We Love to Hate the ‘Bad’ Teacher

The new novel Tampa fuels our national anxiety about public education

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chris O'Meara / AP

Former schoolteacher Debra Lafave, right, arrives with her mother Joyce Beasley for a probation-violation hearing at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa on Jan. 10, 2008

With her new novel, Tampa, Alissa Nutting has given us American literature’s first psychological exploration of the female pedophile, an account of a Florida middle-school teacher, Celeste Price, who lures two eighth-grade boys into sexual relationships. Price is no Mary Kay Letourneau, who, after serving time in prison, actually married the student she abused when he was only 13 years old. Price is a coldhearted nymphomaniac who, after feeding her sexual needs, wishes for the deaths of her victims. She is based on Debra Lafave, a real-life Tampa pedophiliac teacher — and former high school classmate of Nutting’s — who avoided jail time after her lawyer argued that she was too beautiful to get locked up.

With its blunt descriptions of adult-teenager sex, Tampa has attracted significant media attention, with Nutting being billed as “the summer’s most controversial author.” Though the writing in Tampa is pedestrian in comparison with Nabokov’s Lolita, the great classic on which it is based, it certainly represents a gutsy attempt by a young, female author to embody a wholly unsympathetic female narrator and probe the question of whether society lets women essentially get away with crimes for which men are excoriated.

Nutting’s narrative is an extreme example of another genre as well: the story of the despicable, or at least morally compromised, teacher. Claire Messud’s divisive novel, The Woman Upstairs, features a single, childless woman who obsessively attempts to appropriate the happy family life of one of her students. Bad Teacher, a low-IQ Hollywood comedy starring Cameron Diaz, has now been turned into a CBS series. In the high-minded indie film Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling played a schoolteacher who is a secret drug addict. The contradiction inherent in a bad teacher makes for an entertaining character, which is why the meme has a long, rich history, from Nicholas Nickleby to the Harry Potter series. But the bad teacher has also become an overhyped target for our national anxiety about public education.

(LIST: Top 10 Bad Teachers)

Though much of Tampa’s narrative takes place within a school, only two teachers are depicted: Price, who is a criminal and a bad teacher — her discussions of classic literature are based on movie adaptations — and Janet Feinlog, an obese, “joyless” woman who seems to hate children and eventually loses her job after cursing out students and throwing a chair. At Price’s trial, Feinlog is called by the defense as a character witness; she claims that the clearly sociopathic Price is “a good woman.”

We know such monsters exist. In the Bronx, a 40-year-old male elementary-school teacher is accused of raping a 10-year-old girl. At the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, a librarian has admitted to attending meetings of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. These incidents came to light recently in a series of articles published by the New York Daily News, which were inspired by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s advocacy campaign to weaken public-school educators’ union-won due-process protections.

But media reports of nightmare teachers tend to obscure how rare they really are. In New York City, since 2007, 128 teachers have been accused of sexual misconduct — less than two-tenths of 1% of the city’s massive 80,000-person teacher corps. In general, our national political focus on making it easier to fire ineffective teachers — and here I’m talking mostly about those who are educationally ineffective, not legally criminal — tends to leave the public with an inflated sense of how many bad teachers are out there, seeding distrust in the entire endeavor of public education. As a longtime education reporter, I’ve asked a number of no-excuses school reformers for their estimate of the number of working teachers who ought to leave the profession. The response I hear most often is “5% to 10%,” a stat supported by the research of Stanford University labor economist Eric Hanushek. That means even the toughest reformers believe that 90% to 95% teachers are capable of improving their practice and becoming effective professionals.

Of course, it isn’t a novelist’s job to capture the complexity of education policy. The media, however, could do a better job. One of the most covered public-school stories of the past year was the indictment of 35 Atlanta teachers and administrators for inflating students’ standardized-test scores. Few TV reports mentioned that the brave, ethical whistle-blowers — not just the bad guys — had been classroom teachers.

(MORE: Erika Christakis: What’s Really Scandalous About the Atlanta Schools Testing Scandal)

Indeed, the best fictional depiction of a predatory educator is John Patrick Shanley’s play and film Doubt, which is set at a Catholic school. It is fascinating exactly because it pits a charismatic, potentially pedophiliac priest against two ethical and suspicious nuns. Monster teachers like the characters in Tampa are out there, but don’t think for a minute that their real-life colleagues want them to get away with their crimes.

