I know lots of teachers who could be better

I recently watched my friend James work on a painting. He started by layering heavy gray paint onto the canvas, and then applying large swaths of black on top of that. Then he dropped a bunch of white and gray with smaller brushes on top of that, lightening and transforming his big black blobs. And then he added a few swatches of red.

The response to my post about “not knowing any incompetent teachers” surely struck a nerve. It’s been one of the most popular posts to argue with in the comments I’ve ever posted.

But I think my audience doesn’t really get what I think “incompetent” means, which is surprising given our profession. I mean, from a dictionary point of view, it means not having the skills to do something successfully. Legally it means not formally qualified to perform a given role. And medically, it means unable to perform its proper function.

But when it comes to teachers, we tend to lump together certain colleagues under the banner of “incompetent” when what we really mean is:

  • Beaten down by the kids
  • Beaten down by the administration
  • Cowed by the parents
  • Cowed by the students
  • Cowed by our colleagues
  • Old and exhausted
  • Too close to retirement
  • Insufficiently rigorous
  • throwing insults or charges at colleagues
  • Friendless in their department
  • Weak in administering discipline
  • Weak in classroom management
  • Unfocused in giving lessons
  • Unprepared to teach
  • Too committed to trouble-making
  • not a team player
  • not clear on how to use technology in the classroom
  • too wedded to a particular textbook or teaching style
  • Financially criminal
  • Criminally negligent
  • Criminally sexual with minors

And we won’t mention what our students say about us. That would be impolite, and confusing, and gossipy — and therefore mean.

But none of these things are about incompetence. The last few may be villainous, as I wrote in a reply to one of my commenters. But evilness has nothing to do with capability (if only evilness guaranteed incompetence, as it usually does in movies, fiction and other fairy tales).

Maybe if we could identify WHAT it is that makes us label a particular colleague as “incompetent”, we could drag that colleague back toward best practices. But the point I wanted to make with part one of this pair of posts, I think, is made.

The media has painted our profession with a broad brush — that we allow incompetent non-professionals to hide in our midst. No doubt a lot of us are worried about being stained with that particular swab of paint.

But, as said at the beginning, I recently watched my friend James at work on a painting. He put in all those big black blobs, and then dropped a bunch of white and red onto it.

Clio the Dog, by James Kellaway
Clio the Dog, by James K., (on brushes for iPad)

The media has blobbed our profession in black… maybe it’s time that we started painting a more detailed portrait of what ‘incmpetent teachers’ are really doing, and be specific about which ones can be retrained, which ones can be retired early, and which ones we need to shuffle out of the profession.

That requires a lot of detailed analysis of what are teachers are doing: day by day, month by month. It requires collegial visitation, professional development, community, and communication.

But you can’t take a big black blob of paint and make it into a successful picture of a problem with a broad brush. Or a heavy hand. It’s time to do the detail work.

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  1. Some of the things on your list fit your definition of incompetence. If you are weak at delivering discipline/classroom management/ unfocused lessons/unprepared to teach/unprepared to teach. Sounds like a person that “DOES NOT HAVE THE SKILLS TO DO SOMETHING SUCCESSFULLY.”

    And while I may agree that some work environments may leave something to be desired, or that maybe the resources are not always readily available, but that is not an excuse for not doing the job you know you were hired to do under the conditions you accepted to be in.

    I sympathize with teachers who have a tough time, but we all work under the same conditions, and competent teachers rise to the occasion.

  2. What do you do with colleagues who question you, and hide behind code of “are the kids supposed to be doing this?” I have never asked a colleague that question. Incompetent? No. Un-collaborative and dismantling? Yes.

    I guess I would add “dart-throwers” to the list.

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