Bad Teachers and Low-Performing Schools

May 20, 2010

At one point, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on the Morning Joe Show on NBC. He was talking with Mika and Joe about education. Mayor Bloomberg stated that a major problem with education was the tenure of teachers, which protected bad teachers and that the unions were involved by being protectors of bad teachers.

Mayor Bloomberg’s statements have grains of sand truth to them. There are bad teachers protected by the union. As co-steward of a school’s teachers union, I was uncomfortable standing up for a teacher who was doing a poor job. On the other hand, Mayor Bloomberg’s statements  have a beach full of misunderstandings of low-performing schools and the teachers in these schools. The truth of the matter is that the mayor is not the only person with perceptions that are often misguided. Many others think if we get rid of bad teachers and close low-performing schools the problems of our schools will be solved. However, in my experience as a teacher in an inner-city school, closing low-performing schools and firing bad teachers will not solve the problem. The two factors are products of bad discipline within our schools.

In order to solve this problem, it will require a new paradigm on how to handle discipline and how we look at low-performing teachers, schools, and school districts.

As a teacher, chairman of the discipline committee, and co-steward  of the school’s teacher union, I have different thoughts about good teachers and bad teachers. As I attempted to recruit teachers for the union, a constant repeated argument was, ” I will not join the union because the union protects and supports bad teachers.”  These teachers had a list of the usual suspects. One name on that list was Ms. Grouchy.

Ms. Grouchy was in her 60’s and close to retiring. She was quiet, polite, and unassuming in her manner. Her dress was professional yet simple. Her classroom was an isolated room in a dark corner of the first floor. This room was surrounded by two stairwells and a men’s restroom. Ms. Grouchy kept a low profile. She was known in the teacher’s lounge, but talked mainly to old friends or trusted colleges. As I gained knowledge from my teaching experiences, from discussions of the discipline committee and Shared Decision Making Committee, and from resolving conflicts as a co- steward of the union, a truth emerged. Ms Grouchy was one of the solid rock foundations of Austin High School.

Ms. Grouchy was an English teacher. Her classes were made up of the most academically challenged students. Students were placed in her classes with every type of educational label. Also placed in her classes: probational students from the juvenile criminal system. Discipline exchanges between schools ended up in her classes. She also had many gang members in her classes.

As I talked with students in my classes, a different picture emerged of Ms. Grouchy. “Ms. Grouchy gave me money to buy me lunch.” “Ms. Grouchy shared her sandwich with me.” “Ms. Grouchy found a winter jacket for me.”  “Ms. Grouchy convinced me to stay in school.”  The list of accomplishments by Ms. Grouchy was large and varied.

Another aspect of Ms. Grouchy influence became clear to me as I implemented my school discipline plan. I rarely encountered students from Ms. Grouchy’s class being tardy or walking the hallways. Students for honors classes, magnet programs, and principal’s pet teacher show classes were everywhere in the hallways and recesses of the school. A teacher with the lowest performing students, problem students, and probationary students had good discipline in her class. How could this teacher be considered to be a bad teacher?

These injustices occur when teacher performance and value are based on test scores and rankings.

Ms. Grouchy’s value and successes would not be honored by the school. Most likely she never earned teacher of the month let alone teacher of the year honors.

Honors classes, magnet classes, and pet programs are established to create  success. Teachers of these classes are the ones who generally get the accolades and awards. These same teachers are usually the most vocal critics of the union and our support of bad teachers. If these same critics had to teach Ms. Grouchy’s classes, most would soon be labeled low-performing, bad teachers. The superior discipline techniques many elite teachers smugly tout would be of little use in Ms. Grouchy type classes. How good would they be without a class of selected high performers (honors)? How long would they rate superior without the ability to say ‘no’ to who can be in their program? How long would they last without the ability to remove a non-achiever or discipline problem from their class?

We need a change in thinking about who is working hard, who is successful, and who has discipline in their classes. First, all teachers work hard and many low-performing teachers work harder than many honors teachers. Second, successful teaching is not just test scores but also the art of inspiring, directing, and helping students overcome their problems. Third,  ineffective school discipline systems are the underlying causes of the bad teacher and low-performing school problems. The combination of ineffective consequences with inefficient school discipline systems create bad teachers and low-performing schools. I believe that 95-98% of bad teachers can become good teachers with a good discipline system in their school.

The same attitudes and prejudices exists between high-performing schools and low-performing schools within a school district and between different school districts.

Austin High School  was a consistently low-performing school in the 1990’s. Superintendent Dr. Paige paid a visit to the school. This is the same Dr. Paige who would become the education czar under President George Bush. He indicated that Austin High School must change its low-performing status in two years. If Austin High School was still low performing in two years, he was going to transfer every teacher to different schools throughout Houston ISD. The stigma of being an absorbed teacher from a low-performing school was in our future

I did not have the courage that day to present Dr. Paige with a different plan of action. I believed an alternative plan of action should have been to  switch teaching staffs between Lamar High School and Austin High School. Lamar High School  is a high-performing school next to the affluent River Oaks area. All the different variables such as class size, money allocated for programs, demographics, etc. would remain the same. After two years we could see what a difference the high-performing good teachers from Lamar had made at Austin. The Austin teaching staff would have the opportunity to teach in a well funded school, with great facilities, and to a student body with focused successful attitudes.

My predictions for the future was that the Austin High School staff would fare well and would become a high-performing staff and that the Lamar High School staff would become low-performing. Additionally, many of the Lamar staff would leave teaching, leave the district, or transfer to other schools. Discipline issues, frustration, lack of success, lack of resources and money, and fear for their own safety and lives would drive them away. Hopefully, the greatest results would be an attitude shift in how the faculty of both schools looked at the issue of low-performing schools. The Lamar staff would understand and appreciate the hard work and issues low performing schools and teachers face every day. The Austin staff would learn and understand they have great successes every day, and that they are very valuable to America.

Today, I believe teachers are the same in exemplary and low-performing schools. The percentage of good teachers and bad teachers is the same in both schools. My thinking and way of looking at teachers is based on the success of my effective school discipline plan. When I first ventured into the hallways of Austin HS to get the hallways under control, around 80-90% of students were tardy to class every period. Between 40-60% percent of students did not go to class or attended part of a class. Hundreds of students walked the hallways throughout the school day. I thought if I could get 80% of students into class that it would be successful. After implementing my school discipline plan, 99% percent of students were good students because they could change their behavior. The hallways were clear and there was no tardy problem. My thinking and perception of bad students changed. These bad students were the results of poor discipline in our schools. The same conclusion should be made about bad teachers. They are the results and effects of poor school discipline systems. Therefore, if we fix the discipline in our schools, we will go a long way to solving the bad teacher and low-performing school problems.

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One Response to “Bad Teachers and Low-Performing Schools”

  1. Steve Unwin said

    What a thought-provoking blog, George! You sure know how to get us focussed on discipline in the schools – as well as in the swimming pools and much else! Your description of what went on in Ms. Grouchy’s class is a paean to education. The word “educate” is of Latin origin. It literally means to “lead out.” To lead out of ignorance, childhood, lack of skills. It does not just mean to instruct, to transfer information from teacher to student. This is what went on Ms. Grouchy’s classroom and this is why she was so successful. Her educating techniques should be a model for EDUCATORS everywhere! Steve

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