What to do when you get a “bad” teacher
There it is. It’s true. Yes, you will have teachers--and have probably have already had--some teachers who aren’t doing their job as well as they could.
While teaching education courses, I ask my college students to recollect their best and worst teachers. They always come up with examples of both with perfect ease. Always. And they have something to say that they learned about learning from both, in almost equal measures. But hindsight is 20/20, so what do you do in the meantime?
By the way, this perspective is not to be confused with blaming bad teachers for society’s problems, which some ed. policymakers try to do. I don’t think this is the case at all. This perspective is also not to be confused with the idea that some teachers’ styles don’t align with yours, as in your relationship doesn’t fit well. I do think this is absolutely true. In those cases, the teachers fit well for some students but not all.
No, this is to surface the truth that there are effective and not-so-effective teachers everywhere you go. Just as there are managers who aren’t quite as good as managing or chefs who aren’t quite as good at cooking. It's just how it is.
Important to note, though, is that there are “bad” teachers in “good” schools and “good” teachers in “bad” schools. (My quotation marks here are to make sure we know those terms are usually worthless generalization and at the very least need to be investigated before accepting them when you hear them.)
I attended a highly selective university, and I teach at one too. There were, and are, some professors who aren’t great at teaching. I coach students at high schools and colleges deemed intellectually elite, as well as those that are vocational, community colleges, and/or easy entry. Yes, you guessed it: they seem to have the same balance of good vs. bad teachers!
So what do students do in this situation? And what is a parent to do when they encounter teaching that falls short of expectations?
While there are routes to intervene, such as direct dialogue with the teacher and reporting the problems to the department chair, I think there is also a silver-lining perspective to include. For one: if you can do ok in this context, you can do ok anywhere! If you can figure out how to survive this awfulness, you can handle awfulness later.
In short, fixing the problem isn’t always the goal (and isn’t always possible anyway).
For example, in graduate school I had a professor I bemoaned was the world’s least engaged educator. Every chapter was taught via presentations by fellow students and when unanswered questions arose, he couldn’t address them. We felt under supported and rudder-less in reaching toward the course goals. Rather than being worried, I felt frustrated. Angry. Annoyed. But I persisted and came through with perhaps the best learning outcome possible: I never teach a class like that. Ever. Student-centered teaching is a great approach but too much of a good thing ruins it. I learned it and now I benefit others because of it, 100s of students in the last two decades. I think that’s kind of cool to know.
So, before you “give up” or “storm in” when there appears to be evidence of a not-so-good teacher, do the things I’m suggesting first:
1. Consider whether they just aren’t a fit for you. If that’s the case, see what you can learn by getting out of your comfort zone. You’ll become a better student for it! If you’re sure they aren't a fit for almost anyone, though, go on to #2.
2. Realize that there are some crummy teachers in the world and you got one. It’s not your imagination. Sorry. Then, move on.
3. Figure out what absolutely needs to happen to survive your time with this teacher. Jump through their hoops as you must; teach yourself as needed; seek outside help; don’t give up hope that the next teacher will probably be amazing.
4. Give the crummy teacher the benefit of the doubt when possible. Maybe once upon a time they were really good. Maybe something terrible has happened in their personal life. Maybe your smiling face despite your unhappiness in their profession is the only thing keeping them afloat! Be generous. It’s worth it.
5. Don’t freak out. There is solid research that a student has to have multiple consecutive years of subpar teaching before it puts them behind. You'll most likely be fine in the long run after this speed bump.
6. Report the problem if it doesn’t lessen by the end of the term. Contact prior to the end can put your relationship in serious risk, no matter how careful you are about being diplomatic. Proceed carefully.
Getting a not-so-great teacher is no fun. There is no way to sugarcoat this news. But if you recognize that there is some silver lining for learning and approach the situation with more patience and grit than you thought possible you may end up with what my college students found out: those bad teachers actually taught you something good, after all.