Q: You seem to have a bias against parents. You’re always siding with teachers and against parents when there’s a conflict. Don’t teachers ever do anything wrong?
It is not my intent to “side” with anyone. Teachers and parents should not be adversaries: we are on the same team, fighting for the same things.
What I want to do is use my experience to help people whose mistakes might hurt their child. Sometimes parents are in error. Sometimes it’s teachers. Usually it’s a little of both. But this column is directed to parents, and I don’t think it’s always helpful to simply validate their gripes. It’s much wiser to change yourself than it is to change someone else.
Nevertheless, to satisfy you that I do not always think teachers are always right, here is my list of the top 10 most common mistakes teachers make.
1. Watering down the rigor. Teachers are under such pressure to ensure their students “pass” that they make “passing” so easy even a child who never studies can do it. This not only hurts the lazy child, it hurts all the other children who receive a weak, substandard education. Open-notes tests, test corrections for credit, and eliminating due dates may be symptoms of a classroom in decline.
2. Homework mismanagement. There are two common errors: 1. Not giving any. How can children learn if they don’t read or write on their own and don’t study what they’ve been taught? This is another result of being pressured to pass lazy students. 2. Giving too much. This usually occurs in higher level courses. Some gifted students may even choose to take less challenging courses, stunting their learning capacity, because they don’t have time to complete it all. Neurotic students will burn themselves out to get it all done. Past a certain point, homework reaches diminishing returns because, as Michelet said, students are like vases with narrow necks: you can pour little or pour much, but much will not enter at a time.
3. Inefficiency. By sacrificing focus for entertainment, some teachers leave a lot of learning on the table. It might be fun to spend a week in groups making a model of Harry Potter’s castle, but it isn’t necessarily the best use of time, energy, and resources. I once read an article about a high school English class whose final poetry project was to paint their own haiku on banana peels. We’ve got a civilization to run, people. Help us out, will you?
4. Making it up as they go along. Some teachers don’t have any idea what tomorrow’s lesson is going to be until it’s today. Any good tour guide needs a map of where they’re taking you, and a good teacher needs a long-term plan. Teachers should know what they are doing and why they are doing it.
5. Failure to self-evaluate. Good teachers examine their own practices. They seek out useful feedback from their students. They are constantly gauging if things are working. They test how long assignments should take and ensure that they aren’t too easy or too difficult. Good teachers correct their mistakes, refine their methods, abandon ineffective lessons, and watch out for good ideas.
6. Overreliance on technology. The incoming research on technology’s effects on students is devastating, yet some teachers depend on it for the majority of their instruction. Sometimes this is due to laziness, sometimes it is listening to bad advice, and sometimes it is just misplaced faith, but the results are hurting our kids.
7. Poor classroom management. Over-disciplining and under-disciplining can equally ravage a learning environment. Effective teachers forge a predictable, controlled environment where appropriate student behaviors are the norm.
8. Trying to be friends with students. The gap between earning students’ respect and currying their favor is as wide as that between a forgettable teacher and a great one. Like a teenager on social media, some teachers will do almost anything to be “liked,” even if it means failing to do what’s best for their students.
9. Indoctrination. Some teachers feel the classroom is a place to instill their personal political or sociological opinions. What they are providing is not an education, but an indoctrination. This kind of “teaching” does not further the cause of learning; it perverts it.
10. Irresponsibility and incompetency. Yes, some teachers do not know their content. Some have little professional responsibility. They frequently play hooky, come late, leave early, and shirk their obligations. And some, believe it or not, simply don’t care.
The adage says that “A good teacher is like a candle: it consumes itself to light the way for others.” I’ll add that a bad teacher is like a flashlight with cheap batteries: it keeps everyone in the dark when they are most in need of the light.