Are Teachers to Blame?

Feb 24, 2016

Photo credit: Jupiterimages via Getty Images

By Melanie Fine

I’ll admit it. I’m first in line to fault teachers — English teachers all the more so — on poor grammar, written or verbal, poor spelling, and lack of depth in their subject areas and breadth across others. I guess I got a little of the “teachers are to blame” gene from my mom, who threw a massive fit when I told her, as I was finishing up my senior year at Cornell, that I wanted to take a year or so off from pursuing a medical degree to teach.

“We didn’t send you to Cornell so you could become a teacher!” she yelled over the phone, seeing her dreams for me crashing down all around her. But when I published my latest blog post on why students need to work hard to succeed in both comfortable and uncomfortable subject areas — namely math — I got a lot of teacher finger-pointing in response. “My teacher did me a disservice.” Teachers “ignored me.” My teachers “let me down.”

And I’ll also admit, I felt a little defensive. After all, I hear it every day from my own students. “You don’t teach us,” they mutter under their breath, or sometimes brazenly out loud. “No one gets this,” individual students remark beneficently on behalf of everyone. And so I struggle. Every day. Every class. Every interaction. To figure out how to make the complex subjects of chemistry and physics both understandable and engaging to each and every student.

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7 comments on “Are Teachers to Blame?

  • OP

    I read a Washington Post article yesterday by a noted psychologist on why telling children they can be anything they want is doing them a disservice by creating undue pressure on them. I totally disagree. The only disservice is making them believe it’s easy.

    No. The greater disservice is not educating them to help them understand their own natures, desires and opportunities for happiness.

    Until kids properly find and own such a problem, the need for the hard work in solving that will always elude them.

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  • @ OP – I read a Washington Post article yesterday by a noted psychologist on why telling children they can be anything they want is doing them a disservice by creating undue pressure on them. I totally disagree. The only disservice is making them believe it’s easy. And that there are shortcuts. And “right” answers. The American dream has never been more accessible. To the ones willing to do whatever it takes.

    phil rimmer #1 – Feb 24, 2016 at 4:54 am
    No. The greater disservice is not educating them to help them understand their own natures, desires and opportunities for happiness.

    I agree phil!
    In the modern world there are huge numbers of physically and mentally demanding competitive jobs, where only the most fit and able will succeed.
    The also-rans will waste their time heading up dead-end blind alleys. – especially if driven by parents or enthusiasts, who have unrealistic expectations.

    This is obvious in sports which require a particular physique, but is also less obvious to naive youngsters or uneducated aspiring families, in such instances as degree courses where the numbers of enrolled students far exceeds the prospective employment places available in that specialism.

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  • Alan,

    I have talked here quite often of my understanding that the great strength of our species has been the tolerance, support and use of our remarkably neurally diverse population. Folk that would have had little survival and reproductive potential in the earliest ape/hunter-gatherer pre-histories, are now treasured for their peculiarities. Those axes at whose cruel extremities lie the Autist. the Schizophrenic and the Psychopath etc. further down are strewn with the rest of us. We (each of us) map into a multidimensional volume of cognitive particularities. We have unique cognitive “fingerprints” in a manner of speaking.

    The antithesis of this has been the Religious “made in his image” cookie cutter concept, and just as bad the wildly antique thinking of the Randian Libertarian, omni-competent, maker of his own destiny, crass wish thinking, both and willfully blind to our actual cultural richness and its sources.

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  • Are Teachers to Blame?

    No. Most students will be utterly klutzy when it come to chemistry and physics. Not only will they not know that the teacher at the chalkboard is pointing at a methyl group, they will not ever learn or care about methyl groups and their function.

    You could not get the majority of children from the simple chemical construction to epigenetics with

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  • 6
    InTheGrey says:

    In my opinion, teachers aren’t to blame. Perhaps bad teachers are at least partly to blame.

