Do Reformers Hate Teachers?

An article that recently got a lot of attention is called ‘Confessions Of A Teacher Hater’ by TFA alum Connor P. Williams.  I heard about this piece through Whitney Tilson’s email list and also from Michelle Rhee’s Twitter feed.

The gist of the article is that he does not appreciate being labeled a ‘teacher hater’ by reform critics just because he sides with ‘reformers’ on issues like charter schools, TFA, and standardized testing.  He makes a case that, quite the opposite, he loves teachers.

I had a Twitter conversation with him, and asked him a question I’ve asked a lot of ‘reformers’ when they start talking about how much they love teachers:  “What percent of teachers do you suppose you hate?”  This is an important question, though he would not commit to an actual number and we got into an argument about semantics before he gave up with me.  (I’ve been a bit aggressive on Twitter, lately.  I think it is because I smell blood in the water.)

Nobody loves all teachers, and nobody hates all teachers.  But if you hate ‘most’ teachers, then you are indeed a ‘teacher hater,’ even if you really like the ‘good’ ones.  The same is true about the LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was recently banned from basketball for life because he told his ex-girlfriend that he did not want her to bring a black friend to the game with her.  Surely Sterling doesn’t hate all black people.  He likes the ones on his team who have helped him make a lot of money.  He probably wouldn’t be upset if his girlfriend brought Michael Jordan to the game with her.  Like ‘reformers,’ Sterling likes the ones he considers to the the ‘good’ ones, and has contempt for a large percent of them.

Michelle Rhee says she loves teachers, but she also says that our country’s school system deserves a D+ and that teachers are the most important in-school factor for student’s learning.  She also has an organization called StudentsFirst which, by the very nature of the name, says that the students need to be protected from ‘the adults’ — which really means ‘the teachers’ who have had it too easy all these years.  If Michelle Rhee loves teachers, she doesn’t love the ‘average’ teacher, but the exceptional ones.  She doesn’t ever give a number, but it certainly is less than half the teachers.

Michael Bloomberg, a few years ago, said that if he could he’d fire half the teachers and double the class size for the other half and that would be a ‘win’ for everyone.  He certainly ‘loves’ less than half the teachers.

If you dislike such a large percent of teachers then, yes, you are a ‘teacher hater’ despite the fact that some of your best friends are teachers.

So I reached out to the only ‘reformer’ who has been willing to engage in a discussion with me over the past few years, Whitney Tilson.  Tilson isn’t a teacher, but he has spent a lot of time studying various aspects of ed reform, and he has strong opinions on most issues and, unlike most ‘reformers,’ he is not afraid to speak his mind.  I appreciate this aspect of Tilson while simultaneously thinking that despite all his efforts, he really knows nothing about schools.

So I asked him the question that all the other ‘reformers’ are afraid to answer:  “What percent if teachers do you suppose you hate?”

Tilson did offer a lengthy response which he sent out to the thousands of people on his email list.  Here is is answer:

Hi Gary,

This is a “when did you stop beating your wife” kind of question, in that it assumes that I (and my fellow reformers) hate a lot of teachers. This is, of course, complete nonsense. Do people who want to get rid of bad doctors who harm patients hate doctors?

The easy answer would be that I don’t hate any teachers – that I just think ineffective ones need to be replaced. But that would be a lie because I do hate some teachers – I don’t know the exact percentage, but it’s very small – and I would certainly hope it’s the same percentage that you hate. Hate is a very strong word, so let me define which teachers I hate: the ones who knowingly and deliberately harm them children in their care. At the top of the list would be sexual predators. I really hate them. Don’t you? I also hate teachers who abuse kids psychologically and emotionally – for example, one young child in a documentary I saw said that when she told a teacher she aspired to be a doctor one day, the teacher laughed at her and said, “You’ll never be a doctor. You’re dumber than a bump on a log!” I really hate any teacher that would say something like that to a child. Don’t you? In my book, that one sentence is grounds for immediate termination. Wouldn’t you agree?

