Complaints About Teachers May
Fall on Deaf Ears
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer, Tuesday,
December 10, 2002
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One day Jeanine Martin did something that few parents ever do.
She complained about a bad teacher.
This was in Fairfax County, one of the best school districts
in the country, with well-educated parents, high-achieving
children and better than average pay and working conditions.
The county had its pick of teachers for every vacancy.
But things happen, even to good teachers. The teacher Martin
complained about had been asked to teach fourth-grade math,
something she had not done before. She was pregnant, her third
child in three years. She seemed tired and had lost control of
the class. Martin said she looked in one day to find "students
standing on their desks, shouting and laughing and having a
I wrote a column two months ago [Rooting Out Teachers' Bad
Reputations] saying I planned to do a series of articles about
teachers with bad reputations. I would not report rumors and
gossip, but instead find a few teachers in the Washington area
about whom there had been complaints, and investigate. My plan
was to talk to everyone--parents, students, other teachers,
the principal and most importantly, the teacher who was
allegedly in trouble.
I have spent 20 years writing hundreds of stories and two
books about good teachers. I know bad teachers are a tiny
minority, but each of them can hurt hundreds of children. I
said in the column that I wanted to know how complaints about
teachers were handled, or mishandled. I expected to find in
some cases that the bad reputations were not deserved. Some
allegedly bad teachers are just tough teachers. It is not the
That column produced a flood of e-mails. Most told me stories
about teachers they knew and encouraged me to pursue my plan.
But many said I should junk the whole idea. "Please don't go
down this path," said Cheryl Nichols, a graduate admissions
coordinator for education programs at Marymount University in
Arlington County. "The majority of teachers who seemingly have
a negative impact on some children do not have the impact we
always think, and most administrators will seriously consider
a change if parents press the issue."
One reader who did not sign the e-mail said, "There are a lot
of vengeful children and parents who will make a teacher's
life a living hell by reports falsified and/or exaggerated
information." Kelli Midgley-Biggs, an Advanced Placement
English teacher, said, "Our administrators ought to be trusted
to weed out the really bad apples."
I appreciated their advice. I plan to be very careful because
such stories can cost people their livelihoods. But a large
majority of the e-mails--and I am hoping readers will send me
more--indicated that administrators are very reluctant to take
a parent's or child's side against a teacher. Principals who
do that risk their relationships with all their other teachers
and with the local education association. They rightly fear
the emotional trauma and paperwork of trying to remove a
faculty member. There is always hope that the teacher might
get better. And a principal cannot be certain that a
replacement teacher will be any better.
Martin's experience seems to be typical, although the
principal in her case may have mounted a more aggressive
defense than most. Martin said he called her at home on a
Friday night "to tell me that I was the first parent to ever
complain about this wonderful teacher and that I,
singlehandedly, was ruining the reputation of one of the best
teachers" in the school system.
This was the wrong strategy to use with Martin, a very active
parent in touch with many other parents. She had already heard
some complaints about the same teacher when her older son was
at the school. When she repeated what the principal said,
other parents laughed. They said that was the man's standard
response. Whoever complained was always the first person ever
to do so, and the teacher complained about was always "one of
the best, if not THE best, in the county," Martin said.
Many of the e-mails I received were, as you would suspect,
from parents like Martin. Joann Moser, a Montgomery County
mother, said her daughter encountered a seventh-grade teacher
who graded essays based not on quality but quantity and
whether they had been peer-reviewed by other students. Her shy
daughter got a D because she could not persuade enough
classmates to read and comment on her 10 essays. Sally Vaza, a
Madison, Wis., parent, found her daughter's fifth-grade
teacher regularly misspelling words she told her pupils to
study--"happyness" was one example--and was resistant to
suggestions for helping the girl when she seemed to be missing
I stopped counting the number of e-mails I received about math
teachers. It has long been my impression that they are the
most common subject of parental complaints, and the response
to that column proved it. Pat Charette, to cite one example,
described an algebra teacher in Arlington County, who
sometimes ridiculed students who asked questions. Her child
clammed up, making things worse because she started getting Ds
on her tests. Charette didn't find out about this "until late
in the year because she was getting Bs on her report card.
Apparently the teacher was giving students an A just for
turning in homework, even if every answer on the homework was
wrong. My daughter wasn't learning algebra at all."
The more vivid and distressing stories came from students,
some of their memories quite recent and some recalled long
after they reached adulthood.
Jocelyn Waite remembered a third-grade teacher, known as "Mean
Maureen," who perpetuated an atmosphere of intimidation and
punished the worst classroom offenders by making each place
his or her nose inside a small circle on the blackboard until
she told them to sit down. "I learned there not to ask
questions, a habit that persisted for 15 years," Waite said.
Rhonda Blake recalled a first-grade teacher in Alexandria who
refused to spell her first name correctly--she said she liked
it better without the "h". She called several students "fat"
and opened the bathroom door, connected directly to the
classroom, one day when she decided the often poky Blake had
been in too long. "I'm not sure what I learned in her class,
other than a strong dislike of school in general," Blake said.
Monica Hawley, now a Ph.D. engineer, described how her
eighth-grade teacher handled her surprising difficulty with
fractions. "This teacher sat me down and said that my math
abilities, that had been recognized since pre-K, were maxed
out and I should take classes in high school that were not
math-based," Hawley recalled. "I was devastated since math was
my favorite subject." She bounced back soon enough, and when
the same teacher saw her a few years later, and recalled her
old fraction mistakes, she had the pleasure of telling him she
was about to take Advanced Placement calculus.
Michael Tincher, an educator in Santa Fe, N.M., said he
encountered poor teaching at several stages of his life. In
the seventh grade, his history teacher ridiculed him when he
asked a question about tree rings, told him he was going to
fail no matter what he did and announced to his classmates
"that I thought I was smart, but was not." When Tincher was a
first-year teacher and complained about a colleague in the
next classroom who regularly reduced children to tears, the
principal said that everything was fine. And when he was an
active parent and soon-to-be board member at a charter school,
he found that because of the lack of any available
replacement, he could not remove a math teacher who was
"openly rude to students and to me, completely incompetent as
a teacher and displayed disturbed behavior.... All I was able
to do was to sit in her class as much as I could, help
students with math and protect my own children from her
"In my long association with education I would say that fully
25 percent of the teachers I have seen should not be there,
have no love for children and know too little to be valuable
as instructors of children," he said. "I would also conclude
that this is one of the major problems that is damaging
I think his estimate is too high, at least I hope it is. But
there are more teachers in trouble than there ought to be, and
I think it would be worth my time to write about some of them.
So tell me your stories, particularly if they deal with
teachers in the Washington area, and I will do my best to find
out if they are really bad, or instead unfairly demonized, and
what should be done about it.