I don’t know any incompetent teachers

I don’t know any incompetent teachers.

You may scoff. “Of course not, Andrew. You’re in a wealthy boarding school. They wouldn’t tolerate incompetent teachers for very long.” And yes, I suppose that’s true. But I still don’t know any incompetent teachers.

And I bet that you don’t, either. I don’t care how impoverished or broken down your school is. I’d guess that there aren’t any genuinely incompetent teachers in that school of yours.

On my late-March trip down to DC with a group of kids, we shared the train with an exuberant group of middle schoolers from a mostly-black urban school in Hartford. They were awesome. It was clear that they’d worked hard to pull together enough cash to go on this trip to the capital; for most of them it was the farthest they’d been from home in their lives. They did it on a shoestring budget, much more lean than the $800 a kid I’d had to work with. Car washes, bake sales, incredible wrangling every step of the way.

On the way home, one or two teachers rounded up everyone and made them get out ire worksheets. They turned the train car into an impromptu classroom. And my students, my colleague and I listened in astonishment and mild horror as the teacher read out a list of around 100 questions about Washington, DC monuments, architecture, and trivia.

No questions about Congress, or the Supreme Court, or the presidency. It was all “how high is the Washington monument?” and “when were the cherry trees planted round the Tidal Basin?” my colleague and I listened to the groans and dismay as it became clear that this was a marathon trivia search for kids, and most of them had no idea what the answers were.

And of course you’re thinking, “that’s an incompetent teacher right there! She’s one! Exhibit A! Look with your eyes open, kid!”

Oh. But hold on.

This teacher was not one of the lead organizers, from what I understood. Yet she felt she needed to contribute something to this trip. She found a niche for herself. She found a website with a bunch of questions about DC, and she was going to quiz the kids on them on the train ride home. She was going to turn a crowded train car at the end of a weeklong field trip into a mobile classroom for an hour.

And the questions she picked? It turns out they were from the employment opportunities side of the website of a company that runs student tours of Washington, DC. These were the questions that guides were supposed to have the answers for at the tips of their tongues.

That’s standards-based education right there. Want a job as a DC tour guide? Know the city inside out from the level of trivia on up.

If I think through the teachers in my school, doing each and every one of them justice, and not just giving the pass to the ones I like, I have to admit that I respect them all. Some of them are passionate, others phlegmatic, others angry, others dull and dry. Some are lax, some are rigorous, some are easy-going, some are hard-asses. Some are misinformed, or mean, or blind to kids’ machinations or weaknesses, or poor disciplinarians.

But none of them — not one — is incompetent.

This is way too hard a job for the incompetent. They leave midyear. They bow out at the end of the year, with little fuss. They stick it out for a year or two and then vanish. A few really horrible ones abuse their students or have sex with them, get arrested and vanish after the media circus. And we who stay in the profession forget their names, forget their faces… forget that they were ever here.

We remember the ones who stick it out.

So no. I don’t know any incompetent teachers. And neither do you. If a reporter you trusted came to you, and insisted you provide her with a name, just one, only one, incompetent teacher that should be fired — I bet you can’t think of someone, anyone, who is so awful that they should pilloried on the front page of the local paper as the Worst Teacher In The World.

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  1. How about a teacher that is on so many pain meds that she falls asleep at her desk mid-sentence? Only hands out crosswords, word searches, and other busy work printed off the internet that has nothing to do with the subject being studied? Forgets her kids’ names and doesn’t care to remember who is who? Oh and barely knows how to use a computer or any required technology and refuses to learn and implement? Sorry, but she is incompetent… not medically-challenged, or tired, or lazy, or forgetful, or technologically-challenged… or whatever else you want to call it. All those things add up to INCOMPETENCE. Oh and she’s tenured. Yep, been around for years. They just switch her from school to school after the complaints start.
    Yes, the question is… how do we get rid of her?

    • Dear Terri (?),

      I don’t know where this is, so I can’t speak for the specifics of how to get rid of this particular teacher. In the 1960s, apparently, my own current school was founded by a bunch of parents who felt that the teachers in their children’s school were incompetent in the way you describe. They abandoned the public school system completely.

      But as I said in the post where you just commented on Keishla’s response, you’ve identified four areas where this teacher does not satisfy your basic requirements as a teacher:

      • Assigns busy work not related to curriculum
        shows inadequate interest in the students
        has not kept skills and best practices up-to-date
        trouble maintaining discipline in the classroom (or consciousness).
    • I guess my advice would be to find parents of current, former, and upcoming students, and gather signatures for a petition. Refuse to allow your children to be placed in her class. Refuse to allow anyone’s children to be placed in her class, at any school. But don’t expect that your leadership on this will be well-received by anyone in the school system in your town, particularly in a rural area.

