Are Teachers Evil?

mean_OLD_teacher__300 (1)This post is occasioned by two events: I have been asked to teach a high school level American History course to some middle and high school age kids, and to help lead a series of classes for the parents of kids receiving first Communion at our parish. Teaching is on my mind. 

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s talk about what teachers do.

Almost all teachers and even some students are convinced that what teachers do within the standard classroom model is directed toward the student efficiently and effectively learning what the teacher is teaching. To put this another way, from the perspective of the student: I should expect that by taking, say, a government or an algebra class,  I will efficiently and effectively learn  government and algebra.

So after 150 years of this, after hundreds of millions of Americans have spent billions of hours in classroom instruction, there are hardly any adult Americans who don’t know how government works and who can’t do algebra. Right?

I’ve often dreamed of asking a crowd of American adults for a show of hands of those who took algebra in high school. It’s going to be well over 90%, darn near 100%. Then, throw up a simple factoring problem, and ask for a show of hands for anyone who feels confident they could solve it.  Well? If the teachers in the classroom model are doing what they think they’re doing – teaching algebra – then the show of hands should be just about the same for both.

So, it’s clear that, whatever teachers think they’re doing, effectively and efficiently teaching their subject isn’t it.  Blame it on parents, TV, video games, Facebook or whatever you want, but students, with few exceptions, are not learning what the teachers are supposedly teaching. It’s demonstrated daily that we Americans know next to nothing about anything we supposedly learned in school, apart from the few of us who entered fields where specific knowledge of subjects like math or biology are part of jobs.  So, what, exactly, are teachers doing, since they so manifestly fail at what they are presumed to be doing?

The triumph and the horror here is that almost nobody can imagine any other way of educating children, which is how we’ve achieved a state of permanent school reform.  I’ve had people tell me that we have to keep trying, as if more effort to empty the sea with a sieve will finally get the job done. Teachers rarely buck against the basic model – they, too, are wedded to the idea that, whatever the solution is, it includes as an essential component as many or more hours in the classroom as we do now.  No one asks if the sea needs to be emptied, and, if so, if the sieve is the right tool.

So, let’s look at teachers. (Disclosure: I have 4 siblings who are teachers; my mother in law, father in law and 2 sisters in law; are teachers; several of my friends from college are teachers. And I love these people.  I don’t hate teachers in general any more than I hate, say, socialists in general.)  What are they like?

Only a certain kind of person can make it through the gauntlet to teacherhood. Let’s look at the filters:

– First off, teachers are college graduates, meaning they have a demonstrated  capacity for enduring bureaucracy.

– Second, they took a bunch of education classes and studied for certification exams. Now, I haven’t ever taken an education class, but their reputation is that they consist of much disjointed busywork and jargon heavy theory with little if any practical application. (I’ve heard many times a teacher say that nothing they studied in school prepared them for the reality of the classroom.) If anyone knows better, please correct me.

– Third, teacher attrition rates are high.  Almost half of new teachers quit within their first 5 years on the job. A primary reason is that they hate their bosses, who are described as “arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful”.  So, we can tentatively assume that teachers who stay 1) lucked into a great boss; or 2) are the kind of people who tolerate “arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful” behavior well.

So, now you look at a school full of teachers. I’m painting a picture that conforms to all the above seen through my gimlet eye:

I assume that they all started out as idealistic young people who wanted to do good – certainly, the ones I know personally did. They sign up for education classes in college. Some, due to sheer determination, limited experience, lack of native talent or an unusually well-developed need to please others, find the classes tolerable. Others, for a number of reasons, rebel sooner or later, and do something else. So, the process begins to filter out those who don’t like mindless conformity and busywork.

Next, we have a certification process that adds another layer of bureaucracy and busywork. I assume more drop out at this point.

Finally, newly-minted teachers arrive at schools where, evidently, the fall into the clutches of those arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful principals. Over half don’t last 7 years.

