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 Article of Interest - Education

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 grand time!"

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 same thing.

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 some assignments.

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 emotional abuse."

"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 education."

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.
 

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