How New Teachers Can Benefit from Bad Role Models

After three years as a teacher, I decided to move upwards, or at least onwards and find a new job in education. As I did so, I was forced, as anyone seeking a new job is, to evaluate myself as a professional- my strengths, my weakness. I was also forced to find way to articulate how and why I do my job. People hiring teachers want us to be able to articulate things like our “philosophy of education,” our motivations, our standards and practices, our definition of what a good teacher is and should strive to be. As I came up with my own answers to these questions, I began to wonder where I got all this stuff? How have I decided how to teach? How did I become the educator I am now? Asking these questions, I discovered something funny. While I know I owe a lot to the great role models I have had as a student and as a colleague, I also owe a lot of my professional formation to my desire not to be like the lousy role models I’ve had. What keeps me honest on bad days and amps up my motivation and energy on good days? It’s that little voice in my head saying “Don’t be THAT GUY.”

As I look back at my own education, I, like everyone, teacher and student alike, can visualize certain teachers who left me wondering why I bothered to come to class, or who stripped me of my interest in a subject by making me feel uncomfortable or stupid. I have classified these people mentally, and I strive to not be them as I move forward in education.

POWER LORDER GUY. Anyone who’s stepped into a classroom knows you weild a lot of power. Provided you’re in some kind of control of your class. You say what people do when, how they do it. You set limits, evaluate results. And most importantly, you shape minds. Nice work if you can get it. There are however, teachers who let the power of running a classroom get to their heads. The Power Lorder Guy unfortunately does things because he can, and usually because it’s what’s easiest for him- not because his actions serve the students’ best interests. He does things sometimes even just to gain or maintain that reputation for being tough and demanding. Kids benefit from and often love tough and demanding teachers, but the ones who always have the kids, and not their egos, in mind.

I consider the example of a professor/bad role model I had as an undergrad. Every test he gave us consisted of a variety of question formats, including one big essay, worth a lot of points, which focused on some minute detail in one specific, previously undisclosed chapter of one book. No one had a shot at getting it right unless the memorized every chapter. Yes, students can certainly learn from tough, specific questions: learn to take notes, read closely. But this was pointless and ridiculous. Even now, many years later, a teacher myself, i fail to see any educational merit to be found in that technique.

I don’t want to be that guy. That guy who uses trick questions and power games, the “Ooh, look how demanding and eccentric I am” guy. I don’t want to be the guy who finds it easier to test on trivia than analysis and so uses his power to ask questions accordingly. I don’t want to be the guy the other professors warn their students about, tactfully: “Uh, the one thing about that guy, on his tests, the essays….” I don’t want a reputation, as I go on in teaching, for being demanding just because I’m the one at the head of the class.

And how about TIME-CHEWER GUY (they ought to make action figures…) This is the teacher who, usually after years of experience, has figured out how to fill a class without doing much work. It could be reading out loud to the kids – all day everyday- it could be showing long films, or dividing kids into independent study groups which then run without supervision or direction. Activities also usually involve little if any prep time before hand, and leave the teacher with no work to do after class – correcting, conferencing, grading. Time is chewed, students are dismissed, little is done. Sure, any teacher will admit to occasionally to letting a class slide for a day, but good teachers don’t make it a regular pattern.

My bad teacher role model in this case is a guy I had in graduate school. It was a film analysis class. I’d taken a few others. Each of the previous professors required students to watch movies out of class and come prepared to discuss. This guy showed us films in class and did little else, save a follow up conversation that included precious little actual analysis and imparted little new information. What was his prep work? Securing a VCR? What was his post-class work? None! The class, a summer course, basically became a twice-weekly trip to the movies, but without benefit of popcorn. And when you consider the price of a grad school class, that was probably the most expensive movie ticket ever sold. Something was sold- a bill of goods. A laid-back summer class is one thing. But wasting a student’s time and money? That’s another one that made my “don’t list.” when I started as a new teacher at a junior college.

Another bad role model who can inspire new teachers to do better can be labeled POPULARITY GUY. I’m talking about that guy who doesn’t know where to draw the line between being a likable and respected teacher kids trust and being a pal. I’m talking about the guy who gets too much of his self-esteem from being “the cool teacher”. Popularity guy is that teacher who likes to be “in” with the kids, even if that “in” status comes at the expense of doing actual teaching, or even at the expense of other teachers or other kids.

