Rick Hess

We Can’t Deny the Existence of Bad Teachers

If we care about kids, we have an obligation to get bad teachers out of America’s classrooms. It isn’t teacher bashing or even anti-teacher to want consistently underperforming educators exited and replaced with excellence. In fact, removing incompetent practitioners—who either can’t or won’t improve their practice even with support and coaching—not only honors the kids in the seats; it honors the educators whose expertise, talent and devotion to students are undermined by colleagues unwilling to do their part. We know parents are wary about blaming teachers for their children’s struggles in schools. I totally get that. There are many reasons a child may struggle in school and even the best teachers in the nation know that struggling students are an inevitable part of every year, and every day. It’s not unlike the cognitive dissonance we see at election time where people say that they hate Congress, but then continue to vote for the incumbent in their district. It takes courage to admit that someone you may know and like isn’t very good at their job.

The Coin Toss

But the same people who may not tell a pollster or admit in a focus group that they don’t lay the blame at teachers’ feet, are frustrated when their child gets the “bad” teacher. Just as they sing the praises of their kids’ great teachers, they stand on the sidelines at games, pool clubs and Parent Teacher Organization events and bemoan the fact that this year, their kid got the “bad” teacher. If I had a nickel for every time a parent said, “Last year my son/daughter learned so much and this year he/she is learning practically nothing.” For parents of means, it’s a bummer that they can endure by supplementing at home or hiring a private tutor to fill in the gaps. But for many parents, it’s far more than a bummer. It’s a pattern, year after year, and they are helpless to change it.

They Can Get Better

I didn’t attend the National Network of Teachers of the Year conference last week, but I followed it on Twitter and was particularly interested in Rick Hess’s address. One of the tweets during his talk that struck me most said the following: “Stop focusing on bad teachers! Create conditions of excellence that allow people to get better.” (I’m not linking to the tweet to preserve the anonymity of the author.) I don’t know what Hess said exactly in his speech, but he has said that we need to stop “obsessing” about bad teachers and instead focus on cultivating excellence. I totally hear this point and if I’m looking through Hess’s lens and at his audience, he’s right. He is an education expert whose experience and study from afar and on the ground have lead him to conclusions about what’s needed for school leaders and teachers to excel in bringing about great results for kids. In his most recent book, The Cagebusting Teacher, he encourages educators to become leaders both in and out of the classroom. I love Hess’s advice to educators. I saw the most phenomenal teachers walk the halls of the schools where I worked; they were brilliant, compassionate, funny, hardworking and totally focused on students’ many needs. They were truly artists in terms of how they made it all work and despite being that good, they were always looking for ways to be even better.

The Other Truth

But looking through my teacher lens with total honesty, there is another truth that can’t be ignored. I also worked with more than a few people along the way that shouldn’t have been working in a school. They didn’t particularly like kids and their work ethic was really weak. They complained constantly, found reasons to blame the kids and administration for everything, and were not team players in even the slightest sense. Some were very nice people, but I would never have felt comfortable knowing that one of my own children spent their days in class with them. In fact, my parent lens tells me that we are letting down far too many children and families if we do not work to get chronically underperforming teachers out of school buildings. There are parents who year after year endure having their children placed with lousy teachers in lousy schools and who, despite their best efforts, are quite simply, stuck. How can anyone tell these parents not to focus on bad teachers when they’re living with this frustration every single day? With over 3 million teachers in this country, if only just 1 percent of our teachers merited being exited, that’s over 30,000 teachers failing to serve more than 750,000 children every year. The sooner we exit teachers who chronically underperform, the sooner these parents can shift their focus to doing whatever they can to support their kids’ cage-busting teachers.  
UPDATE, July 16, 2015: An earlier version of this post attributed an attendee’s tweet to Hess directly. The post has been modified to respond to this.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island.

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