The Upside of “Bad” Teachers

A rainbow over a roof in need of repair

No one is perfect. There are no perfect students. There are no perfect parents. And there are no perfect teachers.

And yet, despite knowing this fact, we routinely forget it and fail to give one another permission to be human. Students hold themselves to unrealistically high standards. Parents judge themselves harshly when they fall short of their imagined ideal. And when teachers are less than perfect, both students and parents are quick to throw them under the bus.

Most teachers are fine.

Bad teachers exist, but they are not the majority. As in any profession, most teachers are pretty solid, some are exceptional, and some are inadequate.

Plus, most teachers have chosen their career out of a passion for helping children learn or a passion about the content they teach, often both. They’re not in it for the money, and they’re not in it to satisfy some sadistic desire to torture children with boring lectures and tedious assignments. (Many students wrongly assume that their teachers hate children and live to punish them.) The vast majority of teachers care deeply about their work and want nothing more than to help their students succeed. Some are more skilled than others, but most of them are trying their best to do good in a difficult and often underappreciated position.

Now, since the vast majority of teachers are pretty good, if it seems like you mostly have bad teachers, the problem is probably not them. The problem is more likely your choices and your mindset.

Before you blame, self-reflect.

Regardless of whether or not the teacher is truly inadequate, claiming that you have a bad teacher usually goes hand-in-hand with being unhappy about your outcomes in the class – either grade outcomes or learning outcomes. And in such cases, if your only takeaway from the situation is that the teacher is “bad,” then you’re missing out on a serious opportunity for self-reflection.

a man looking at himself in the mirror

It’s uncomfortable to consider the role that you, as a student, have played in the low grade or the lack of learning that you’re upset about, but it’s important to think about.

How could you have taken the learning into your own hands? Did you utilize all available resources in order to understand the material? Did you use effective study techniques?

When you got low grades and didn’t understand why, did you ask for better feedback? Did you engage your executive function skills and tools in order to manage due dates and expectations?

How could you have been a more proactive student?

This self-reflection is critical for two reasons:

  • You may have “bad” teachers again in the future and considering these questions will help you have a better experience.
  • These are empowering questions to ask in any class, regardless of the quality of the instructor.

If you just throw your hands in the air and say, “They’re a terrible teacher; there was nothing I could do,” you’re missing out on a huge opportunity for growth.

Furthermore, the claim that a teacher is “bad” is often a defense mechanism: The student is ashamed of their performance, and it feels safer to point the finger of blame than to accept their own responsibility for the situation.

Parents do this too.

When you see your child struggling, you might find it more comfortable to blame the teacher than to address the problem at home. But before you throw the teacher under the bus, ask yourself the following questions:

Again, don’t expect yourself to be perfect, but know that doing these things will be far more helpful to your child than blaming everything on the teacher. Please know, too, that throwing the teacher under the bus in front of your children (or within earshot of them) encourages them to be passive victims rather than active agents. Whether their teachers are good or bad, we want students to be empowered to take charge of their own learning.

Bad teachers are real.

Now, as I said, some teachers are legitimately inadequate.

Some teachers are poor instructors – unskilled at explaining things or failing to utilize effective teaching techniques. Others choose to barely teach at all, opting to have students learn on their own using videos and handouts.

Some teachers are disorganized and unskilled at planning ahead. Others are unclear about their expectations and due dates. Some teachers give woefully inadequate feedback. Some barely give feedback at all. Some take months to grade things. (My AP Literature teacher senior year never graded our major essay for the first semester.)

There are teachers who don’t understand learning differences, such as dyslexia, and refuse to provide appropriate accommodations. And on rare occasions, you can get a teacher who is so disenchanted with their career that they’ve simply checked out because they don’t care anymore.

The good news is that, in all of these cases, there is a hidden benefit. Bad teachers, like anything challenging in life, can be a blessing in disguise.

A bad teacher is an opportunity.

The Stoics taught that obstacles on your path forward are actually essential parts of the path; the struggle to overcome them makes you stronger and teaches you much-needed skills. A bad teacher is no different.

If it becomes clear that you really do have a bad teacher, see it as an opportunity for growth. If the teacher doesn’t teach effectively (or at all), use that as an opportunity to practice independent learning.

an older student working independently in a library

You’ll need this skill later in life every time you decide to learn something outside of a classroom. Most adults today change careers several times, and you’ll probably have to do it even more as the world keeps changing faster and faster. Knowing how to learn what you need to know on your own will give you a leg up in tomorrow’s competitive economy.

If the teacher doesn’t provide good resources, use that as an opportunity to practice resourcefulness. Seek out good sources of information online or at the library. Buy a cheap, used textbook. Seek out help from other students or tutors. Your teacher is not the only source of information for the class, and it’s up to you to go find what you need.

Good organizational habits and planner use are extra necessary when a course is disorganized and due dates are unclear. Good study habits and techniques are extra necessary when the instructor is sub-par. Self-advocacy skills are extra necessary when the teacher doesn’t provide accommodations or give quality feedback.

A bad teacher is an opportunity to practice all of these essential skills, so when you have a bad teacher, don’t get upset – get better.

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