There Are No Bad Teachers

In any profession – parenting, teaching, medicine, psychology, sociology, business, etc – there are individuals who are not attaining their potential.  There are many reasons why this may be the case.  It does not help when we label such individuals as ‘bad’ teachers, ‘bad’ parents, ‘bad’ managers and so on.  Individuals come into a profession with a certain level of emotional, social and intellectual maturity and the measure of their professional effectiveness rests on the solidity of their interiority.  No teacher wants to block the progress of any child but unresolved insecurities and fears can lead to responding in ways that are protective of ourselves but detrimental to the child’s progress.  When I reflect on my own days of primary and secondary teaching I cringe at many of my responses to children.  Ironically, the students regarded me as a ‘nice’ teacher but I know now that my low self-esteem meant that I was not there for the students in the mature ways that they deserved.  The extent to which you hold self is the measure of how well you can hold each individual student’s presence in the classroom.  This holding also determines your responses to the inevitable challenging behaviours that arise in and outside the classroom.

It is not only the teacher that brings his or her emotional baggage into the classroom, so do children as do their parents.  It takes considerable interior solidity to withstand the troubling behaviours of students and, sometimes, the over-demanding expectations of these young people’s parents.  Parents, too, have their unresolved insecurities and these can be projected onto their children and the teachers.

Teachers who operate from an inner stronghold of self know that students are not out to make life difficult for them or their fellow students.  On the contrary, the teacher knows that the students are using substitute, as opposed to real and authentic, ways of drawing attention to how difficult life is for them.  Certainly, a mature co-operation between teachers and parents is required in order to understand and respond positively to the inner turmoil of the young person.  Teachers do need to set clear and definite boundaries around their right to teach and, particularly, around their right to respect for self and others in their classrooms in the face of the troubling behaviours that threaten these boundaries.  In order to effectively do this, the individual teacher needs the support of management, colleagues, parents and students to be effective in this regard.

Establishing boundaries are where teachers take action for self and not against students.  Easy to say in words but it takes considerable maturity and practice to put into action.  It is for this reason that teachers, vice-principals and principals need ongoing opportunities to deepen their understanding of self, colleagues, parents and students to develop effective classroom management strategies and to enhance their motivation to teach.  Apparently, up to 40% of new teachers lose their motivation and enthusiasm within one year. Such a statistic suggests that they were not adequately prepared for the realities of classroom life and that teaching is primarily about relationship with self and students.  Of course, a love of knowledge and teaching are critical but when there is not a psycho-social readiness to teach or to learn present, motivation quickly flies out the school windows.

A sound perspective on the issues of teachers having problems in teaching is crucial.  There are no statistics to indicate how many teachers feel fulfilled or disillusioned.  It is not easy for any one of us to admit to experiencing professional difficulties and personal vulnerability.  The suspicion is that there are a significant number of teachers who are living lives of quiet desperation.  Some indication of the latter is the unprecedented rise in teachers taking early retirement or leaving the profession on the basis of stress and health grounds.  However, it is important that the high numbers of teachers whose practise is excellent are not forgotten in the current drive to resolve the challenge of those teachers who are struggling.

When Mary Hanafin, Minister for Education, uses the terms ‘under-performing’ teachers and teaching being ‘a well-protected’ profession, she exhibits a lack of understanding and compassion.  No teacher wants to go into school every day for the whole of their working lives dreading the day and ‘losing it’ with students.  The fact is that teachers have not been provided with an honourable way out of teaching and a retraining and transferring of their knowledge and skills onto other professional careers.  Furthermore, the training of teachers requires serious revision and the ‘passing of the buck’ of responsibility to Boards of Management are ‘under-performances’ that the Department of Education needs to examine.  Indeed, it is critical that nobody is ‘scapegoated’ in the attempts to resolve this serious educational issue.  We are talking about the wellbeing of the teachers who are troubled and troubling and their students.  A sensitive, non-judgemental and caring approach are the determinants of an effective resolution.

Tony Humphreys practices clinical psychology and writes practical books on psychology.  The book relevant to the article is A Different Kind of Teacher.