Can We Retire the Bad Teacher Narrative Already?

This article was submitted by Becca Leech, a Tennessee teacher with more than 20 years of experience. Read more about her here.

There’s an old story that goes something like this: American schools are in trouble. Our students lag so horribly behind the rest of the world academically that soon we won’t be able to keep pace. And why? Because our schools are full of bad teachers: lazy, mean, stupid teachers who don’t care about students and just want a cushy job where they have summers off. Unions protect these bad teachers so that schools can’t fire them and replace them with better ones, so our schools have become permeated with useless teachers who ruin the whole system and hold our students down.

I’ve taught special education in public schools since 1993, from inner-city Nashville to suburban Murfreesboro to rural McMinnville and, while every school has a few ineffective teachers, most of the teachers I have worked with have been smart, dedicated, and hard-working. These teachers continue to work every day to improve our schools, despite the demoralizing wounds of repeated volleys of the “bad teacher” narrative, so easily lobbed at us by the media, parents, students, and administrators. Last week, I even read it repeated by (of all people) a fellow special educator, in (of all places) this blog that I believed to be pro education – the Tennessee Education Report. Here is what Zack Barnes wrote:

“I am a special education teacher at a North Nashville middle school. Our fifth graders come into fifth grade already behind. It’s our job to catch them up during the middle school years before we send them off to high school. That shows me that we have dropped the ball along the way to middle school. We have come to a point where it’s okay that students come in to middle school behind. That shouldn’t be okay.

There are bad teachers and they should not be in the classroom. There isn’t more I can say about this. Every career field has bad workers, and the teaching profession is no different.”

This from a teacher who has been hired for the sole purpose of helping students with disabilities. When he accepted his position, was he unaware that students are only referred for our special education services when they have academic delays that cannot be addressed by the general curriculum? Was he unaware that student achievement, like all other human characteristics, spans a broad spectrum?

Our job as special education teachers is to accept the students referred to us – all of them, as they are – to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and to develop and implement appropriate educational plans to help them all learn. It’s not our job, and is counterproductive for our schools, to look for someone to blame for student delays. We don’t blame the persistence of illness in our communities on the bad doctors (although we know that some exist), so how do we find it so easy to blame all academic delays on bad teachers?


The Origins of the Narrative

Most of us were once students, and teachers were the face of the educational system to us. We experienced schools and teachers through immature eyes and often developed misperceptions of the roles and motivations of the teachers who taught us. Students who didn’t have good school experiences often caricaturized teachers as mean task-masters who didn’t like kids and just wanted to make them work hard or get them into trouble. Although it was often the structural problems with our educational system that we found frustrating or unfair as students – problems that were at least equally frustrating for our teachers – it was the teachers we saw as the cause. It’s easy for those who want to undermine public education for political or personal gain to play on these unconscious prejudices and transfer the problems with our educational structure directly into the laps of teachers as individuals.


In recent years, there has been a growing effort underway to undermine public education for just such purposes, and it is taking the form of a direct attack on teachers. The documentary Waiting for Superman brought the “bad teacher” narrative into our public consciousness. Politicians and news commentators have repeated the story as fact, ignoring all evidence offered against it. I have only recently begun to hear a backlash – teachers, parents, and students stepping forward to question the truth and usefulness of the tale.


How the “Bad Teacher” Narrative is Harming Education

The narrative of the bad teacher diminishes respect for the profession of teaching and gives ammunition to those working to decrease job security and protections for teachers. With less respect and job security, our schools have even more difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers. We have recently seen an increase in the number of experienced teachers leaving the profession and a decrease in applicants to new teacher education programs. In fact, many of these teachers and would-be teachers cite the lack of respect and poor job security as reasons for staying away from the classroom. When schools don’t have a pool of strong applicants to fill teaching vacancies, they must resort to hiring unqualified or less qualified candidates. This situation creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where students are more likely to fall behind, and critics find even more examples of “bad teachers” to further blame and diminish teaching.


Our Responsibility as a Community

It is true that there are some ineffective teachers among us and some teacher training programs that are not adequately preparing teachers for the classroom, but blame, judgement, and punitive accountability measures are not the answers. Most of the ineffective teachers I have taught with were either new teachers who needed more on-the-job guidance and mentoring from experienced teachers, or were teachers who had once been dedicated to their craft, but were now exhausted and weakened by the difficult environments they taught in and felt powerless to change.