So, what you get, at the end of the process, are teachers who share, in some mix, the following characteristics:

– extraordinary dedication;

– extraordinarily thick skins;

– the ability to endure arbitrary behavior, and being abused and ignored.

These would be the people who see that things are screwed up, but persevere anyway for the cause. These are what we imagine most teachers to be like, and what most teachers imagine themselves to be like.

Bit there’s another way that is not mutually exclusive with the first: Through Stockholm Syndrome, neurosis bordering on sociopathy, or some combination of the two, they adapt and conform. Those arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful administrators have to come from somewhere, after all.

And who of us gets through school without the occasional evil teacher, where arbitrary, abusive, and neglectful aren’t the half of it?

So, while I, like everyone else, held teachers in high esteem – and, I still do, in several cases – I’ve also come to recognize other aspects of the profession. In my experience as both a student and a parent, even nice teachers tend strongly toward less than admirable traits. These traits are learned from or are selected for by the classroom model:

– Arbitrariness:   The most arbitrary thing of all is control, so the greatest crime with the swiftest punishment comes to those who simply defy The Rules because they are arbitrary.  We all know, or are, that kid.

– Pettiness: Expressed in a thousand ways. How important, really, are all the little things they want you to do? Yet many will not brook any opposition.

– Casual cruelty:  Is it really important that everyone learns the same skills at the same time? Yet how much shame is heaped on those who don’t ‘perform to grade level’?

If any teachers, by any chance, read this, tell me: even if this does not describe you, does it not describe some of your coworkers and, especially, your bosses?

I’ll end with a paen to a great teacher I had.  Sr. Boniface, a German Dominican, taught 7th and 8th grade math at St Mary’s of the Assumption parish school. She seemed ancient, spoke with a German accent, and had a large presence, so she was a bit frightening to all us kids. (A few years after I graduated, saw her and was stunned at how small she was – she just seemed huge to us. ) She ran a tight ship, demanded attention, and didn’t take any nonsense. But it quickly became obvious that she loved us kids with her whole heart, and thought the world of us, so much so that she deemed it impossible that even the slowest of us couldn’t learn a little math – and she was going to see to it that we did.

Several of my older siblings had horrendous school experiences – the kind that lead to expulsions, drop outs, transfers, that sort of thing. Yet the one besides me who had Sr. Boniface LOVED her, maybe the one teacher she loved. Why? Because of Sr.’s awesome math chops? No – because she found one teacher that really cared about her, the trouble-making 8th grader.

I don’t remember a lot of 8th grade math, but I sure remember Sr. Boniface. May she rest in peace. Unless, of course, she’s still teaching at 130 years old – which I wouldn’t put past her.



Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

11 thoughts on “Are Teachers Evil?”

  1. “So, what, exactly, are teachers doing, since they so manifestly fail at what they are presumed to be doing?”

    At least in the case of algebra, they are administering a months-long intelligence test. Why not just give a one-hour IQ test? Because people can’t use the results of an IQ test to give or withhold further testing, training, or (notionally, eventually) employment.

    “a state of permanent school reform” – That’s one for the quote file.

    1. That’s a big part of it. Ever since Plato’s Academy math has been used as a filter, Separating those that warrant further training From those that merely need to find their silver or iron souled role in life.

      But I think there’s another factor as well: To make sure most People are afraid of math. Math is a Slippery slope to actual thought. Mustn’t have the little ones trouble their little heads About matters that do not concern them. Otherwise we’d skip algebra and just teach Euclid, if Learning to think is what we are interested in.

  2. I have to say that I’m pretty sure I got through primary and secondary school without ever having a teacher I would consider “evil”, and never found any of my teachers arbitrary, abusive or neglectful. This claim must be admittedly leavened by the following caveats:

    1) I was educated in the Catholic school system in Canada, not the public school system of an American state;
    2) I was streamed into the “advanced” aptitude level for my courses in the secondary level, so my fellow students tended to take their classes seriously, like me;
    3) I was a gifted and cooperative student who actually liked winning my teachers’ approval;
    4) I concluded my secondary school education nearly 25 years ago, so things may well be much worse now.

