December 9, 2023

Does this teacher suck?

NOTE: I am posting my response to a blog post here because Blogger presented an incomprehensible error that I think might mean that my response is too long…

Lee Kolbert, aka teachakidd, raised some provocative issues in her blog post, I’m Not Who You Think I AM.

Lee’s blog post is a reaction to another post on Will Richardson’s blog, A Parent 2.0’s Back to School Dilemma in which he and Alec Couros lament what they’ve observed as parents at back-to-school night. I interpret Will’s blog as a cry for help. I know I have felt powerless when I visited my child’s classroom and found that the environment, teacher or pedagogical practices not to my liking.

Lee wrote the following…

Read Will’s post AND the comments because reading it all made me realize this about myself: I suck!

I must be a fraud. I’m not who you think I am!

People in the edublogger community who once thought I was a great teacher would be appalled if they came into my room! Why?

  1. I also have rules about sharpening pencils. Have you ever had 6 students get up to sharpen their pencils while they should be working on something else. While they are sharpening they are horsing around? All the while you are trying to read with a small group of students? Truly, there HAS to be some organization in a classroom. My rule? Sharpen pencils in the morning and afternoon. Otherwise, take one of my golf pencils (you know the short ones with no erasers?)
  2. I also thank parents for sending in white board markers and copy paper because I’ve already spent $800. of my own money this school year alone. Every little bit helps. By the way, I still need sticky notes, if you’d like to send me some. I’ll thank you too.
  3. I often use the textbook as a guide or [GASP] teach from it, because I HAVE to teach to standards and I have to teach 5 subjects every single day and I don’t have time to create a project-based activity for every single lesson.
  4. If I had a parent send me “helpful” emails and copy the principal on them, that parent would become “that parent” and you can be sure communication on my end would as minimal as possible.
  5. If I had a parent who told their child he/she can ignore my homework because the parent felt it was unnecessary…. the child will still be held responsible for the homework.
  6. My students have assigned seats. They are allowed to talk when the talk is meaningful and productive. They are not allowed to talk when someone else is speaking to the group. My students are sitting where “I,” THE TEACHER, determine each student can do their best work.

And there’s lots more rules! Yes, I have rules in my room. Sometimes I even have to invent more based on some things that occur repeatedly.

Well, first of all I need to declare publicly that my respect for Chris Lehmann has gone up appreciably based on his response and practical suggestions for more civil, learner-centered alternatives to teacher-created arbitrary rules. THAT was a masterful demonstration of why educators should take him seriously.

Lee – I’m wondering why you felt compelled to write this defense of your teaching practices? If I told you that I disagreed with your pencil rules or seating chart, would you change your practice? Under what circumstances would you do so? If some guy from central office carrying a clipboard told you to get rid of the seating chart, or pencils, or rows of desks, or gum rules, THEN would you do it?

Or, are you defiantly proclaiming, “This is the way I teach and if you don’t like it…” ?

There is also a great deal of rhetorical conjuring taking place. Are you defending all teacher’s rights to do whatever they BELIEVE is effective, perhaps even in the face of evidence to the contrary?

Do you want all of us who follow you on Twitter or via blogging to agree with your classroom practices? Are you using your online popularity to dare us to disagree with you or question your pedagogical practices?

I love you to death, but I’ve only hung out with you in non-school settings or interacted via Twitter. Does your presence in social media bestow quality control? How am I supposed to know if you’re a good teacher? Should I trust your nice avatar and the fact that kids like you?

If a teacher spends hours each day lecturing/speaking/teaching, is it unreasonable to expect that person to have well-developed speaking skills or is capable of explaining herself?

I’ve been at back-to-school nights where a teacher had so little charisma that parents walked around the classroom, mumbled “I guess she’s not here” and walked out of the room while the teacher plaintively asked, “Why isn’t anyone staying?”  If a teacher cannot hold my interest for 8 minutes, why should I leave my child with him for 180 days? Should a teacher work on developing such communication skills?

I can tell you that here in Australia the teachers have (on average) exceptional speaking skills and as a result so do their students.

That said….

I think the more important point that Alec, Will, Chris and others have alluded to is, “What if my child is randomly assigned to your classroom for an entire year and I don’t agree with your rules, room arrangement, seating chart or a bazillion other classroom variables?

THEN what options do I have as a parent? What is my child to do? What is the fate of a child whose parent is not an education expert?

15 thoughts on “Does this teacher suck?

  1. This discussion reminds me of a book launch I went to a couple of years ago about mythopoetic pedagogy.

    The incredibly overpriced book may be found here –

    and a description of mythopoetic pedagogy may be found here –

    Essentially, a teacher’s personal myth about teaching and learning creates their pedagogical practices.