What are your feelings about the teachers and administrators a good friend of mine described to me in this email (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/07/story-from-trenches-send-me-more.html) about some of his experiences as a TFA corps member in the South Bronx in the late 1990s: the assistant principal of his school calling Puerto Ricans “God’s stupidest people”, the art teacher who “spent almost every minute of every day screaming at the top of her lungs in the faces of 5-8 year olds who had done horrible things like coloring outside the lines,” and the principal who told teachers on the first day they were hired: “as long as they are quiet and in their seats, I don’t care what else you do.” Maybe hate is too strong a word for how I feel about “educators” like this – but I really, really hate the behavior of the union that protects them and ensures that they have a job for life, even though they are doing real damage to students every day of their careers.

I’m NOT saying that people like this are the norm. Far from it. In fact, if I were to guess, I’d say that extremely horrible people like this account for maybe only 1% of teachers and administrators in our schools. But here’s the catch – they’re not evenly spread out. Because they’re fairly easy to identify (most of them aren’t very subtle!), they don’t last long in well-run schools (which tend to serve wealthier, whiter kids). But because it’s impossible to get rid of them (short of conviction – not indictment – for a major felony), they gotta go somewhere. So guess where they end up? The dumping ground schools, the apartheid school, the inner-city schools, the schools where only the children from the poorest, most marginalized families go to school. In these schools, the percentage of teachers who I hate might be as high as 10% — and then add the far larger number of teachers who maybe are trying hard, but are burned out or just not good at imparting knowledge to and inspiring children – and the kids don’t have a chance. This is what really makes me angry.

For more on this, Gary, see our discussion about teacher quality from July 2011: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2011/07/email-discussion-with-gary-rubenstein_76.html

Best,

Whitney

So Tilson ‘hates’ about 1% of teachers in general, though since those teachers are more likely to be in high poverty schools, he ‘hates’ about 10% of those teachers, though he would like to see the ‘far larger number’ who aren’t very good at their jobs despite their efforts to leave the profession too.  He doesn’t ‘hate’ those teachers, but I think it is safe to say he doesn’t love them either.  I do think that he is low-balling his numbers, knowing that my question was a loaded one.

Tilson is correct in speculating that I’m not fond of teachers who are sexual predators.  Michelle Rhee talks about these teachers a lot.  There is a process for investigating such charges.  I read in the paper sometimes that this teacher was caught with this student and the teacher is on leave during the investigation.  I think that this is a fair, even if the teacher ends up having been falsely accused.  It makes sense to remove the teacher when there is some kind of credible complaint.  I remember my first year of teaching I noticed that one of my students had his fly open.  Discretely, I whispered to him that his fly was open and he started screaming “Why are you looking there?”  Fortunately it ended there, but I suppose if the kid wanted to make an issue of it, I could have been accused of inappropriate behavior.

As far as the teacher who told the kid he wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor, if I were that teacher’s supervisor I’d insist that this teacher communicates more respectfully, and follow up to see if this was a pattern of behavior.  I don’t think this warrants immediate termination, though.  What would Tilson think about a phys ed teacher telling a kid who says he’s going to be a professional basketball player that the odds of him making it to the pros is less than his chance of winning the lottery?  Of what about a teacher trying to be sensitive when a very weak student says he wants to be a doctor, and the teacher saying something like “Well, you’d better hit the books then.”?  Is that immediate termination too?

A good friend of mine who is now a principal one said to a student, in anger, when he was a teacher, “Why did you do that?  You’re not stupid,” which the student interpreted as my friend calling him stupid (which he kind of did, in a way).  Should my friend have been immediately terminated?  I’d need more information before I decided I hated that other teacher for his comment, if that’s what he actually said, I wasn’t there.  The things we say as teachers do affect the students and they can remember them for life, so we need to be nice.  Still, when you get frustrated, and I still get frustrated from time to time, we sometimes say something sarcastically or even somewhat rude.  There’s a fine line between ‘tough love’ and being a jerk.

