I’ve had some lousy teachers –some really lousy teachers, who did some spectacularly unhelpful things.
One scared the heck out me; I cowered for the entire term. She yelled, and hit kids with a pointer. I “did my work” and got straight “A’s”, for fear of physical punishment. All the lessons I learned that year were about fear.
Some teachers I had were not very bright; in fact, I think I was smarter than some of them. I often suffered through deadly dull classes and meaningless busy work. I often felt bossed around, punished needlessly, and unfairly treated. I felt that many teachers didn’t understand me and made no attempt to. I saw silly, unnecessary rules and punishments.
Teachers gave me Herculean worksheets and made me try to learn numbingly boring things in which I had no interest.I wrote thousands of “lines”, and attended more detentions than I care to remember.
We had to recite the Lord’s Prayer daily and listen to a ten-minute Bible reading every morning until grade 6.
I was strapped for playing tetherball at the wrong time and again for climbing a horse chestnut tree that was out of bounds.
In elementary school, a teacher gave us fifteen pages of math word problems to do over Christmas vacation.
In Grade 10 I refused to write the Roman numerals from one to ten thousand as a punishment for something inconsequential I’d done. I fought the “sentence” and lost, even though the teacher was insensitive and crabby. (and wrong)
I had ridiculous assignments and worksheet teachers and I ran afoul of the main office several times for breaking silly rules – no eating lunch in the hallways, no basketball shooting for the first half of lunch hour, no painting the Principal’s headlights black at the school dance. (well perhaps that rule made a bit of sense.)
I had a high school Principal so clumsy and ineffective with people that many of us could hardly remain civil towards him. Insecure, arbitrary and irascible, he reminded me of the awful Macy’s psychologist in “Miracle on 34th Street,” who tried to get Kris Kringle fired as Macy’s store Santa. (hence the black headlights)
If my adult impressions of public school were based solely on these memories I would likely have joined the cadre of anti education tweeting trolls on the internet.
Yes , I had some lousy teachers, and yet, I still became a teacher and a fierce supporter of public schools. Why?
Because in addition to the bad experiences I list above, there were myriad good things and some inspiring teachers and friends of all colours, abilities, and proclivities. School afforded me 13 years of rich self-actualization, in the company of hundreds of kids my own age – school was a petrie dish of child development.
School gave me a place to be my own person, away from my Mom and Dad.
That is not to criticize my parents, they were great. They were smart enough to know that school helps kids practice values instilled at home; that schools despite their warts, complemented their parenting rather than usurping or competing with it.
They also knew that teachers had a more fleeting emotional relationship with children that gave them a more objective credibility than a parent. Handled artfully, the triangle of school, parent, child, helps the child and the parent, who can step back and be supportive of their child’s progress at school, rather than having to helicopter over every moment of their child’s development.
Despite and between the malpractices I list above, school and teachers allowed me to experience and experiment with activities, friendships and relationships that allowed me to develop as more than an appendage of my parents.
In school I learned where I stood with other people. I could practice and develop strategies for getting along with smart kids, dumb kids, athletic kids, funny kids, studious kids, – the cultural mosaic of kids who came to public schools to learn the same lessons I did.
As a retired teacher and Principal, I am now wise about schools in a way I wasn’t before and I’ve concluded that the real benefits of public school are the un- measurable ones, the child development ones.
I now realize that teaching “stuff” to kids is only a minor benefit of public schools. The different kinds of clouds, square root, the line of British monarchs, these are just the vehicles we use as we help children enter and come to grips with, the next stage of their development as people.
I have often said that I learned as much at school as I did in school.
My schools were close by. We could walk or ride a bike to and from school with neighbourhood friends we gathered along the way.
Walking to and from school with a couple of friends every day is a more valuable learning experience than social studies class.
And so is unstructured playtime. Before and after school touch football games, ball hockey and other pick up games spawned at school. Kids make up their own rules and are often so intensely involved they have to be asked two or three times to come in from lunch hour.
As a Principal, I often wanted to let them play rather than calling them in to Math class.
Assuredly, none of the things I describe above that happened to me in school should happen in any school; but then, my perceptions come from my memories as a child. I can’t consider them from the perspective of the adults who had to deal with my admittedly precocious behaviour.
But more important, it’s not helpful to form one’s opinions about public schools based on a small sample of traumatic childhood memories, either your own or your child’s. The childhood monsters we saw in the closet should look different viewed through adult eyes.
We should look beyond anecdotal childhood memories of things that happen(ed) in schools and appreciate and nurture the irreplaceable, developmental lessons our children learn from parent and public school.
So yes, I had some lousy teachers. We all did.
But no matter how bad the teacher or how good the parent, the invaluable developmental cocoon offered by neighbourhood public schools can’t be replicated; in even the most sensitive and attentive of homes, or in cross town, uniformed learning academies with rigour and high standards.
Well said and so true. A seasoned teacher knows that the curriculum is not always the most important lesson.
I absolutely loved this article. It’s brutally honest and the complete truth in a nutshell. Exceptionally well written. Thank you for your insight. Sharon Affeld – Retired Teacher and school survivor (ha ha).
Cheers, Thank you Ms Affeld. I wanted to get the education hating Libertarians attention with the “lousy teachers” preamble. As a retired educator you must have been ready to hate the post when you saw the title….
Seriously grateful for the teachers I experienced along my educational path; some were “different,” all taught me “something.” We never forget the injustice- LOL! There was the time I was flagged for a recess infraction (I didn’t commit.). Crime- accused of dropping a food wrapper on the asphalt. I had to spend a couple of recesses picking up trash from the school grounds. Rattled me, big time; I survived. Just. Fine. Then I had to stand up in class because I failed a math quiz; learned to use a calculator. Once again, I survived. There were so many more amazing teachers (worth more than gold) that inspired and sparked learning. Public school taught me about respect, tolerance, fun and fairness with some academics tossed in for good measure! We learned to navigate our little worlds. Every single experience taught me something worthwhile.
Thanks for this article, Jim! “Loved” it!
Cheers Lynne.We sure remember the small things that happen.
Thanks for your reflections.
Are you Coquitlam Lynne Nielsen? Emil, Allysa, and Matt?
Well said, once again, Jim. Thank you.
Here’s something that can be applied to the teaching profession as well
“When I talk to managers, I get the feeling that they are important.
When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling I am important.”
Wow – great quote Sam – who will i be stealing it from if I use it?
Sorry, I don’t know the source. It was an uncredited online poster that I saw and liked. It says a lot doesn’t it.
When I was a young teacher I was puzzled to hear an older teacher tell me it wasn’t my job to teach music – it was my job to teach children. (What? No one said anything about that in university?!) It took me a while to realize how true that statement is. Then I changed my approach entirely and enjoyed my classes so much more.
I know -me too.Took me about twenty years to figure that out.Until then I thought that because I could hold 5 or 500 kids transfixed I should. I thought that was being an accomplished teacher. To hell with the visual or tactile learners, just listen to my entertaining
orations… it’s about me not you. I cringe now, in my dotage.
And I bet your kids liked their alto horns a lot better after your epiphany.
I just wish it was possible to explain the good about teachers and schools to the haters – but it seems almost impossible.
Maybe I would have been one of the “smart kids” you referred to, Jim. I could have had the strap a couple of times for snowball throwing at Upper Lynn Elementary in the 1960s… but I had a knack for knowing when “the man” was coming, LOL!
In my memory, I’d say I only had one “bad” teacher. The rest, I got good value from.
I know I made some bad/stupid moves — especially in my rookie years — as a teacher… but I trust that I made up for that over my 38 years in the profession. I loved my job!