    It must also be noted, I may suggest, that the people who retain a knowledge or skill set acquired in high school ten years after graduating will be defined much more by who has *used* those skills and how often in the interim, rather than how well or how badly the initial education was accomplished. My actual grade of completion in my high school Typing course was mediocre at best. I am now one of the best touch typists I know not because the school did a bang-up job teaching me but because I have *used* that skill virtually *every day* since.

    And it should probably be remembered that the complaints of good workers dealing with bad bosses can sound very similar to the complaints of *bad* workers dealing with *good* bosses. Just because some teachers assessed their bosses as arbitrary and unfair does not mean these assessments are accurate, and do not reflect the would-be teacher’s projections rather than any objective truth.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I am not disputing that what you experienced happens – my wife had a similar experience. There are a couple key points (a couple of which you mention) that cast your experience in a different light. I’m going to need a full on post to reply, and, as I am on the road for business this week, it may take a while to get around to it.Stay tuned.

  3. Hi, I’m here because I noticed it was a top post. Here is my story:

    I am a 21 year old college student. I just survived – barely (by which I mean, with a C) – a class called “Curriculum and Learning”. I’m just going to quote from your blog:

    – Second, they took a bunch of education classes and studied for certification exams. Now, I haven’t ever taken an education class, but their reputation is that they consist of much disjointed busywork and jargon heavy theory with little if any practical application. (I’ve heard many times a teacher say that nothing they studied in school prepared them for the reality of the classroom.) If anyone knows better, please correct me.

    – Third, teacher attrition rates are high. Almost half of new teachers quit within their first 5 years on the job. A primary reason is that they hate their bosses, who are described as “arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful”. So, we can tentatively assume that teachers who stay 1) lucked into a great boss; or 2) are the kind of people who tolerate “arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful” behavior well.

    So let me tell you about what happened to me this past semester. I want to make two things clear:

    1) Any issues I had passing were my fault. Could have done better, but didn’t. So don’t think of this as an excuse.

    2) My Curriculum and Learning teacher was excellent, and our education program is excellent.


    Those two paragraphs, especially the first one, are so accurate they’re scary.

    I had to do 40 hours of observation (by the way, where I’m from, we need over 100 observation hours, meaning sitting and watching teachers teach…BEFORE student teaching) this past semester. My host teacher (who was great, by the way) made it clear to me right off the bat that what we learn in college and what actually happens are two totally different things. Let me give an example: We were given a list of 100 ways to open a class, or some such thing. I remember bringing the list up to my host teacher. She cut me off and said (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a close paraphrase), “Yeah, if you try any of those things, then you will be eaten alive”. So one of the first lessons I got from observation was that my class, at the very least, could not be wholly trusted.

    Want to know why most teachers really quit? Discipline. Disciplining students is insanely difficult. Teachers know this. Want to know what classes I took? Somethingsomething “Literacy” and “Cognition and Learning”.

    Want to know what class I did NOT get? A class about discipline. This is partially because the people writing the teaching textbooks for the most part were not the people teaching at inner city schools, like the one I observed at, which was, statistically, one of the worst schools in the country. During the time I observed a shooting occurred outside of the school and a stabbing took place at the waffle house down the road. Pretty sure a rape occurred in the school’s basement sometime later.

    Do you think the people writing the textbooks knew a thing about that environment? Do you think, when they wrote how to open your school year, they counted on losing the first month just so you could set up a “safe space” for your students (an absolute necessity, I was informed)? Do you think they knew what it meant for me to bring in articles for 10th graders to read, none above eighth grade level and two of the three at 6th grade reading level, and be told that it was a terrible lesson because the articles were, not too hard, but WAY too hard for the class?

    Of course not. Instead, we get chapters on how to deal with those struggling students, without realizing that virtually all of the students are struggling like that in some schools…and yet here we are forcing them to read Shakespeare.

