I've been thinking a lot this year about good teachers versus bad teachers. I've been thinking a lot about this guy who taught me when I was in middle school. Our art history teacher went on maternity leave and they brought in this guy Mr. Murphy who was young, like 23, 24. He had gone to the school so he knew a lot of the teachers from when he was a student. He was "cool," really laid back and just let us do whatever we wanted. When we had a test, he would give a prize to whoever finished first—which is kind of a weird incentive. We just thought it was funny. At the time in English class, we were watching Shakespeare in Love and the teachers were editing it themselves to cut out all of the sex scenes. One day we watched ahead too far and they had to hold something up in front of this screen and it was this whole big deal—we needed permission slips. And then Mr. Murphy came in and on Halloween, he brought in Leprechaun and Child's Play and let us pick which one we wanted to watch. And that was class.
Have I just wanted to just show movies? In my social studies class, we do, but it's really to introduce a time period. And students have to take notes the whole time and do an activity afterward. Watching Bad Teacher, I kept thinking that Cameron Diaz's students in the film have a lot fewer management issues to deal than I do with every day. Even being able to put on a movie and go to sleep, that would still take a lot of discipline within the classroom. They would start talking, they would get out of their seats. Especially with those types of movies she was showing, 7th graders wouldn't be that engaged.
The thing about discipline is it's less effective the more you have to do it. You want to have the threat-like, say, detention—without having to follow through with it. Every time you send somebody out of your classroom, that's like taking away your own authority. The really effective teachers are the ones who just have that presence—it can be learned, but it often comes naturally. You say something and the students believe you and don't want to cross you to find out what happens. In that way Cameron Diaz was almost a good teacher.
It's like in war, the best weapon is one you never have to use. If you give a kid detention enough times, eventually they stop caring if they have it or not. There's definitely an Art of War side to it. Sometimes you have to create a persona or personality that isn't totally comfortable for you—especially when it comes to disciplining students and yelling at kids. That's been the hardest part of the job for me. The actual public speaking part wasn't tough. I did a lot of theater in high school and it helps because it's like a performance that you have to give all the time.
And Cameron Diaz's students' parents also seemed more involved in the sense that they all showed up to the parent-teacher conference, but then they didn't seem to follow up. The parents she took money for for tutoring, she wasn't at all accountable for that later. Those things were just introduced and then dropped. I don't think that's legal, anyways. No, I don't think that'd be legal at all.
But there wasn't actually a lot of teaching in Bad Teacher. I wanted to see more of Cameron Diaz in the classroom. When she actually did start to teach them, that was cut short. Suddenly it was like, "Oh no, she has to steal the test." I thought it would turn out that at the end she hadn't actually cheated at the end, but I guess she had. I was hoping for that Stand and Deliver moment, because when she actually did start to teach them, she seemed to be pretty effective.
Are fear and pain good motivators? Well, there are rules against corporal punishment. Like you can't make a student do anything repetitive or punish them in a way that's unrelated to what they've done. Making them write something a thousand times on the chalkboard, you're not allowed to do that anymore. At least not in New York. You still have detention, but that's for them to reflect or be separated from their friends. But if they were just playing dodgeball in school, I don't know if that'd be necessarily out of line. I mean, she did hit that kid pretty hard. The bruises, she would have been fired for. But letting them hit her when they were right, that's a great motivator. A not-actually-abusive form of that could work well—you're always looking for incentives, positive or negative. For a kid, if that's what would motivate them, than it could work. I teach at an all girls school, a public school, and some of them would probably take me up on that. Yeah, I can think of a few who if allowed that opportunity ... or at least a dunk tank.
I've never gone to school after having too many drinks the night before—not this year. I know some teachers have. Never blatantly, not in a serious way, but I've heard teachers say that they've come in a little hungover. On Fridays, we go out for happy hours. I'm single, and yeah, it's hard to meet people outside of the school. You become really insulated. You become close because you all see the same kids every day, and even when you go out, it's just gossiping about your students. Also because that's all we really have to talk about. Who's having a fight with who, it's a whole lot of that.
And the students gossip about me. I've been linked by them to several other teachers at the school. Just creating hypothetical couples out of me and other teachers. If I were going to date a coworker, I could never let the students know. I can't imagine having to deal with that. It'd be tough to hide that. I had teachers who were married and the wife had been the husband's student when she was in high school. And then they separated but still kept teaching at the same school, which got super awkward.
I was curious to see more of Amy Squirrel's classroom because obviously she was the most successful teacher. They might think she's obnoxious, but she's still doing her job. Not that I was hoping to pick up tips from her—I wasn't expecting an actual strategy—but since she was supposed to be the best teacher in the school, I wanted to see her contrasted more with Cameron Diaz.