  2. I had practicums with two teachers that I wouldn’t even consider having them babysit our pet cat. One, yelled at an adhd child in class because he couldn’t sit still during carpet time. He kept touching the book shelf. She yelled that ‘your mother is unemployed, your family cannot afford to fix the book shelf if you break it, so because your family has no money don’t touch the shelf.’ She repeated this 2-3x. Realizing that I witnessed the whole thing, the rest of my practicum was out in the hallway, she had me teaching the children one to one and locked her door. The kids had to knock on the door to get back in. I finished that practicum and reported her to the university.
    My next placement would show up 5 minutes before the bell went off, stand at her desk and figure out what she was going to teach the kids that day. She would leave 5 minutes after the last bell as she had to pick up her husband from work and he didn’t like waiting. After school meetings, she didn’t have time for. I was there for 8 weeks and watched as she had parent helpers teach the kids to read. She called these helpers ‘suckers.’ As a parent myself I was disgusted in her behavior and withdrew after reporting her to the university. Nothing can be done, she is a minority and can pull the race card when necessary. The other school she was at prior to this one, she admitted that she didn’t get along with any staff members…probably because they noted her lack of work ethic.

    My final practicum teacher was great – kids loved her, she never yelled, was firm, but loved her job. She was amazing.

    To assume all teachers are great is simply delusional. I’m from Canada, confirming that we have lame arses here as well.

    • I find it interesting that so many teachers have told me about so many incompetent teachers, and no one has bought into the idea that there aren’t any. At the same time, I don’t see many solutions to how to fix the problem being offered. Nor do I see so much data about how many of them there might be. Were these two teachers in the same school, or in several schools? Is this a 10% asshole problem, or is it systemic and endemic to the profession, do you think?

  3. OH MY GOODNESS, you’ve just given the best definition for incompetence: “You have to be disinterested in kids, AND lousy at a subject area you teach…” Sadly, I know a lot of “teachers” who fit your definition.

    I believe that they problem is that it’s too easy to become a teacher. If becoming a teacher costs as much, requires as much schooling, and is as competitive as becoming a doctor, we would have better teachers. Plus, all this intense schooling will justify paying teachers more, a lot more. (Considering what they do, they should get paid more than doctors, as a matter of fact.) But no, it’s way too easy to become a teacher (for K-12) and they get paid too little to attract the best.

  4. I’ll take your challenge!

    We have a teacher in my school, let’s call her Jane. She entered a thriving and popular business department, with many students enrolled and a really successful, award-winning DECA program. Jane also had a side-business as a real estate agent, and also worked for the town as some manner of real estate consultant. This woman has made it very clear to her students and colleagues that she does not enjoy teaching, does not like kids, and only shows up to get a paycheck and work towards a pension. She conducts her side-business in class while she is supposed to be teaching, talking on her cell phone while in class and on duty periods. She is responsible for the number of students enrolling in the business classes to plummet so dramatically they have eliminated positions due to lack of sections. It should also be noted that she has been “teaching” for so long and has seniority in her department, so she was not affected by the reduction in force. To add insult to injury, she asked me (as a teacher/tech trainer) to show her how to copy the entirety of lesson plans of one of her coteachers who was getting fired, so she would not have to do rewrite the lesson plans.

    She’s the most incompetent human being I know.

  5. I’d have to agree with Keishla. I’ve been taught by — and worked with — some real idiots. I had a teacher in high school who came into class drunk every day. In fact, he got so drunk one night that he burned half of his house down with a lit cigarette. He had been teaching at my high school since 1959; this was in 1996, and he continued to teach there for three or four more years — AFTER HE HAD BURNED DOWN HALF OF HIS HOUSE. He was an angry, abusive man who could hardly string a sentence together, and he taught at one of the most elite private schools in the United States for 40 years.

    In my nine-year teaching career, I have taught with several morons. One of them was so disinterested in teaching that his students learned nothing the whole year. He did not come back after his first year, but this was his decision; he had been offered a contract. I taught with another person who loved kids and who loved “the job” but was a complete idiot. Again, this teacher’s class learned nothing all year.

    I appreciate what you’re saying about teaching not necessarily offering rewards to those who are incompetent, but that doesn’t mean that incompetent teachers have existed, do exist, and will exist far into the future.