    The class was not all busy work; it involved a lot of work learning how to organize a lesson plan and create a state-mandated curriculum, and the class was quite labor-intensive. But it also involved, as a MAJOR part of the grade, creating a little video about our “philosophy of learning”, or something like that, and writing papers comparing one school’s test scores to another (Why?).

    It also involves a ton – and I mean a ton – and I mean a TON – of paperwork. The binders teachers use to apply for jobs are unbelievably thick. By the time college is over my resume binder is expected to be slightly less thick than my legs when I put my knees together.

    What all of this adds up to is people who become teachers because they genuinely want to help kids (and I think every single person I’ve been in class with this past semester really wants to help), but by the time they reach the job they have so much to focus on besides actual teaching, and so little of what they learned in college is often able to be applied in real life, that they either give it up or learn how to do their best to work within the system.

    As for me – I don’t think I want to teach high school. This last semester…well, it sucked. We’ll see what happens next…I’ll think of something.

  4. Malcolm (or is it Mr. Cynic?), thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. I’ve delayed responding to it only because other matters have been occupying my thoughts. I do have a couple thoughts I’d like to share, but it may take a few more days before I have the opportunity.

    1. Malcolm is good!

      I have no idea what I’m going to do if I don’t teach. What I’m good at (writing) is an extraordinarily difficult field to get into, and it generally takes several years to be able to support yourself via writing. What I enjoy to do (acting) is so nearly impossible to make a career in it’s laughable…and anyway THAT is a subculture I’m not willing to immerse myself in, as much as I like acting itself. The subculture is toxic.

      As always, it all comes back to math, which I hate. Ah well.

      1. (I will add one more teachery-thing: Common core and homework are the devil, and both should be brutally crushed out and destroyed. I never liked the concept of homework, but another thing you learn very quickly in inner city schools is just how utterly useless, even damaging, it really is.

        Common core is the bane of all good teachers’ existence, and is probably even more harmful than homework. It assumes all kids should all be learning at roughly the same rate as everybody else, and have the same ability to learn as everybody else, and if you can’t do what other kids are doing you’re treated exactly the same as students who CAN but don’t.

        I don’t think I need to go into the enormous amount of problems this causes.)

      2. Yea, homework is an attempt to fill the kid’s days as completely as possible with busy work. Fichte, the father of modern schooling, wanted kids removed entirely from their families and communities as young as possible for their entire schooling, as family was seen as a corrupting influence. Since that proved impractical (it seems even Prussians have their limits) we resort to imposing as much school and school related work as possible, to effectively destroy the family bonds, even if, as a practical matter, we have to let the kids go home once ina while.

        The first victims of this approach are the teachers.

        Back in the old days, people understood that real education, as opposed to mere training, was only possible within a friendship. The idea that education could be passed on without love was considered absurd. Thus, ancient Greek kids (at least in the upper classes)had sponsors; in the medieval university, all classes were tiny seminars of only a handful of students the master could get to personally know.

        Have you read Dickens’ Hard Times? Gradgrindian is a real word! And it’s what the schools do!

  5. 1. I attended school 1960-1972 and I loved school and loved my teachers and did well. Went into publishing: journalism, then editing magazines and coffee-table books, and did well and was very happy.
    2. Ten years ago I started working in “educational publishing” (producing textbooks). For some reason “educational publishers” do not normally employ people from a publishing environment. They prefer ex-teachers.
    3. Everything you said in your blog post is true. How did things go so wrong in 50 years?
    4. What you don’t know is that when they leave teaching, they take that mentality with them like a virus and clot together with other ex-teachers. And, as soon as they outnumber other adults, they can force other adults to conform, like a an amoeba engulfing and destroying other people’s souls. If this is what they can do to other adults, what is happening to children in schools?
    5. PS: I’ve spent my whole life in South Africa, so this phenomenon in not exclusive to the US.
    6. PS: I also sum these ex-teachers up as the same people who would, in a corporate environment, have shunned and shirked you if you expressed anti-apartheid sentiments. “Don’t rock the system……” They do not even want to be near someone who questions the system.

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