17 comments
dshazam
dshazam

I am seriously concerned that JenniferBonin knows her subject matter when she comes to mathematics, in particular statistics and statistical inferences. From 'her experiences' with 'education outreach' classes, she jumps to the alarming statistic of 25% of teachers are ineffective.  Now is that 25% of those in your outreach classes or your district or your state???  What is your sample size?  Oh, yes, and then another 50% are only tolerable. 

As a former teacher, all of us in our state could only be certified to teach in our state in our major and/or minor.  This fact destroys your other misleading or wrong-headed assumption.

Somehow you take your unproven assertion that only 50% are tolerable and turn that into 'minimum standards are extremely low'.

Please get off your shaky soapbox.  Take at least a basic statistics class and learn about sample size and correlations.  The majority of teachers that  I have known and  had worked with knew their subject matter very well.  However, some could have used some lessons in how to present that material  This appears to be one of your failings as well.

Lowie94
Lowie94

Those who perform the dangerous balancing act of thinking-while-reading will naturally take exception to the section on percentage perception.  If reformers believe that 5-10% of teachers "ought to leave the profession" and that the remaining 90-95% are capable of "becoming effective professionals", that leaves 0% who are currently effective professionals and it's a wonder that any of us were even capable of reading the article in the first place.

DanBruce
DanBruce

Has Time sunk so low as to spotlight this on its front page? (No need to answer, I already know the answer).

terrywinters9
terrywinters9

That means even the toughest reformers believe 90% to 95% teachers are capable of improving their practice and becoming effective professionalsWhat makes you think a large percentage are not already capable and effective?Because the deformers say so? Very few of them have ever taught themselves and those that did left within a few years and became the self appointed experts at bashing and demeaning an entire profession, such as the Rheeject. Shame on you for this misleading and inaccurate statement.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

Anyone who believes that only 5-10% of our math/science teachers are "educationally ineffective" really needs to be a scientist/engineer running a "teach the teachers" educational outreach class.  Because from my own experience, at least in those two disciplines, the percentage of teachers who simply don't know the material is probably closer to 25%.  And if you don't know the material forwards and backwards, it doesn't matter how good you are at teaching, since you can't teach what you don't comprehend.  Or at least not well.  Having also tutored students of bad math/science teachers, that's pretty obvious.

Mind you, another 25% or so of math/science teachers are truly excellent and the other 50% is tolerable, so this isn't saying all teachers are awful!  But it IS saying that the minimum standards are extremely low, and need to be raised.  For example, requiring at least a college MINOR in the area of study for any middle/high school teacher seems like a good idea to me.  That way they're at least 1-2 years beyond the material they're expected to teach to 12th graders.  Is that really so much to require?

prioripete
prioripete

I got lost in the article a bit for the difference between reality and the projected script displayed a vague illusion.  But this is the evidence of what some of us have claimed in the downward spiral of the singular material also noted in the meme promotion along Harry Porter and the likes. 

The missing link is the Objectivism quantification produced by the balance in 'the bridge of transcendence'.  It is in My Social Relations by Peter T Wilson 

BorisIII
BorisIII

You get what you pay for.  So there will always be bad ones.  Just have to hope your kids don't get one of the bad ones.  On a bell curve of course.  They have a big teacher shortage in the south, because they pay so little.

Belisarius86
Belisarius86

@terrywinters9 Shame on you for resorting to childish terms like "deformers" and "Rheeject". If you had an actual argument, you wouldn't have to lean so heavily on the ad hominem crutch.

horsley1953
horsley1953

@JenniferBonin But you aren't paying attention to the most treasured axiom of the education profession: "You don't have to know anything about it in order to teach it". Of course all the education programs in colleges make one exception to this - they claim you do have to know education in order to teach it (and you especially have to have a copy of the $500 book your professor wrote on the subject).

markb3699
markb3699

The article states that school reformers said 5 to 10 percent ought to leave the profession, not that 5 to 10 percent are educationally ineffective. I think the idea is that the rest could improve. I take it you don't think that's possible? When I was in high school one of my P.E. instructors was assigned to teach history because of a teacher shortage. He wasn't very good at first, but he got better.

