. 4. IF YOU SUSPECT RETRIBUTION AGAINST YOUR CHILD, PUT IT IN WRITING, McGrath advises–although, to her knowledge, such retribution is rare. “Bad teachers know that outright retaliation is highly visible and can be documented.” 5. INSIST ON A TRANSFER TO ANOTHER CLASS if you don’t see immediate improvement. “Many parents are placated by principals who say, ‘Well, let’s give Mr. So-and-so a chance; we’re sending him for training in how to better control a classroom,'” says Dr. Cooperman. “But your child needs a better teacher right now.” 6. IF YOU’RE STILL NOT SATISFIED, MEET WITH THE SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT. Send a packet of your documentation to him and to school board members as well, just in case there is a political alliance between the principal and the superintendent that might impede progress.
In short, be a screeching wheel. If you don’t advocate for your child, no one else will either. The system will make sure of that. –R.P.
Let Us Hear from You!
If your child is in public school, how do you rate the quality of teaching he or she has had? Has your child ever had a teacher you felt was incompetent? What action, if any, did you take to improve the situation? Write to TEACHERS, c/o Redbook, 224 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, or fax us at 212-247- 1086. Address E-mail to email@example.com.
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