For two decades she was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” She wrote fiction that appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. Then, in 2007, she decided “on an impulse” to become an English teacher. She got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and ninth-grade Composition until 2013, when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers.
Herman chronicled the lessons she learned on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where a version of the following post appeared. Herman, who gave me permission to publish this piece, was awarded first and third place prizes in the 2014 SoCal Journalist Awards given by the Los Angeles Press Club for pieces on her blog. Now she teaches reading and writing at an after-school enrichment program for students from low-income families, visits the classrooms of great teachers, and works with writers, artists and other creative people.
She has written some popular posts on this blog, including “Are you a bad teacher? Here’s how to tell,” to which she refers in the following piece.
By Ellie Herman
Every day people click on a post I wrote a while ago called “Are you a bad teacher?” On some days it seems as if an infection of self-doubt has burst across the profession, evidenced by the search terms they use, which include terms such as “I’m a horrible teacher” and “I’m a rubbish teacher” and “Why am I a terrible teacher?” So why are so many teachers agonizing over the possibility that they might be bad?
Is this agonized self-doubt found across most professions? Is there a dentist blogging out there whose most popular post is “Are You A Bad Dentist?” Are there neurosurgeons out there agonizing that they might be rubbish neurosurgeons? Do accountants lie sleepless at 2 a.m. worrying that they are horrible accountants?
Maybe. (And in the case of some dentists, like the one I had when I was a child, they probably should start.) But I doubt it. I suspect that teachers’ obsession with whether they might be horrible or terrible or rubbish might have to do with a variety of external factors, and these factors are important because in our national education crisis—and it is a crisis—one of the things we need to do most urgently is attract and retain good teachers.
So if it’s safe to assume from the sampling of my readers that there are a lot of teachers out there agonizing that they are not good teachers, I think we can also assume that those teachers are unlikely to stay in the classroom because nobody is going to stay for too long in a job at which they feel incompetent. If in fact those teachers are right and they are bad, and yet they care enough about their jobs to be searching for answers in the middle of the night, what are we as an educational system doing to support those teachers so that they can become better?
Here are my thoughts on what’s causing this “bad teacher self-doubt” epidemic and what we might do to help:
1. Teacher training is pathetically inadequate. My own training was a hodgepodge of useless state-mandated courses; in two years, I took exactly one useful class. The rest of the classes were, to be blunt, bureaucratic bullshit along with some helpful hints about how to navigate the byzantine, mind-numbing credentialing system. It cost me thousands of dollars—it costs far more now, thanks to funding cuts—and left me totally unprepared to face a classroom of teenagers in a high-poverty community. The first thing teachers need to learn how to do is manage the classrooms in which they find themselves.
New teachers need specific training and support depending on their community, the size of their classrooms and the age and proficiency level of their students. Nothing I ever learned in my training prepared me for dealing with large classes of students who were several years below grade level, many of whom had difficulty controlling their behavior in class. It took me two years to learn it on my own, every day a trial and error. Right now, our system pretty much makes teachers learn it on their own; the current “student teaching” system pairs a student teacher with a random assortment of whatever teacher is willing to host them, regardless of whether that teacher is any good or teaches in a community like the one that new teacher will soon face. Every new teacher should spend a year in the classroom of a master teacher in the community where he or she plans to teach.
2. Teachers get little or no support. Once you’re in the classroom, you’re pretty much on your own. You can beg a colleague to come observe you and comment, but colleagues are often so swamped themselves that they just don’t have time. Administrators are sometimes willing to help, but they’re also usually too busy—except when they’re evaluating you on the rubric of mandated standards, which may or may not be useful to you. It’s possible that some teachers feel “supported” when an administrator is going over a six-page standardized chart of numeric scores evaluating their every move. All I can say is that I have not met these teachers. But I’ve met a boatload of teachers who do not feel supported—who in fact, feel even worse. Teachers throughout their careers need a mentor who can remind them of why they’re teaching in the first place and help them work toward their dream.
3. Teachers do not have the resources to do a good job. And by “resources,” I do not mean state-of-the-art technology. I mean having enough space for the kids in your room—enough desks, enough books, a library so that they can read. If they need to use a computer, the computer needs to have keys. (I am not making this up—it happens a lot, alas.) If they need to use the Internet, the school needs a functional wireless connection. If you are expected to grade your students regularly and those gradebooks are online, your online gradebook needs to work. In a high-poverty community where many kids are facing day-in-day-out trauma from chaotic living conditions, we need counselors and administrators who can help traumatized students who are acting out and not able to stay in class.
You need to have paper to make photocopies of all the books you can’t afford to buy, and time to make those photocopies. Let’s face it, if we cared at all about teachers’ work, we would have teaching assistants to do the mind-numbing hour or more of photocopying per day. “Would a lawyer put up with this shit?” a former teacher recently asked me, referring to the conditions that had caused him to quit after two years. We need to start by creating conditions in which it’s even possible to do a good job as a teacher. Isn’t it insane that this idea should be up for discussion at all?
Now, it’s possible that even after we solved all those issues, that a teacher might still feel inadequate. In fact, there very well may be teachers who, after a year or so, realize the job really is not for them.
But right now our system doesn’t give teachers space to make a good decision about whether the career is for them; it gives them inadequate training, throws them into a classroom for which they are woefully unprepared, with minimal support and without many of the key elements they need to teach a class successfully—and then holds them to new, high standards and demands that they be excellent or deal with our national wrath.
Is it any wonder that so many teachers feel terrible? I recently visited a school where the 12th grade English teacher was the only teacher in all of the 11th and 12th grade who had been at the school for more than a year. She was the school veteran teacher. It was her second year. And she plans to quit at the end of this year because she can’t take it.
So yes, there are some bad teachers out there. I’ve met them. I am upset about them. But we have created, by our underfunding and our denial of the realities of poverty, a system in which being a good teacher is nearly impossible, in which even good teachers—probably especially good teachers—feel terrible a lot of the time. So yes, let’s raise national standards for teachers. But let’s also ask ourselves, as a country: what can we do to create conditions in which teachers are able to do the good work that matters to them so much that even in the middle of the night, they agonize about how they could be better?
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