The Ugly “Good Teacher” Discussion Few Are Confronting

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

Matthew 25:40

The gold standard, I think, for thinking about education reform and more narrow concerns such as teacher quality is the complex and confrontational approach of Lisa Delpit, who anchors her perspective with how we teach and treat “other people’s children”—black and brown children, impoverished children.

And from that perspective we have the ugly “good teacher” discussion few are willing to confront: Vulnerable populations of children and their families are where and how we experiment with education, where and how we adopt policies and practices no affluent and white families would tolerate for their children: Teach For America, “no excuses,” zero tolerance.

High-poverty and majority-minority schools are burdened not just with social inequity hurdles but also with systemic and often unspoken practices that include having incredibly high teacher turn over because these “problem” schools are entry points for teachers to find “better” jobs (see Teachers at Low-Income Schools Deserve Respect).

Just as insidious is the systemic and often unspoken practice in all schools that “low-level” classes of students are assigned new teachers, who must endure those populations of students until they can have the “good” classes within that school.

These ugly practices grounded in racism and classism are at the root of why advocates for education reform who focus on race and class remain mostly dissatisfied with both sides of the mainstream education reform debate.

The edu-reformers are all-in on race and class tone-deaf practices—TFA, “no excuses,” zero tolerance—but the advocates for public education and progressive reform have failed to admit how the traditional public school system has historically failed “other people’s children” through the wink-wink-nod-nod approach to assigning teachers.

Too often, teachers are complicit in and fail to confront the system that marginalizes vulnerable populations of students as collateral damage of teacher advancement.

During my 18 years of public school teaching, even among teachers, the common sense attitude was that “good” teachers were assigned Advanced Placement, and teaching “low-level” classes was a negative commentary on the teacher’s ability. As department chair, I worked to assign each teacher a couple classes she/he requested, and then tried to balance every teacher’s load with a range of class levels and types.

While I was working on my dissertation, writing a biography of educator Lou LaBrant, I was profoundly struck by a point of irritation she expressed in her memoir. LaBrant noted that she had her best teachers in her doctoral program, at the end of her formal education, but that progression, she believed, is backward in that children need their best teachers in the beginning of formal education, not the end.

Our vulnerable populations of students must be served first in our public school system: assigned experienced and qualified teachers, placed in classes with low teacher/student ratios, guaranteed access to the most challenging courses and curriculums, and promised safe, diverse schools with equitable, supportive disciplinary practices.

Everything else is a distraction from what truly matters.

8 thoughts on “The Ugly “Good Teacher” Discussion Few Are Confronting

  1. “As department chair, I worked to assign each teacher a couple classes she/he requested, and then tried to balance every teacher’s load with a range of class levels and types.”

    I taught science for 18 years at a Highly rated Chicago suburban High School. The most enjoyable years were when I had mostly honors level classes. The most satisfying years were when I had “regular” and lower level classes and was successful. I had much more success in teaching lower level classes after I had gained several years experience. However it is true that I taught more low level classes during my first years as a teacher and more honors classes after gaining seniority. There were only a few years when my department chair strictly followed the policy in the quote above. I wish that more schools and Department chairs would follow that policy. How can we make that happen?

  2. Great point, well made. I have taught in Scottish state schools for over 35 years, most of that time in areas of ‘social deprivation’, and the practices you outline above are broadly similar here. However, I have worked in some departments where the ‘good’ and ‘lower ability’ classes were evenly spread, which is much better for the pupils.

  3. I feel like this post gets things backwards. Yes, there are inherent inequalities in the way teachers are assigned in many cases, but to make the assumption that it is the teachers themselves to blame is wrong and feeds into the “teachers are the problem” narrative. The way our system is set up means working conditions are harder-so much harder!-working with low-income and minority populations, whether within a school or in completely segregated schools. It’s not crazy for teachers who want to survive long-term in this system to seek out less demanding, better-resourced positions where they are given more autonomy and treated with more respect. The issue, therefore, is why can’t teachers working with low-income students of color get those same kind of working conditions??

    And even with that being said, there always have been teachers willing and wanting to work in more challenging teaching environments, but thanks to the neoliberal edreform of the past few decades, are being completely pushed out. I work in an elementary school on the southside of Chicago in a high poverty, African-American community. More that 75% of our staff are Black educators and workers, many of them veterans in the system, yet almost every person in our school is looking for a way out. We have far more pressure on us in terms of test scores, evaluations, lack of resources, hyper- micromanaging, and strictly-enforced mandates all coupled with much harder behaviors due to the concentrations of kids suffering from the traumas of poverty, racism, and violence. I am so tired from working 12 hours days and never being caught up all while being blamed for the ills of society. My job is harder than other teachers’ jobs.

    If we want to right these problems, we cannot ask teachers to be martyrs working in untenable situations. I worked for many years teaching on a child/adolescent psychiatric unit. I watched as any form of social safety net was torn down, the mental health system privatized and dismantled, and kids are showing up to school with severe mental health trauma. We would discharge kids all the time with truly unbelievably severe mental health conditions straight back into some unsuspecting teacher’s classroom, as in the very next day! All the step-down systems that might have buffered the transition have been destroyed.

    I’m tired of this “both sides are wrong” nonsense. Teachers weren’t fighting these things for decades because guess what, NO ONE was out there fighting. We were in a time where social movements of the 60s & 70s had died, and there was no mass resistance happening anywhere. So people navigated those bad systems the best they could. That is starting to change. I’m in the CTU where we ARE taking up these social justice issues. But I would never blame a member of my union for seeking out a position that was not soul-crushing. The edreform crowd is on the other side. They are worsening the problems of racism, of privatization, of the impact of neoliberalism, of teacher retention. Fight them. Support teachers.

    • Just to be clear, and I think my work supports this, I am not arguing “both sides are wrong.” I reject the no excuses edreform totally, but have very high standards for, and am disappoint in, the progressive resistance, which must be willing to speak against the horrible edreform while also admitting and confronting the equity (race and class) failures of the historical system of education. I absolutely and regularly reject the “bad teacher” blaming as well.

      • Yes, your work does indeed support this-why I am a fan! But I have seen this rhetoric around the “failures of the historical system of education” creeping into the discourse over the past year or so coming from a number of sources as a way to disrupt organizing efforts among teachers. It’s not being used to inform and learn from, but as a neoliberal tactic to end resistance. It fuels the fire of attacks on teachers and their unions, especially when it’s aimed at individuals and not systems. Of course there are historical failures in the education system-our whole society is racist and unequal. I don’t know many people denying this, although I guess they exist.

        Yet, there is this undercurrent of “teachers are complicit” in the argument being made now as a way to harm teachers. Teachers who are already under massive attacks. And many of the people making these arguments do not want revolutionary change, they want the moralist high ground without challenging the comfort they get from this racist, unequal system. Often, they are the six-figure salary folks, the people deep in the non-profit industrial complex or out in our broken Academia system. It’s a tool of the Right and neoliberals. This is why I want to challenge and push back on the way this discourse is used-not to deny that there are historical inequalities.

        Not sure if I explained myself well…does that make sense?

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