In this political season of faux anti-establishment anger born of very real economic desperation, public educators have become the villain du jour, their reputations collateral damage in the war against “big government.” In a remarkable slight of hand, the super rich who imploded the economy, manufacturing the recession which now enrages the public, have successfully misdirected the public’s justifiable anger away from them and toward teachers.
This anti-teacher rage is focused on the mythical cartoon character the “Bad Teacher,” who – according to the recent explosion in press on education generated by the documentary “Waiting for Superman” – plagues our public schools. The Bad Teacher is no one specific, but rather, a sort of free-floating, ill-defined stereotype: he is an inept, uncaring, self-interested bureaucrat waiting for his pension, not only disinterested in students, but actively engaged in standing in the way of student achievement, rather than encouraging it. I imagine the Bad Teacher as slovenly dressed, with stains on his shirt, showing up to class late, and once there, reading the newspaper while his students throw paper airplanes at each other. He looks up at the clock occasionally, waiting for his time to be up in order get out of school as fast as possible, so he can get home and watch “Glee” on his plump, faux-leather couch. Or he could be a really “Bad Teacher,” such as the one soon to be depicted in a 2011 movie of the same name, which is focused on a “foul-mouthed, junior high teacher who, after being dumped by her sugar daddy, begins to woo a colleague – a move that pits her against a well-loved teacher.”
All alone, the Bad Teacher is single-handedly, with one lazy bound, destroying a generation.
The corporate media has unabashedly promoted this myth as fact. According to Oprah, the Bad Teacher is everywhere, royally screwing up classrooms across America. In “The Shocking State of Our Schools,” a promotional piece on Oprah’s web site for the documentary, she claims that the students featured in the film are “eager to get an education,” but have to fight their way through a “system riddled with ineffective teachers.” NBC stalwart Tom Brokaw echoes Oprah, though he broadens the Bad Teacher to a sort of systematic educational conspiracy to ensure students don’t learn, in a recent report for Education Nation. Doing his best impression of Glenn Beck, he asks a new teacher if she has met resistance from “the teacher establishment,” authoritatively confirming to any naysayers that “there is one,” consisting of “unions” and veteran teachers. In Brokaw’s “balanced” view, the teacher establishment is set firmly against students, not there to serve them.
Bill Gates, interviewed approvingly by Brokaw in that report, expresses the same message in his speech to the American Federation of Teachers, though far less explicitly. He notes that public schools have been “struggling for decades,” and then a few paragraphs later, claims, “the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.” In other words, the single most decisive factor for public schools’ failures is the teachers. Gates has committed $500 million of his own money, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to more definitively identify the precise ingredients that compose a good teacher and, thus, by contrast, the Bad Teacher, who will then be fixed as though he’s an annoying bug to be rooted out in the latest edition of Windows.
“In the past five years, that attack on public education has ratcheted up to dimensions that were unthinkable 30 years ago,” observes educator Bill Ayers (yes, the same Ayers vilified by the right-wing media to prove Obama was really a “terrorist” in the 2008 elections). “And so people talk about the public schools in a way that is disingenuous and dishonest and also frightening in its characterization: they say the schools are run by a group of self-interested, selfish, undertrained, under-committed teachers, who have a union that protects them.” This misguided characterization, as Brokaw, Gates and Oprah show us, is no longer a far-right argument, but an accepted fact, a commonplace not subject to dispute.
The myth is now the truth.
The Bad Teacher myth, Ayers admits, is appealing, which is why it’s spread so far and become so commonly accepted. Who can, after all, disagree that we “need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom?” Even Ayers agrees that he, like all of us, “nods stupidly” along with this notion. As a professor at a community college and former high school teacher, I nod stupidly as well: I don’t want my students held back, alienated, or abused by these Bad Teachers.
This myth is also seductive in its simplicity. It’s much easier to have a concrete villain to blame for problems school systems face. The fix seems easy, as well: all we need to do is fire the Bad Teachers, as controversial Washington, DC, school chancellor superstar Michelle Rhee has, and hire good ones, and students will learn. In this light, Gates’ effort to “fix” the bug-riddled public school operating system by focusing on teacher development makes perfect sense. The logic feels hard to argue with: who would argue against making teachers better? And if, as a teacher, you do dare to, you must be “anti-student,” a Bad Teacher who is resistant to “reforms,” who is resistant to improvements and, thus, must be out for himself, rather than the students.
The only problem with the Bad Teacher myth, as anyone involved with education is intimately aware of, is that problems in education are anything but simple. “The discourse of these so-called educational reformers is simplistic and polarizing,” as Henry A. Giroux claims in a recent, comprehensive essay on the subject here at Truthout. “It lacks any understanding of the real problems and strengths of public education, and it trades in authoritarian tactics and a discourse of demonization and humiliation.” The debate has been reduced to a superhero comic, a simplistic battle between good and evil, a cartoon version of a complex reality. The debate has been reduced to a minor plot point in this election cycle’s “anti-establishment” political narrative.
Problems in education don’t just rest on the teachers’ shoulders, as Gates suggests, just as issues of health don’t rest solely on doctors’ shoulders (After all, we don’t blame doctors for the obesity epidemic, but rather, look to the greater culture, the conditions that encourage overeating and inactivity). This is not to say we shouldn’t focus on teacher development. Gates’ efforts to systematically improve teacher performance make sense, though they should be led by education professionals, not CEOs.
Yet, this lopsided, cartoonish focus on teachers’ performance distracts us from looking at education holistically, as an institution situated in an economy and culture. The myopic focus on eliminating the Bad Teacher obscures the greater problems in the socio-economic fabric – the fabric torn by the super rich in ways that bear directly on student achievement. As Giroux observes:
Real problems affecting schools such as rising poverty, homelessness, vanishing public services for the disadvantaged, widespread unemployment, massive inequality in wealth and income, overcrowded classrooms and a bankrupt and iniquitous system of school financing disappear in the educational discourse of the super rich.
The Bad Teacher is an effective myth, a convenient scapegoat for ignoring these greater systemic problems that would require real, substantive reform, reform that would threaten the super rich like Gates and others who are bankrolling the corporatization of public education. This myth, while appealing, stands in the way of real educational reform, by misdirecting the public’s attention from the socio-economic conditions that make for a poor learning – and living – environment.