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‘No such thing bad student, only bad teacher’

July 8, 2010

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…

'No such thing bad student, only bad teacher: teacher say, student do.'

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.

'Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything'

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.

man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything
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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Allumer permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:51 pm

    I had mostly good experiences with my professors at the university I attended, except for a remedial math class headed by a Russian woman who, you know, didn’t speak English. So here we are, all math stupids, and she’s talking to us in Russian. Brilliant! I had some really horrible ones in elementary school (primary – you guys?) which, in conjunction with many other variables, led to home-schooling from 6th grade on. I have a problem with math too, and girls simply aren’t encouraged to be good at it in this country. Strangely enough, I’m awesome at everyday math and I love it, but anything more… I have always transposed my numbers, and even though teacher after teacher would point this out to me, no one actually HELPED me with it. I also had a teacher who really disliked me for some reason, I don’t know why since I was a straight A, shy, very rules conscious student, but she constantly made fun of me in front of the class. Overall, I think if I hadn’t been homeschooled, I would have ended up giving teachers a lot more credence than they perhaps deserved and let them affect me when they should not have.

    • July 11, 2010 12:31 am

      I love that homeschooling is so accessible in the US. I’ve made this ambitious resolution to homeschool my (speculative not-yet-existent) kids, but I’m aware of how much bureaucracy follows that choice and so often puts people off. Unlike the US, geography isn’t as much of an issue on a small island, but I just don’t like what’s happening in schools now.

      My sister had experiences like yours – teachers just disliking you for no reason. I remember reading a study about how much attention children got in class from their teacher, and they found that physical attractiveness was a big factor in how teachers treated them – ‘cute’ children were treated more sympathetically and given more time (I’ve read so many papers I can’t actually find the reference right now, but the research is out there).

  2. Mahfooz Hasan permalink
    July 8, 2010 3:16 pm

    I totally agree with you there, some teachers can be unpleasant and unjust towards some students. I remember my science teacher in secondary school (high school) who always used to pick on me and kept me after school for detention several times even though I was a relatively quiet student, always did my work and was one of the top students. Good thing I didn’t pay much heed to it, so it didn’t have much effect on me.
    What did affect me was when I was applying to university/med school, I wanted to do apply to Oxbridge (Oxford/Cambridge) but my senior tutor suggested otherwise. I remember her saying that there’s no point applying since I wasn’t “special” enough to get in, and partly because of that I didn’t apply; a decision which I still regret at times, 2 years into my course at Imperial College.

    • July 11, 2010 12:32 am

      Being a medic at Imperial is nothing to regret! Seriously. There’s a compelling argument that IC is better than Cambridge simply based on the fact that its teaching hospitals are in London, and London hospitals see much more action than you could expect anywhere else.

      One of my closest friends went to Imperial – a second choice after being rejected from the one she really wanted, and we’ve often reflected together that yes, it didn’t go to her plan – but it went to plan. Allah’s plan. So qadarallah, where you are is where Allah means you to be.

      • Mahfooz Hasan permalink
        July 18, 2010 4:42 pm

        I’m not regret going to Imperial, just regretted not applying. Yes, I accepted that it was not to be. But don’t you often wonder what would happen if things were not as it is now, especially since my closest friend ended up studying the same course at the university that we both wanted to go to.

  3. Zpurpleify permalink
    July 8, 2010 3:57 pm

    I agree that there are bad teachers out there. I am a teacher myself (Primary) and when I was undertaking my PGCE, I remember the different people that were on my course, at 22, I was the youngest and there were people who were from all walks (and jobs) of life. I think the government has made a huge mistake in putting out campaigns to lure people into teaching.

    I believe you have to be a certain type of person to teach (at any level) and relate to the children. ( I was one of those sad people who knew I wanted to teach from a young age and did a lot of voluntary work in school and also worked as a TA to make sure I was doing the right thing.) Some people come into teaching, thinking it can’t be that hard and the incentives that the government throws their way lures them in, I have seen a lot of student teachers who just can’t cope with standing in front of a class and delivering. I have had many experiences of a student teacher who just wasn’t “teacher” material. There were equally good students too, who I know have goone onto have great professional careers in teaching.

    I love what I do, I believe in job satisfaction and I quickly realised what you highlight in your piece:

    “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.”