  2. This post and the others that inspired it do more to empower educators and leaders than maybe we’d like to admit. Our classroom is our workplace, it is where we dive into the ideas and passions that inspired our decision to work with and shape students and future generations. I admire Lee’s transparency in what her class looks like today, when she mentioned that “People in the edublogger community who once thought I was a great teacher would be appalled if they came into my room!” This opened up a tremendous dialogue, a dialogue that would be phenomenal if done face to face where passion and intellect would drive the conversation beyond this week I presume (I propose Educon house this around lunchtime one day, I’d be happy to attend, facilitate, whatever). That said, Chris Lehman is right, if our rules are in place to do anything but induce the behaviors we want then we take power and choice away from the kids and instill our own ideals and vision. I want a classroom and system where my own children want to learn more, want to read when they come home, and want to question everything (even pencil sharpening rules, or classroom set-up) What I worry about is when my children get used to hearing don’t or no, and stop asking the questions and pushing the thinking. I would never label these measures, that Lee extrapolates herself as possibly bad, as “ineffective” if that’s even quantifiable, but I would label them as survival tactics, in place to meet what the teacher (Mrs. Kolbert) believes is a greater goal of attentiveness, and structure. What is the end result, do these rules inhibit creation, questioning, creation? If so, then I’m opposed, if not, and I would bet on not , not because of her avatar, online presence, or good will in the edublogger community, but because I think she is passionate and skilled in the art of teaching. (can we still call it art?)
    Thanks for the thinking and discussion all.

  3. I’m not sure I understand the frustration behind this post. I don’t think @teachakidd was trying to answer the question raised by Will, Chris, & Alec about what a parent is to do. (We could ask her, of course.) I think she was tapping into an ancillary component: Why do teachers do what they do?

    I think Yogi Berra answered this question best: In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

    As folks chimed in on Alec’s discontent there was clearly a thread of the conversation focused on pure theory. What would be the best thing for a teacher to say in an ideal world about their ideal classroom? The reality on the ground floor is oftentimes entirely different than what we might project in 140 characters. This dissonance between the theory and the practice is what she was tapping in to.

    All teachers create “arbitrary’ rules in order to avoid reinventing the wheel. We fine tune our classrooms to increase efficiency so we can focus on what matters. Even learner centered classrooms are framed by norms established in advance by the educator. Otherwise we’d never get anything done. It’d be a chaotic free-for-all. My 5th graders and I would still be having democratic discussions about whether or not we’ll push our stools in when we stand up. There are more important dialogues we can have.

    What Lee does illustrate, I think, is what a couple folks suggested in the original tweet-versation: There is usually a reason why teachers do what they do. Ask her/him what that reasoning is. If there isn’t a good answer, then you’ll know you need to take the next step — talking to a supervisor, homeschooling, or releasing their value added scores to the LA Times.

  4. I am very disappointed in this whole topic. Why can’t we all just stipulate that teaching is an art, not a science. Picasso was a brilliant painter—but if you were to ask 100 people who their favorite is how many would say Picasso? Let’s also stipulate that no learning will ever take place in a disruptive classroom. My child may have a teacher who doesn’t impose rules–but what will she learn if she spends a good portion of her day dodgiing pens and pencils being thrown about the room?

    When I started teaching high school, about 15 years ago, I was given the old-school advice “don’t smile until Christmas.” Guess what? It works. Taking a hard-line at first and then loosening the reins as the year progesses is quite effective.

  5. Mary Lou,

    Effective and efficient doesn’t necessarily equate to good. There’s no question that a classroom that is more democratic can be harder than a classroom that is more authoritarian, but in the end, I think it’s worth it. I am completely incapable of not smiling until Christmas, I would break myself trying. In fact, I laugh with my students every day. They make me smile and fill me with joy. It is my hope – and my experience – that my honest representation of the joy I feel in teaching them is paid back a thousand-fold in the excitement and effort and joy they reflect back at me.

    — Chris

  6. Gary et al.

    I can’t tell you how timely this discussion is for me. For about a dozen years I was employed by the school district in which my students attended, the final year as the Assistant Superintendent. Now that I have moved on to other opportunities, I feel as though the public reigns are off and I can act more as a parent than as a fellow educator or administrator. I am so frustrated with the tired pedagogy of my children’s teachers. 1 page HW policies for 4th graders? No tolerance policies for my 5th grader? Really. My son, who writes a blog, has an itouch, and is building his digital footprint has yet to use a computer in his class – 9 days into the school year! Instead, we see the tiring, boring, completely useless MathScape worksheets and the generic “read 20 minutes tonight”. No reflection. No purpose. No value.

    As for Lee’s blog and the comments – kids need some structure in their lives, I think to some extent we all believe that. But, most interesting to me is the process by which that structure is determined. Who’s structure is it? There’s an old joke that the definition of a sweater is that which a mother puts on her child when she (the mother) is cold. Well, I think we do the same for kids. Educators have a tendency to develop structures that work for them, but not necessarily the kids. Further, how do we involve the kids in developing that structure. That to me is the 21st century skill. How do we teach our kids to develop learning environments (which is what we do when we create rules/structures) when they are no longer in a school.