    You say that “incompetent” means “not having the skills to do something successfully.” If your students don’t learn because you’re drunk or because you don’t care or because you don’t have a basic grasp of knowledge, you’ve earned the label “incompetent” in my book.

    • It is of course possible that I was blessed with singularly gifted and capable teachers (except in math) for most of my learning career, and never encountered these morons. I remember one of my math teachers as being particularly abstruse and weird. But other people were passing the class and doing ok. I was thrilled to be getting by with a 75.

      Of the types you mention though, I wonder how many really exist. There are something like 144,000 schools in America. There are more teachers than Episcopalians (which I must admit is not a particularly difficult hurdle these days). Is an epidemic of uncaring, drunk, moronic teachers really holding back the renewal of American education?

  6. How about the teacher who tells her students that if they make a donation to a charity each marking period, they get extra credit? Oh, and did I mention that she kept all the money for herself? She got arrested and is facing trial. I’d put her up as incompetent.

  7. I have to add to the chorus of dissenters. I do know them and have for all of the 19 years I’ve been in education. Some of them are sweet, some are angry, but most are just plain indifferent.

    They pass out the same worksheets year after year, often made by a publishing company. They press play on videos and don’t require students to do anything during it, don’t stop and discuss key points, don’t lead a discussion afterward, nothing. They require kids to copy text from overheads into their notebooks — and that’s all they do with that material. They don’t show up for assigned duties on time, miss meetings, fail to contact parents and arrive/leave at the exact required times each day. They frequently say “I didn’t get a copy” of all-staff e-mails. They call in sick at the last possible moment with no backup plans, so their colleagues give up planning periods to help cover their classes. They are not interested in professional development because they are not interested in changing. Many of them see retirement right around the corner, and they are holding on for dear life.

    These are things I’ve seen and heard with my own eyes, which is remarkable because the system is set up so that I rarely get much of a chance to see my colleagues teach. I won’t even pass on what my students have *said* that other teachers do.

    I hear that my administration is working to remove a couple of these teachers, but it’s a “difficult” process in my state (which has no union, by the way). Meanwhile, our system is facing significant budget cuts and as teachers’ jobs are on the line, the “Last In, First Out” policy is being applied so that these incompetent veterans are safe while young teachers who show promise or who are already brilliant are vulnerable.

    I am delighted that you have not seen this, but don’t think the problem doesn’t exist.

    • I think part of the reason why I haven’t seen this in my school is that such a class would be a disaster area… bored kids are usually destructive and out of control. I can’t think of a single teacher who could get away with this for long…. certainly not multiple years while waiting for retirement.

  8. I hate to say it, but I do know incompetent teachers. I have worked with them regularly, but I am happy to say that I can’t think of any that I have worked with more than a year or two. Every one of them has either been let go or retired. I think that just goes to show that with a decent administrator, the system works.

    • I’m not saying that schools don’t hire people to teach from time to time who turn out to be incompetent… I’m just saying they don’t stay teachers.

  9. I one-hundred percent disagree! There are incompetent people in their jobs everywhere and the teaching profession is no exception. While you may disagree that this teacher missed a chance to capture some larger learning opportunities from this trip, it doesn’t sound like this was even close to the level of incompetence I have seen and heard about in public schools.

    The unfortunate thing for teachers is that those incompetent few give those of us trying hard to make engaging learning environments a tougher task. But I think it is irresponsible of us to act like they don’t exist.

    What we should be talking about is how can we create an environment where colleagues can approach one another when we hear or learn of issues and help those teachers get the help they need. Instead of whispering about those teachers in the lounge, we create a place where we are comfortable enough to say “I heard you are struggling with classroom management, or implementing technology etc.” Instead we allow those teachers to go behind close doors for 5o minutes and damage our professional image.

    Don’t let those people who shouldn’t be teachers or who should work to improve their skills off the hook so easily just because this is a tough job.

    • I’m prepared to hear your disagreement, but i don’t yet hear of someone you feel is incompetent.

      I mean, “incompetence” is a pretty high standard. You have to be disinterested in kids, AND lousy at a subject area you teach, AND impossible to retrain, AND politically savvy enough to hold onto your job, AND bad-hearted enough to stick it out with a hard job for the privilege of long hours at low pay, AND scheming enough to keep kids occupied while allowing yourself as much time as possible.

      I imagine that there are such people, in my imagination. But it’s hard to imagine such a real person being successful at it for years and years at a time.

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