    The Year 1 children who I taught were like sponges, they were relying on me to teach them. It was my first year of teaching and I learnt a lot from the children, I had a fantastic time and luckily the parents thought I had done their children justice too! I was at that school for 5 years and it was the best years of my life (I am currently unemplyed as I have moved to a different country!) a lot of my students have kept in touch with me and all the little things they have given me along the way, I cherish.

    Those 5 year olds who were so impressionable are now 10, I spent some time with them just before I left (was fortunate enough to take them on a residential trip which I lead) and it was amazing to see how much they remembered about our time together back in year 1. It is so very important that we have good teachers, as we’re putting the fate of educating the adults of tomorrow at risk.

    (Sorry, I get carried away, I love what I do and dislike it when people mock us teachers with “How hard can it be? You only work 9-3 and get 12 weeks off a year” If only they knew!)

  4. James permalink
    July 8, 2010 11:36 pm

    I totally agree with you Saya, and I agree and disagree with some of the comments.

    Firstly I believe teachers are some of the most important people in most of our lives (sorry for the overly qualitative sentence, I’ve re-read it and hate how it reads but logically don’t feel like I can change it!). They will tend to be the most influential people in any young person’s life and have a tremendous impact, whether they mean to or not, and I’m sure everyone would have some examples.

    However in the UK teachers are looked down on for some reason, they are not respected and are not valued. Now I do agree with the government in that we should offer more incentive for those willing to teach, and I think teachers should be paid more in order to attract the best talent. After all, if they feel justified in paying managers and senior civil servants over £100,000, shouldn’t we pay those whose every action moulds our next generation a little more than, say, bin men or traffic wardens? & substantially less than Tube drivers?

    Anyway just my thoughts on it. I started off wanting to be a teacher but then got put off it by my parents who really didn’t like the idea…

  5. July 9, 2010 12:59 pm

    I didn’t have many bad experiences with teachers. Well I DID have some racist ones, but not a bad experience regarding what I could and couldn’t do. But I hated the counselors at college. They were so unhelpful and didn’t give a crap about what you did with their life.

    I do agree that teachers have a different type of impact on students. It doesn’t matter if they’re preschool teachers or college professors. I do think that a students poor performance can be affected by many things, but I don’t think teachers are always to blame. And I do think teachers should get paid more and respected more in general. mayb that’s why some of them don’t care? IDK.

    But I don’t connect well with kids and hate high school students so me being a teacher was a big no-no.

  6. July 9, 2010 8:13 pm

    I am too tired to go into my vast array of good and horrific experiences with teachers at the moment, but I just wanted to share one thing insha’Allah. What you said about how deeply to take to heart teachers’ recommendations and advice really resonated with me, because of my experiences my last year of undergrad, while applying to graduate school. I didn’t get into where I thought I would get into for grad school and in the month or so before I heard back from UVa most of my teachers were convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere (okay, all of them) and I let them convince me and that was a huge, huge, huge mistake. One of the reasons (which I think was more of an excuse, not the real reason) I was told I didn’t get in was that they didn’t think I was capable of doing the amount of languages I said I wanted to do. Alhamdulillah UVa was willing to give me a chance and now I am at UVa – the best school in the world in my field – doing what I have always wanted to do and loving it. It’s not easy (it’s really, really, really hard most of the time) but it is rewarding and I thank God every day that someone believed in me enough to give me the chance.

    I have always been extremely impressionable in the sense that…there are very few people whose opinions really, truly matter to me, but when they do, I absolutely take it to heart and have a hard time discounting their opinion. For years and years, most of my teachers fell into that category, until I learned that I cannot rely on them to make those kinds of judgments, that I have to listen to myself and give priority to what I know and feel and think and believe I am capable of. Because there have been so many times in my life, that one being one of the most prominent, where if I had listened to what people thought I could do, I would have sold myself short. And I absolutely refuse to do that anymore.

    Also, watch these videos (on the subject of those who can, do, those who can’t, teach – because that sentiment really irks me because I LOVE teaching and find it one of the most rewarding things in life)
    What Teachers Make – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpog1_NFd2Q
    In Front of the Class – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJDZDZ2xnxY

  7. July 11, 2010 12:33 am

    I am so going to reply to the rest of these comments when I’ve slept more. 😄

  8. March 1, 2012 7:24 pm

    Loved this article. Thanks for the great read. I’m very interested in all of your future posts and updates. Take care.

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