Sometimes, Popularity Guy is innocuous- he just doesn’t want to make anyone angry so he lets stuff slide- due dates, class policies – or maybe he uses class time to just chat with the students about random topics because they seem to like that. Usually, Popularity Guys of that non-malicious ilk learn pretty fast that being popular at the expense of discipline will make their lives very difficult and they try to reform. But others prefer to be likable instead of professional. That’s a problem.
However, sometimes, Popularity Guy can be more insidious than a gabber or a soft-touch. He can be downright mean if it earns him points. Examples of Popularity Guy’s bad role model actions include making fun of other people with students-other people being teachers or adults or even other students with students.

My personal bad role model example of Popularity Guy is a teacher I had as an adolescent. This teacher, when in front of the class, seemed to treat everyone equally, more or less, though he did seem to joke more with the kids who were popular or smart. However, at recess, it was a different story. He once referred to a group of kids as morons to entertain the kids -including me- who were standing around him. He mentioned a pair of sister was referred to as sharing a brain. One time, in class, in front of all the students, he hypothesized that another teacher was late because she was off somewhere filling her face.

There’s a line between joking with students, enjoying rapport with them as a teacher who honestly likes their company and trying to become popular by doing things that hurt their education or – worse – their feelings. Teachers who cross over a setting a bad example for their kids and their younger colleagues.

But here’s my favorite bad role model teacher, I call him THE FAKING IT GUY. No teacher who has been at it very long hasn’t had that day when he or she comes into class and just hasn’t had time to plan the lesson to the degree he or she would like. It happens. Being able to improvise in the classroom is in fact an essential teaching skill, one you either come into education with, or quickly learn to cultivate. However, some teachers, bad ones, go into every lesson unprepared, and whether using Power-Lording Guy, Time-Chewing-Guy or Popularity-Guy tactics fake their way through classes day after day. We’ve all had teachers like that at some point, and it never took us long to spot them. Sometimes, we, as kids, enjoyed the break. But a lot of the times, we were bored, weren’t we? And maybe a little insulted? And didn’t we, looking back, miss a piece of our education for that? Whether we never got a real Spanish II lesson or learned about the Civil War, we ended up behind. And it Faking It Guy appeared at the college level, where we paid for the course, we also ended up ripped off.

The Faking It Guy I most reflect on when I want to motivate myself to not phone it in is another grad school teacher. He is in fact perhaps my greatest teaching influence. The course I took with him was writing intensive and offered to graduate writing students. His teaching method? Have us bring in our writing and read it out loud. This, on the outset, made some sense, since we were writing scripts. But the more I and some of my classmates thought about it, the more we began to realize: we were taking a writing course, a graduate writing course – and this guy was never reading our writing. He was giving us zero written feedback. He was giving us nothing outside of fifteen second, knee-jerk responses to our badly rendered in-class readings (we were not acting students in any way!). This professor, who claimed to write so he could afford to teach, was a complete faker. He had plenty of knowledge but put no time into giving it to us in a constructive way. He passed on to us comments we could have gotten in a three-hour weekend seminar and never knew what any of us- and there were fewer than ten students- was working on at any given time. Our grades were arbitrary. The whole class was arbitrary. He chewed time (by having us read our work…) And he definitely tried to befriend us like Popularity Guy, but quickly, most of us were so annoyed by the lack of respect he showed us and our work we weren’t interested.

I vowed never to be that guy. Never to b.s my way through a whole semester of someone’s educational experience. Never to refuse to take time to evaluate work a student has taken time to produce. I have a long way to go before I am the best-organized, best-prepared, or most eloquent teacher on the block, but whatever my deficiencies, I know I will never be the teacher some student looks back at and says “Man, she was phoning it in.”

I have to reiterate, I have had some great teachers, and I reflect on their influence whenever I teach. They were dedicated and energetic, knowledgeable, approachable, and compassionate, fair, tough, honest, and they cared. Those are the guys – and girls – I strive to be everytime I step up to start class.

And of course there’s FAKING IT GUY. Faking it Guy is a bad role model who can inspire new teachers to

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