If You Must: Ways to Deal with "Bad Teachers"

The form essentially dictates that this must be an apple

The form essentially dictates that this must be an apple

On our most-recent episode of “Horizontal Transfer,” Paul and I dealt with the notion of “Bad Teachers.” TL;DL- Given the vanishingly slim number of “Bad Teachers” operating as part of the 3.7 million member teacher corps of this country, this is not really an issue that deserves major focus from anyone interested in improving public education.

This is genuinely how I feel, but I can understand why folks may feel differently, particularly given the sensational stories that arise whenever a particularly terrible example of a “bad teacher” is discovered. So I thought I might take a little space here and delineate a few strategies that might actually be useful ways to confront the problem of “bad teachers,” and speed their removal from the classrooms of America. Unsurprisingly, none of these are being pushed by policy makers:

  1. Decrease ancillary administrative obligations- In New York State, at least, administrators seem to be increasingly busy every year. Not only do they have to observe classroom staff, they also have to manage departments, oversee the maintenance the physical plant of the building, handle student discipline, and serve as the main contact points for parents and other stake-holders. Given the punitive structure of the NYS tax cap system, our administrators are asked to do increasingly more stuff with increasingly less resources. Unsurprisingly, the ability of administrators to effectively process any teacher discipline issues that arise suffers as a result of this ballooning of their job descriptions. Simply put, if you want administrators to be able to lead the development of a staff, stop giving them so much else to occupy their time.

  2. Increase processing ability- Here in New York, when a teacher is brought up on the type of serious, license-endangering, charges that tend to make the newspaper, the case is referred to our state’s Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) (Note: This is, quite possibly, the worst designed government website that I have ever seen). And then we wait. For months. We’re not waiting because of stonewalling from the union, or because it’s particularly hard to get a “deserving” employee to this point in the process. We’re waiting for a hearing date from PERB, an organization that is underfunded, and understaffed. This is the major reason why teacher-licensing cases take so long: Because the legal process as established by the state depends on a hearing board that doesn’t have enough officers to hear cases in a timely fashion. Let’s say (and I’m just picking a number here for the sake of argument), the current average time between a case being filed, and it being heard is ten months. Double the number of hearing officers, and you’ll cut that down to five. See how easy that is? Better yet, if we take the position that teacher-licensing cases are more important than other PERB-related matters, why not put a dedicated subset of hearing officers in charge of teacher-licensing cases?

  3. Train administrators in how to deal with “bad teachers”- This one is probably the most important from my union perspective. The major problem that I have seen when a teacher is brought up on charges is that, when push comes to shove, the case against the teacher is flimsy. Leaving aside issues where the school district has brought a case prematurely (which has been known to happen), the failure of districts to build appropriate cases is a bit of an unfortunate constant. Observations are not completed properly (or submitted months after the fact). Disciplinary memos are written unprofessionally (or not at all). Issues are swept under the rug because it is felt to be too difficult to do the hard work of being the administrative disciplinarian. These are all issues that any union officer can describe (and really—there’s nothing more frustrating from a union side than being of a mind that a particular teacher should be disciplined, and learning that the district apparatus has failed to do its job in building a case). None of this should be that surprising. In my training for administrative licensure, discussions of how to be the boss, and the need to follow through on teacher disciplinary issues was not a major area of discussion. It is all too possible to move in to a career in administration without ever having to face the prospect of just what it means to be a boss.

It probably doesn’t escape the notice of the reader that each of the above requires more investment in education, and the public sector, than is currently being made. Nor are any of them as simple as the “get rid of tenure” refrain that is so common from the folks who tend to profess their desire to rid the profession of “bad teachers.” But I’ll suggest that they will all work much better for the stated goal than any of the non-sensical, reactionary notions that the “education reform” crowd (which seems to include our very own Governor) is advancing, with the added benefit of not diminishing the profession for the vast majority of good teachers who are doing good work every day. Of course, it is possible that those popular voices who speak loudest on the perceived “crisis” in public schools actually have different goals than the ones they claim. If that’s the case, I imagine we can expect more of the same, which will certainly included continued exploitation of a particularly resonant educational myth.