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.

Why Do Kids Need Executive Function?

Greg and I recently met Yulia Rafailova, executive function coach and creator of MindFull Education and host of The Alpha Parent Podcast. We had a wonderful conversation about helping children develop executive function, the state of our educational system, and the problems facing the world today. The following brief post about why kids need executive function in today’s world was inspired by that conversation.

an organizational primer

Why do kids today need stronger executive function skills? What’s the value in learning to be organized, productive, and self-disciplined?

The standard answer is so they can get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good job. But this misses the mark in much the same way as the typical answer to “What’s the point of school?” And any kid who’s aware of the state of the world today should have some serious doubts about these notions of conventional success.

Kids, let me be frank with you.

Adults have left you a number of big messes: climate change, wealth inequality, the destruction of wildlife, political division, and our dismal response to the pandemic. These problems are not your fault. But just because you’re not responsible for them doesn’t mean you’re not response-able. You can do something about the state of the world. And you don’t have to wait until you’re a “grown-up.”

To be sure, there are some adults working to build a better world for tomorrow, but collectively, grown-ups have proven that they’re unwilling to take the necessary action. They spend nearly all their time working to maintain the status quo.

So when you work to create a better future for humanity, you’re actually engaged in positive rebellion. Building a better world is an act of defiance. Don’t wait for an invitation. Don’t wait for permission.

a climate change protest sign

Greta Thunberg didn’t wait for an invitation to speak out against climate inaction. Malala Yousafzai didn’t wait for permission to fight for her right to go to school. Begin now, in spite of all the obstacles adults have created for you. Join the likes of Indonesian activist Melati Wijsen, whose platform Reach Not Preach is helping the world’s youth organize and collaborate to make real change.

So why should you bother developing stronger executive function skills?

Because the world needs you to. Because your future depends on it.

Humanity isn’t going to make it through the next century unless people who get it – namely, young people – take decisive, organized, effective action. And doing that requires executive function skills.

P.S. Stay tuned for more collaborations with Yulia Rafailova.

7 Problems With “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s such an innocent question. You might even say it’s aspirational. What could possibly be wrong with asking a kid what they want to be when they grow up?

A lot, actually.

1. You’re not supposed to know.

It’s crazy to me that we start asking kids this question when they’re in elementary school. And then we keep asking, year after year. By the time they’re in high school, it’s a very serious question. Many students feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t have a definitive answer.

I, for one, rejected this question outright as a 9th grader. That year, we were all forced to take a semester-long career-planning course. We took bogus personality tests (Here’s a quick video about how personality tests are mostly nonsense.) and oversimplified aptitude tests to determine what careers we would be best at. And then we were supposed to job shadow someone in our chosen field. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, and none of the things recommended by the tests seemed appealing. But I was quite sure I didn’t want to spend the day in an office doing “grown up” things, so I job shadowed ski patrol.

Obviously, I could have gotten more out of the opportunity than I chose to. There is value in exploring different career options in middle school and high school. Perhaps if the career unit had been framed more as an exploration and less as a determination, I would have responded better.

2. You don’t have to wait.

The flip side of this is, if you do already know, you don’t have to wait until you’re “grown up.” You can begin right now! You don’t have to wait for adulthood to pursue your dreams, invent, create, discover, and contribute to the world. Here’s a collection of TED Talks from some amazing kids who aren’t waiting.

By implying that you have to wait until you cross some mystical threshold before you can do meaningful work, this question actively inhibits ambitious kids who want to tinker, start a business, make art, or do science.

3. You’ll never be “grown up.”

Oh yeah, and that mystical threshold of adulthood – it doesn’t exist.

Many young people believe that their struggles with procrastination and executive function will just evaporate the day they turn 18, 21, 25, or 30 – the deadline keeps getting pushed back the older you get, until one day, you realize that you’re an adult and nothing has changed. You’re still tempted to procrastinate. You still struggle with bad habits. You’re still disorganized.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” supports this unhelpful belief. It encourages teenagers and young adults to avoid doing the work of strategically cultivating willpower, and it makes kids dismissive of organizational strategies. Instead of fostering this unhelpful mindset, we should be telling young people the truth – that growing up doesn’t happen automatically, that nothing but your own efforts will cause you to change, that you have to make your own motivation.

4. You’re never going to be a finished product.

Despite the supposedly aspirational nature of the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, it’s actually a very fixed-minded way of thinking about your future. It suggests that you will choose a single career, train for it, and then do it for the rest of your life. Once you complete your degree or apprenticeship for your chosen job, you’re done. No more learning, no more growing.

It is from this mentality of “done” that students gripe about school subjects that they’ll “never use in real life” – a complaint that misses entirely the actual purpose of school. It would be far better to encourage students to adopt a growth mindset, encourage their curiosity, and make it clear to them that continuous learning will be a mandatory feature of adulthood.

5. You won’t get to be just one thing.

A long time ago, you might have been able to get away with training for a single career – a farmer, a blacksmith, etc. – but now the world changes too quickly. Most people have to change careers several times, and even people who stay in one career have to constantly retrain and retool in order to keep up with innovation.

Furthermore, there are jobs we can’t even imagine yet that will come into existence as the current generation of students progresses through adulthood. If you asked a kid growing up in the 90’s what she wanted to do for a living, she could not have possibly replied, “I want to be a smartphone app developer.” But that could very well be what she’s doing right now.

And even if you could somehow manage to stay in the same career your whole life and miraculously avoid the need to retrain in order to keep up with our ever-changing world, would you want to? Would you actually want that life? It sounds dreadfully boring to me.

Again, the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question falls short, implying that you have to choose a single career. This is a false choice. You can do many things.

6. You’re not your job.

This question also places too much emphasis on career. For people with prestigious careers, this bogus narrative is a source of overblown pride: “My son is a doctor.” Or for people with less prestigious careers, it’s a source of shame: “Oh, I’m just a barista.” People are more than their job titles. They are complicated, dynamic human beings.

Maybe you want to be an architect when you grow up, but you also want to travel, play guitar, climb mountains, volunteer, and raise a family. We ask the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question expecting one answer, but it’s ridiculous to have just one answer. How unimaginative is it to envision a future dominated by a single activity or a single identity?

7. You won’t be satisfied with just one thing.

To understand what it takes to live a satisfying life, I like to use this diagram:

But it’s a mistake to think that you’ll find a singular activity or career that fulfills the four requirements. More likely, you’ll need to approach this pursuit via multiple avenues – jobs, hobbies, volunteering, etc. And, if you work your way toward the center, you can cultivate multiple Ikigais. Click here to learn more about how to use the Ikigai concept to live a more satisfying life.

Better Questions

In an effort to be more than just a critic, here are some better questions you can ask to replace “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

What are some of the things you’d like to do, experience, or accomplish in your life?

What jobs do you think are common now that won’t exist in the future? What jobs that don’t exist now might come into being?

What kinds of things do you enjoy learning? What are you curious about?

What types of projects and puzzles interest you?

Is there anything you’d like to try or experience before you go to college? How can I support that?

What are some of the problems facing our world that you might like to help solve? How can you get involved right now?

And really, the right move probably isn’t a formulaic question. The right move is a broad, open-ended conversation. A conversation that acknowledges the uncertainty of the future. A conversation that doesn’t need to arrive at definite conclusions. A conversation that is truly and imaginatively aspirational.