When I say that ‘reformers’ are teacher haters, I mean that they think that the number of ‘bad’ teachers is so high that we need inaccurate value-added to keep us honest.  In Tennessee where they supposedly love teachers, the commissioner of education, TFA alum and Michelle Rhee ex-husband Kevin Huffman has been proposing changes to the laws there so that teacher’s won’t get step raises unless they get high enough value-added scores.  That’s not something you do if you ‘love’ teachers.

The executive director of TFA in Nashville recently penned an article called, ironically, Teachers Are Our #1 Resource, but when you put the title in the context of the actual piece, you get these two sentences:  “We need to proactively reject the prevailing notion that teaching demands anything less than the best. Our teachers are our greatest national resource.”  This seems like a back-handed compliment if I ever saw one.

The truth is that the modern ‘reform’ movement has as its main premise that there are way too many ‘bad’ teachers who need to be motivated by fear of losing their jobs.  If the number of ‘bad’ teachers is low, then all this isn’t really going to accomplish much.  This is why I guess that Bloomberg’s comment about how he feels about half the teachers is what most ‘reformers’ must think, but are too afraid to say.  Still, they get pretty upset anytime a new teacher evaluation system results in a large of teachers being rated ‘effective.’

For the record, I have encountered some ‘bad’ teachers throughout my career as both a teacher and also when I was a student.  I don’t know that everyone who knew these teachers considered them ‘bad,’ but I didn’t have a lot of respect for them.  I guess I don’t ‘hate’ any of them, though, though I don’t ‘love’ those ones either.  But just watch any speech by a prominent ‘reformer’ and see the contempt they have when they say something about ‘the adults’ and how the needs of these ‘adults’ have been trumping the needs of the students for too long.  Anyone who says something like this is exhibited hatred toward teachers, in general, and that’s why most ‘reformers’ deserve to be called teacher haters.

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6 Responses to Do Reformers Hate Teachers?

  1. NJ Teacher says:

    I am an urban teacher in a high poverty school. Go right ahead and hate me. When are you coming down to teach for a few hours School Reformers? Are teachers hurt by things students say? No, of course not. I love having children curse at me and call me old lady. The kids are way ahead of me on nasty comments. One day my students reached an agreement that my shoes were ugly. Another child told me I had a small ass. Not to worry, I will not bore you with other examples. Go right ahead and hate me as you labor to destroy all that I hold dear.

  2. Michael Fiorillo says:

    The so-called reformers don’t hate teachers.

    Scapegoating them, firing them, closing their schools, turning their profession into temp labor, it’s nothing personal.

    For them, it’s like The Mob: whacking teachers is just business.

  3. KMLB says:

    Listen to Bloomberg on this one. He’s on the controlling master side of ‘reform’ unlike Rhee who is just a mid-level flunkie kept around to keep a veneer of respectable message e.g. ‘Its for the kids, blah, blah’. Bloomberg makes it clear what the real message is. He doesn’t necessarily hate teachers, he just doesn’t want to pay for them. The bottom line is the bottom line here.

  4. great resource says:

    I dunno Gary. I re-read the oped in question and the two sentences in context as well as the rest of the piece. In order to read that passage as a backhanded compliment I think you have to be thinking about the retention end of the question more than the recruitment end of things. Clearly from the oped the writer is focused on how angry it makes her to hear that good people are being told not to teach and is worried about this from a recruiter point of view. I cannot agree that this piece proves she wants to fire half of current teachers. There isn’t really even a subtext in there about the retention of the ‘good’ people.

  5. EC says:

    Why do you have to reform the whole system in order to crack down on abusive teachers? Sexual abuse happens at private schools too. In NYC there were pretty bad things happening at Horace Mann and Poly Prep, if I remember correctly. It wasn’t happening because of teachers’ unions.

  6. Meghank says:

    “Blood in the water,” I love it!

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