There is no time in our school schedules to provide the support, mentoring, and quality training to help teachers in these situations to improve. Our school systems must find ways to make more non-teaching time in our school day for teachers to collaborate and support one another. Opportunities for teacher creativity, growth, and leadership will also raise teacher quality and improve working conditions.


To make real change, we must recognize that the problems with education are much broader than simply problems of teacher quality. We have to address poverty and inequality as the greatest challenges to education. We have to reorganize our funding structures to provide environments that attract and retain teachers. Most importantly, though, our communities must recognize teachers as the experts who can provide solutions for our schools – not the problems to be solved. If we are to improve the overall quality of education, we, as individuals and as a community, have a responsibility to support and defend the profession of teaching.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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6 thoughts on “Can We Retire the Bad Teacher Narrative Already?

  1. I wasn’t talking about special education children coming in behind. We have come to a point when an entire grade level is behind, we are okay with that. We shouldn’t be. A whole grade level, which comes from different elementary schools, shouldn’t be coming in behind.

    You also agree with me! There are such things are bad teachers.

    • I’m sorry if I misread your intentions. I did read your post closely several times before commenting. Whether you are talking about your special education students or the whole grade level, though, I think it is counterproductive to blame anyone for any student delays. We need to seek solutions – not blame.
      If you think I am agreeing that it is appropriate to lay blame for educational delays on “bad teachers” then you should re-read the article. I clearly say that some teachers need more support and opportunity for growth, but that most teachers are doing a great job.

      • I believe you have misread my intentions (or I wasn’t clear enough) and made me out to be a bad special educator. I understand how special education works. To write that I do not is inconsiderate and not based on any facts.

        The only way we are able to solve the problems of hundreds of students coming in behind (each and every year) is to talk about it openly. We have dropped the ball is saying that we need a solution to this problem. Dropping the ball isn’t just teachers. It could be how schools are set up, if there are enough social workers, if schools are overcrowded, or if we are actually using evidence based instruction in elementary school. That’s all listed under dropping the ball. I was listing my thoughts, the two paragraphs (between dropping the ball and bad teachers) weren’t connected.

        And I mention the bad educators, not because I believe there is a large subset of bad teachers, but because I have worked with them. People, just as yourself, get so upset when someone says there are bad educators. That’s a true statement. If it’s just one person, that’s a bad educator. I worked with one this year who was not asked to come back. The teacher’s students suffered for a year because of it (and this wasn’t a new teacher). To get upset because of one sentence, that I hope you agree with, “Bad teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom.” If a teacher refuses to take advice, support or show growth, that person should not be in the classroom. Can’t we agree with that statement?

        As a public school student (from K – PhD) and a public school teacher, I am no way trying to destroy public education because in a list of thoughts on my first year teaching I wrote a few sentences about bad teachers.

        • I don’t think you are trying to destroy public education or are a bad teacher yourself. My point is that the bad teacher narrative has become such an easy go-to, and is such a part of our collective psyche, that even a special education teacher falls into the trap of using it as the first explanation of student delay.

          This is not a personal attack against you. It is against the prevalence of a narrative that has become so embedded in our education debate, and was purposely planted by those interested in distracting us from real solutions.

  2. Students are often delayed before they come to school then at school teachers are not allowed to hold them accountable for learning or any behavior. This applies to good and bad teachers alike and the general public as well as administrators blame teachers. There are so few bad teachers that they warrant very little attention. The problem is our culture compounded by poverty.

  3. The attrition rate reveals where the so-called bad and/or burned and stressed out teachers go. The defense against a bad teacher is the children. A teacher who can’t teach/manage a class will be driven out by the kids. I’ve seen it happen. Children have a second sense when it comes to sniffing out incompetent teachers and then the gloves come off.

    That probably explains these attribution rates for each of three different teacher training programs:

    14% for teachers who go through an urban residency training program with a master teacher are gone without four years—that means 86% are still teaching in inner city schools where most of the poverty and the at-risk children are located four/five years later.

    In the first five years, there is almost a 50% attrition rate for teachers who go through traditional teacher training programs.

    I saved the best for last.

    The two year attrition rate for TFA recruits is more than 60% but it is arguable that it is closer to 97%, because Dana Goldstein documented sources in her book “The Teacher Wars” that revealed that of the one third of TFA recruits that stay in teaching beyond the first two years, only 3% stay in the schools where they were mostly needed. The rest transferred to schools in affluent communities–schools that had little or not poverty and fewer challenges for teachers.

    Where do many of these TFA teacher recruits who abandoned teaching go after they leave? Surprise, many of these bad TFA teachers go into administration to manage the public schools or run corporate Charters.

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