    When I was in high school, the classes in which I always tended to do the best were the ones where the teacher had passion for the subject being taught. They didn’t need props or YouTube-worthy antics; they just loved talking about it and explaining it and it was infectious. And I remember the names of every single one of them.

    This was made so clear to me when, after doing miserably in French class one year, the next year I had a new teacher who was light-hearted and fun to listen to and seemed to explain everything so clearly. By the end of the year, I was sitting at the front of the class and got a B+. The year after that, I got yet another teacher, who was, I think, slightly disturbed since the death of his wife some years before (he once commented on how much he liked my boots and, after class one day, offered to clean everyone’s shoes). The difference in learning environment was huge. Two months in and I just sat at the back of the room every class reading computer magazines. And failed.

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  • Like most things the answer is complicated,

    Do I take credit for my successes or my failures. Do I take credit for the A’s or blame for the E’s. For those who have experienced less than qualified teachers, I’m sure that is the case sometimes, but even there, often the teacher has no choice. Often you are thrust into subject areas you have little qualifications in. I was a primary trained teacher so I have some knowledge of all the subject areas (technically p-10) but due to my pre-teaching career as a commercial artist I ended up in as a high school art teacher. Since becoming a high school teacher I have taught in the following subject areas, Art, Maths, Science, English, ICT’s, Media none of which (other than industry experience as a commercial artist) did I have any specific qualifications beyond primary school training which is very general and at a basic level of content knowledge but strong on how students learn.

    Often I am teaching 3 or 4 different subjects at once, often I am the only teacher teaching in 2 of these subjects at once. This means all the planning, faculty meetings, program writing and writing of assessment tasks by myself across several subject areas all at once. Now this happens because there is literally no-one else more qualified who can teach the subject, so the average teacher is often thrust into areas they are not most comfortable. I know very few teachers that only teach in their area of specialty. I for one have busted a gut to get qualified in some of these areas, in the case of science this meant taking on post graduate study at university, at my own expense and in the evenings at great cost to time with my family. In the case of ICT’s it has meant again countless hours teaching myself everything from programming, 3D design and CGI, photo, video and sound editing, and more countless hours creating resources like video tutorials for my students. I’m sure at times students as adults may look back on some of my teaching as sub-par and they may be right when I was learning the subjects on the job. But after spending a great deal of my personal time and money to upgrade the skills that the government did not see fit to pay for, and knowing that many of the parents of those students are unwilling to pay higher taxes to ensure that the system works better I could give a damn (If I lived in the USA where teachers literally get paid half what I do I’d be even more pissed off).

    If people really wanted to improve outcomes for their students here are a few simple suggestions:

    Train your teachers well, then trust them to do their jobs – all this data driven B.S. where standardized testing is not used to identify problems but instead is used as a stick used to beat schools with leading to teaching to the test and fudging results. Schools should welcome poor results because it should equal more money and support, when we have schools beginning to report that they are doing worse than they really are we’ll know we’ve got policy almost right and just needs a little backing off.
    Leave the schools syllabus, work programs alone for a few years. Every year I find myself completely re-writing almost every work program, every piece of assessment. Because of BS changes that are superficial. Let teachers improve what is already there for a while, every change of government seems to result in them wanting to put their mark on the education system. This creates a whole bunch of busy work which is a massive opportunity cost for teachers to improve and refine what we do, perpetual change is hugely damaging.
    Parents, value your teachers, instead of arguing with them. If I take the time out of my extremely busy day to call you, it is because I care. If I didn’t care I’d just not call, and fail your child. I do not call you up because I wish to have a daily dose of abuse, I call you because I wish to help your child and hope that you might care enough about that project to help me help them. Note – most parents do care and value their teachers but there is a sizable group that are actively hostile.
    Write to your local member or congressman (or whatever you representative is) and tell them you would happily pay more tax to get a better education for child.

    Change these 4 things and watch the positive results pour in.

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