AblityMouwon
AblityMouwon

@JenniferBonin I disagree Ms. Bonin, I even have college proffessors who cannot answer my question right away but are willing to do the resreach and get back to me the next day. The fact is, knowing something is only half of being a good teacher. Of course, one has to be well educated; that is why one has to be tested to become a teacher. In my experience, the worst teachers are not the ones that do not know the material - Most teachers are much more educated than their students -The problem is many teachers are simply not very passionate, or creative about what they are teaching; that rubs off on students.

Belisarius86
Belisarius86

@BorisIII Where did you hear that there was a teacher shortage in the South? I'm in Alabama and personally know about half a dozen recent graduates with good GPAs (not that that is very difficult with a B.Ed.), and only two of them have teaching jobs.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@horsley1953 @JenniferBonin :)  Well, yeah.  They don't like to admit that any of us who tutor, or TA, or mentor grad students or younger colleagues, or are part of teams ALSO have to learn teaching skills.  And that we don't need formal classes to pick it up, just experience.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@markb3699 Yes and no.  Like you, I've definitely seen that sometimes be the case.  And I've got nothing but sympathy for those teachers.  But on the other hand, the teachers I'm talking about aren't ones who have only been teaching that subject for a year or three.  Really, in my experience, around a quarter of math/science teachers who HAVE been teaching their subjects for more than a few years are... poorly qualified, shall we say?  They know HOW to solve the math problems, but not WHY the method works.  They know the material in their science textbooks, but are not able to answer the students' questions about the obvious next step in the logic chain.

And it's not really a surprise.  Because a significant fraction of the teachers who end up as math/science teachers haven't taken more than college algebra and what I'd consider high-school level science classes (ie: the non-math-based ones offered for non-science/engineering majors the first year in college).  Worse, many of these teachers didn't really "get" math and/or science when they were in school, though they may have gotten As in their classes.  That much is pretty clear when you talk to them -- and is even clear to the sharper students, I might add.

So it ends up a case of the blind leading the blind.  And not just for a year or two, like your poor gym/history teacher, but for the entire time they're teaching.  Because they learn the minimum amount required to teach the material, but no extra.  Which means that if a student is struggling, they don't know enough to show them a different way of looking at the problem.  And if a student is excelling, they don't know enough to prompt them to the next level of knowledge or thinking, either.  So struggling students fall farther behind, and sharp students get bored stiff -- and BOTH can be turned off the subject.  And then if some of THOSE students decide to become teachers... well, it's a vicious cycle.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@AblityMouwon  Of course there's more to teaching than ONLY knowing the material.  I've got plenty of engineering friends who can't explain their subject to their colleagues, much less to people outside our discipline, so I'll be the first to agree that teaching IS a skill.  But while not everyone who's competent in a subject is capable of teaching it well, I'd argue that NO ONE who is incompetent in the subject can possibly teach it well. 

Ideally, we'd like all teachers to be competent in their subject matter AND creative and brilliant at teaching.  And some are.  But if I had to pick between a boring, confusing, disorganized teacher who really knows the material, and an enthusiastic, interesting, organized teacher who doesn't have a clue why what she's saying is true, I'll take the former.  I'm more likely to be frustrated and have to work over-hard, but I'm also more likely to actually LEARN something, if I put some effort into it.  Having once had the latter type of teacher (really nice, but totally incompetent), I remember exactly what a waste of time that was.

Finally, please note that people who get majors other than education degrees often DO learn to teach and lead, even if their classes don't explicitly prepare them for it.  Many of us better engineers/scientists have TA'd classes, for example, or tutored.  And anyone who has to lead a group or team has to be able to explain things clearly.  That's why I am skeptical about the value of an education degree, especially for the older grades: those with an education degree don't typically take the classes in the SUBJECT(s) that they're teaching, while those with a non-education degree do -- and often pick up similar teaching/leadership skills along the way as well.  It'd be much more practical to require prospective middle/high school teachers to get the degree in their major, and take education classes as a minor, than the reverse.  But then, we don't even require the subject classes as a MINOR, now!  How insane is that?

Belisarius86
Belisarius86

@AblityMouwon

"The fact is, knowing something is only half of being a good teacher."

Yes, but knowledge is the foundation upon which all the rest is built. A very passionate and creative teacher without a thorough understanding of math...can't teach math.

Competence comes first.