Amy Squirrel's character was this villain for being this nerdy teacher, but one of the big traps as a teacher, especially your first year, is trying to be cool, trying to be their favorite teacher at the expense of actually teaching them, because most of the time those two things don't go hand in hand. I've had teachers where everyone thought, "Oh, she's such a bitch," but at the end you did get something out of the class. I've had teachers who can do both, but that's very, very rare. If you have to choose, you have to be unpopular but effective. I feel like this year I went too far in the light direction just because it's a hard impulse to fight. You want to make exceptions for students, you want to give them a break, and you do have to do some of that to have a trusting relationship with them. But you can take it too far—they'll be as disciplined as they're expected to be.
Teacher's pets definitely exist, but I'm actually surprised I haven't really seen students being persecuted for being overachievers or too obedient. And I also have those students who are just unpopular for one reason or another. I've also tried to give them advice-especially when friendship drama stuff happens-just to tell them that their friends now in 8th grade almost certainly won't be the same friends a year from now. I just tell them to think back to 6th or 7th grade, who the cliques were and how much things have changed. I'm careful—I don't want to tell them their friendships are meaningless-but that it's not worth trying to save a friendship with somebody if it isn't worth saving.
I've always liked working with kids. Like when I was in 7th grade, I would go and help out in the kindergarten class. It wasn't totally voluntary-we had this two hour mandatory volunteering block. In college, I thought about teaching, but I wanted to teach something that I had experience in. My sister went to film school and some of her teachers were just people who had been the best in their class at film school. I wanted to go and have a career first. But then towards the end of college, I realized that I felt blessed in the education that I was able to get and I felt like I should give some of that back. Teaching itself has appeal just in the sense that I've never wanted a job where the best that you can do is just to be competent. Like those kinds of office jobs where the best you can do is not screw up. With teaching, you can always be better.
Today, you have to have a 2.5 GPA in college to be a teacher. Before, you didn't even have that. And you can't teach more than 30% of your classes out of your certification area—which I guess I had in school cause my math class was taught by my gym teacher. We gave her a a hard time. Things are becoming more strict. Cameron Diaz had that first year that we never saw, and assuming that she was showing movies that whole time, she wouldn't have been able to get away with that. And she would have known about the big test from the year before. She would be observed by the principal or have to submit lesson plans, all that type of stuff which it appeared wasn't happening.
I was observed by the principal several times this year and they give you a satisfactory or unsatisfactory rating. If it's unsatisfactory, it goes in your file and if you get enough of them, you get fired. And if you get tenure, that's even more rigorous. Now, you have to create a portfolio to see if you deserve it. Up until last year, if you taught for three years, you just automatically earned tenure. And they say you peak in your 4th or 5th year, from that point on you become less invested. That's not, like, a rule, but there's kind of a peak where you're comfortable in the job, you've figured it all out, you know what works and what doesn't for you, but it hasn't become rote.
It's so hard to fire a teacher. Even when they are bad or have done something wrong, if they have tenure, the school would just send them somewhere else. Have you heard of the Rubber Room? Diaz wouldn't have wound up there so early on in her career—she'd just be fired. Just from what I've heard, a lot of the "bad teaching" tends to come from the teachers who've been teaching a long time. The emphasis on standardized testing I feel is probably for those older teachers with tenure. You do need a way to measure how effective they are. In a perfect world, there'd be a better method. But like one thing I learned, it's okay to teach to the test as long as it's a good test.
With all the focus on tests, they're giving teachers the incentive to try to affect scores. But when Cameron Diaz stole the test, it looked like she took the answer key and not the questions? It'd be extremely difficult having only the answer key to raise your students' scores. And if all her students aced the test, there'd be obviously some follow up. Especially if the year before, they'd all done badly, there would be some auditing. There was a story last year or the year before where teachers went back and changed the answers on thousands of tests. Which they figured out because you can tell when an answer's been changed and every single one had been changed from something wrong to something correct. I imagine there are people in the state office looking for weird statistical anomalies.
I've been tempted, but then the question is: what are you really preparing them for? Because the next year or at some point in life, you're going to be held to some standard of what you need to know. You're just delaying that. Okay, there's a lot of stuff in school that you never use. In 8th grade, a lot of it is still practical like calculating a tip. But Trigonometry? Unless you become a mathematician, you're never going to need it again. They do say you're teaching the overall skill of problem solving, but that's when it becomes hard to engage the students is when you can't find a real life connection to motivate them. I had a whole conversation with a student about that the other day where she was saying, "I want to open a hairdressing salon-why do I need to know any of this stuff." I was like, "Well, you still have to go to high school, you'll probably have to go to college. So yes, you're going to learn things that you're not necessarily going to use later."