    I don’t offer these comments as a criticism of Lee – I’ve never seen her teach. What I know of her from her public profile is very positive, but having never seen her teach/work with her kids and families I don’t really know. My guess is that she doesn’t “suck”, that in fact she is a very good teacher struggling to improve just like all reflective educators are apt to do.

  7. @Mary Lou

    While I agree that teaching is more of a calling than a job, I would suggest that there is a great deal of science in what we do and, in fact, the very best educators continually work to redevelop their “art” through research and reflective practice.

    I also have to agree with Chris that this notion that a teacher should not smile until Christmas is so tired. In a world where collaboration and personal relationships are so important (see @ijohnpederson’s blog post about cultivating people) how could we possible model behavior that suggests the opposite? As teachers, we need to maintain high expectations for our classrooms, academically and socially, but among those expectation is the need to model to our students how to be human. By putting on a show and pretending to be someone we are not does little to help maintain those expectations.

  8. Chris and Tony….I wasn’t being literal about not smiling, rather the idea that for many of us starting the year firmly and then loosening the reigns as relationships are built and trust has been established, results in more time on real learning in the long run. I have no experience as an elementary teacher, but this works beautifully for my average HS kids (my high achievers are different). And elementary classes are unleveled and often integrated, so having some strict rules makes sense to me, even though I don’t have the same rules in my classroom.

    I guess I really just want to give teachers the benefit of the doubt. Those of us actually in the trenches face many obstacles….and honestly if I didn’t have all of the support from the on-line community, I can’t say I wouldn’t be one of the ones giving up.

    As for the parent dilemma…I have 4 kids in school, not same town where I work. I do cringe sometimes, but have also learned that sometimes my kids can do quite well in environments that to me are “all wrong.” The hardest was meeting the equivalent of me when my son started HS. I had to really bite my tongue….but in the end, he loved her and the class did amazing things that were completely student generated and off-topic (charity work).

    I do volunteer suggestions….got teachers to make voicethreads with the kids after field trips. If you take the time to get to know the teachers and you’re tactful it should be fine….I guess if it’s not then you are stuck with a bad teacher. It happens sometimes and is a learning experience in and of itself.

    My latest dilemma is that I was just elected to the school board….so now I do feel a little akward about making suggestions. Really working on ed reform to the best of my ability….I promise.

  9. Mary Lou,

    I appreciate your comments as a parent. I think you are right, parents have to understand that what was right for them as a learner may not be right for their children. Having said that, we are living in a different world then a generation ago, so while we do need to be aware of the individual needs of our children, we also need to acknowledge that the pedagogy of yesterday is not appropriate for today. If we are to prepare our kids for the future, we can’t rely on the teaching practices of the past.

    On another note, I’m certain that I don’t agree with your argument relative to being firm early only to loosen the reigns as relationships build. My first concern are those relationships that never flourish due to the practice of being firm (not smiling). Some kids need a hug more than they need a stern teacher. I really hope those kids don’t miss out on the opportunity to build that relationship.

    My other concern is your comments about grouping practices. First of all, I’m not sure what an “average” high school student is, but just the label itself means that some kids are “below” average and some are “above” average. Further, you insinuate that you treat “high achievers” differently. Why is that? Because they are compliant? Why the assumption that not all students can flourish when treated as “high achievers”?

    Finally, take a look at the class rules in an elementary school. Typically, there are very few (less than 10) and they typically revolve around themes such as respect and responsibility. Now, take a look at your student handbook. My guess is that there may be 10 pages of rules, instead of 10 rules. Its interested to me that in an elementary school full of diverse integrated learners, learning can take place with very few rules, yet a high school, even one with “high achieving” students often needs pages of rules to maintain appropriate learning environments.

    I firmly believe that as educators are jobs are to build foundations for our students and not ceilings, yet as soon as we label, sort, track and group kids we limit their opportunities.

  10. I totally agree…and we only have 2 tracks in my HS. I have honors and college prep and there are no prerequisites to get into honors, so that can be a mixed bag of abilities, but hard workers who care about education. I mean I do have a lot of students who just come to school every day to buy drugs. The college prep classes are integrated and include many with learning disabilities including autism. Several of my students’ plans stipulate what I can and cannot ask them to do and I am legally bound to comply. I differentiate…but it’s hard in a class of 30 and I need to know that the kids are afraid of me enough that they won’t do something really bad when I turn my back to help a struggling group. It’s still September…ultimately, they will come to know me and I them and the rules won’t be as rigid. I am an idealist too…but I’m also responsible for the safety of the kids in my care. Often the reality of our situations make us do things in practice that we wouldn’t agree with in theory.

  11. I have responded to Will Richardson’s original post and to Lee’s post and am out of energy for composing another response. All I can say at this point to this: AMEN and THANK YOU!

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