Once upon a time, I taught the same subject in the same grade in the same district as a brand new first year teacher. This teacher was fresh out of student teaching with one of the best veteran teachers around, and a couple of schools actually fought over who would get to have him. The school that won was overjoyed.
Unfortunately, this teacher quickly found himself in over his head with a middle school math classroom of his own. It turned out that he actually knew very little about math, and couldn’t do fundamental things like make a table from an equation or multiply fractions. His confusion at the content meant that he was lost in curriculum and couldn’t even string his way through a textbook. His unit plans would jump from one idea to another and then back to the first idea in ways that had no logic, and his daily lessons were mind-bogglingly confusing. Combine that with a desperate need for the kids to think he was cool, an immediate willingness to undermine other teachers or make fun of his colleagues to get the kids on his side, and worse-than-normal first year classroom management, and I’m sure you can imagine what that room was like. It was an absolute disaster zone.
It didn’t take long for him to decide that he wanted the kids to like him more than he wanted them to get an education. It also didn’t take him long to realize that teaching was hard and he wasn’t going to attempt the work required to get better because no one could really do anything about it. It didn’t take anyone long to realize he shouldn’t be working there. And that’s the point when he came to me.
I started giving him everything, from materials to sit-down time together explaining the math. He wasn’t especially interested in learning, but he would sit with me long enough to indulge my explanations and then run off. His classroom remained a crazy place (materials alone won’t save you), but at least the kids who wanted to learn had something to do. At least he could stand in front of the room and say something. At least there was some learning going on.
Now administration at his school was great, and they were very clear that a teacher who couldn’t manage kids, didn’t know basic math, and wasn’t trying to improve was not someone they wanted on that team. If you’d met this guy, there was no way you would disagree with them. Unfortunately, there was no easy way for them to get rid of even the Worst Teacher Ever. They had to give extensive proof that he was doing a bad job just to put him on an Improvement Plan, and then they had to wait a few months, and then give extensive proof that he wasn’t showing growth. It’s a huge amount of work on an administrator and little work on the teacher. In the end, the best they were going to get was a non-renewal of his contract for the following year. If they slipped on any detail of the process, they’d have to start all over and probably end up having to let him stay.
Tragically, no one trusts principals enough to just let them say, “This teacher is destroying students’ educations and our school culture and needs to get out.” They have to prove it first, and they can’t prove it if the teacher has a basic level of functioning in his classroom. This teacher had all of my materials every day, which were actually pretty good. Even though everyone knew they weren’t coming from him, they couldn’t prove how bad he was if my photocopies were sitting in front of his kids. So my administration had to weigh a horrible decision: Either cut off the one resource that was letting those kids learn anything, or be unable to get rid of a teacher who could keep doing a terrible job for years and years. It’s a decision I don’t envy anyone, but can you blame them? They chose the former. He and I were no longer allowed to share resources.
Without the easy access to materials, he stopped trying at all. He would literally put a slide up on the board and give the kids this direction, “You can hang out and do whatever you want, as long as you pretend to be working if anyone walks in.” Any kid in any of his classes would tell you that was happening every day, and even the administrators were aware of it. But there was nothing they could do faster than they were doing – he went on the Improvement Plan, and everyone just had to wait it out. He finally quit without notice, and the long-term sub at least tried to make the kids get work done. The fresh-out-of-college teacher they hired to finish the year had her struggles, but was a major improvement and worked really hard for those kids.
This story infuriates me for so many reasons. Why couldn’t admin immediately get rid of someone so horrible? Why do we have a system that allows teachers to literally do nothing if they’re brave enough and heartless enough to take advantage? Why can’t people trust the judgment of administrators, so he could have kept using my materials and the kids could have kept learning something while he still went through the improvement plan process? Why are so few people aware that in our most struggling schools, where the kids need great teaching most, this type of thing is not unheard of?
I am NOT saying that this is common in teaching. Most teachers are great, hardworking people who want the best for their kids. Even if they struggle, they are trying to improve and they are worth keeping in the classroom. Struggling teachers need help and support, and improvement plans can work well for them if they want to get better. But I AM saying that this does happen, and I think it’s important that people are aware of this when they try to talk about teacher protection policies. When I write things like “I don’t think it should be so easy to keep a job as a teacher” and people start roaring in fury about what a horrible person I am, I generally assume they are just lucky enough to work in a place where all the teachers are at least decent.
So before you start commenting about how I’m a heartless witch for wanting principals to have dramatically more authority in hiring and firing teachers, please re-read the story above and try to understand where I’m coming from. Be grateful that you’ve only known good teachers, but realize that there are too many kids in this country who are not so lucky. That’s all I ask.