‘No such thing bad student, only bad teacher’
George Bernard Shaw began a cruel anti-teacher movement when he said ‘those who can’t, teach’. This week’s Panorama* (an investigative documentary), though, asked a serious question about what happens when those who can’t – or shouldn’t – teach, teach, based on recent research that the standard of teaching a child receives is the most important factor in their education.
So I was sent spinning into memories of my own various educational experiences throughout my (extraordinarily lengthy and ongoing) career as a student…
In my final undergraduate year, I was having a series of problems which compounded to spit me out into my personal tutor’s office a few weeks before Finals. I had seen him maybe three times in three years, so he didn’t know me, and I didn’t really know him.
In this meeting, my tutor informed me that I was clearly depressed and had little chance of getting good results. He advised me to defer the exams and retake the year.
Retake? ‘Retake’ was not a word that existed in my life vocabulary. The very idea that I could defer was new and alien to me, so much as to be conceptually incomrehensible. Retaking was equivalent to failure. And I was affronted by the officiousness of being told I had a mental illness. I was not! I was having problems I was having trouble solving and mainly, I was sick. I might have been feeling bleh (BECAUSE I WAS SICK) but nothing a physiologist/statistician could or ought to ‘diagnose’.
I ignored his advice. By that age, I had learned the difference between what people thought they knew, and what was. Saying did not make it so, and I was determined to graduate when I was meant to, and I absolutely would not allow somebody so…so unconnected to me to tell me what I was or was not capable of doing. Absolutely not.
I was sick as a sock the entire period. I didn’t attend one exam hoping for a resit later, but the rest of them – I did them as best I could, I studied hard and slept little, and I prayed. Oh God, how I prayed. My last was the first time in my life I’ve ever EVER been driven to tears over an exam: I answered about two-thirds of it, and I was sure that it was a failworthy paper. And then it was the end, the blessed end! I began to get better after that (stress compounds illness, people, don’t do it), and I was granted a resit for the exam I missed.
Do you know what? In the middle of the Summer, I got the most beautiful email from one of my regular lecturers telling me I already had a good degree even with the missed grade, so I had the choice to sit or not sit it. Amazing. To me, it was a miracle, an act of God. Because you can BET your BOOTS (but don’t actually bet because betting is haram) I didn’t give a good exam showing. I know how sick I was, and I know how much rubbish I wrote. I know and God knows. And trust me, to have a good – a great – degree was…wow. Subhanallah.
Anyway. The moral of the story – because every such story must have a moral – is: you can’t let someone disenfranchise you of your own self-determination. YOU decide how hard you can work, YOU decide how much you want something, and YOU decide whether or not it’s worth enough to you to fight for it. When something depends on YOUR effort, YOU decide.
What has this to do with bad teachers?
By university level, students are expected to be better equipped to deal with Life™, better adjusted, and the balance of power between teacher and student is a great deal more equalised than at school level. Those things combine into a kind of immunity to the damaging influence a teacher can have – not for everybody, of course, and not to the same extent – but what of younger pupils who may not have the same resources?
I have always had a love-hate relationship with maths. At school, I yo-yoed from top to bottom to top and have kept on bouncing since. As I trace the aetiology of my mathematical career, I keep returning to one point.
In Year 11 (10th grade?) in England, students select 3-5 subjects to carry on to A-level (the last two years of high school), effectively dropping around half of their subjects. Like most of my peers, I was lucky enough, alhamdulillah, to really have my pick of subjects – I wasn’t bad at anything…well, except art and music, but I’d already dropped those (also PE, which I couldn’t drop). All of my teachers were like, PICK ME, PICK ME! (isn’t that an awesome reverse? XD), and we were advised to think ahead for what we wanted to do at university. Like most South Asians, I was being herded ungently towards medicine, and for medicine, maths was usually a prerequisite.
When I asked my maths teacher – confident and assured – if she thought I could take A-level maths…she was silent for a long time. Then: an uncertain drawn out ‘ye-es…’, with a silent ‘but’ tacked on that said it all to me.
Yes, but you won’t be any good. Yes, but I don’t recommend it. Yes, but you’re kidding yourself. Yes, but why don’t you go and play with the flying pigs instead? Yes, but no.
Guys, I can say now: I was not bad at maths. I wasn’t AMAZING at it, but in any other school, I would have been in the top group. At my school, the top group for maths was for, like, geniuses and they weren’t even doing the same work – they were doing something advanced and not on the curriculum. I was in the group below that. There were two more groups below mine.
It stunned me, but I believed her. I believed everything she didn’t say, but thought as loud as if she had. I didn’t take maths, although I went on to get an A for GCSE (admittedly, my lowest grade). I later discovered that people in the other groups did, even though their grades were lower than mine.
Since then, my maths-confidence has been wavering and fragile, and something I can’t bring back to life, no matter how much I’ve tried the whole cognitive restructuring thing. It’s an uncertainty that goes much deeper, into my most basic conditioning – I’ve even wondered if I have some form of dyscalculia (like dyslexia, but with numbers). Despite harbouring a secret affection for statistics and an intense satisfaction from problem-solving, some number-loving part of my brain feels absent – my initial reaction to numbers is automatic lockdown, and my natural mathematism can’t overcome it, even though everything I know with my mind tells me that it’s baseless and silly.
When I started teaching very young children, I learnt how irresponsible it was to speak as if every word I said didn’t matter. In my experience, it does. Every single word or gesture or pause or eyebrow-raise – my students absorb them, even if I don’t realise what I’ve done or said. The roots of the best teaching have to reach into responsibility and accountability. No amount of tender sympathy can make up for a lack of sense.
And that, I think, is one of the dangers of bad teachers – well, bad people, but teachers have particular power over children that many adults don’t. And if it could affect me – a well-adjusted, emotionally-stable teenager from a stable and supportive family – the effect on far more vulnerable young people will surely be more serious.
Have you had bad experiences with teachers? How do you think they affected you?
* If you are in the UK, you can watch Panorama: Can I Sack Teacher? on BBC iPlayer.