Ode to Bad Teachers

There are different kinds of “bad” teachers. In approximate decreasing order of badness, there are teachers that don’t care, teachers who do not know their subject, and teachers that teach poorly. I fear that occasionally I fall into these categories myself, but I have learned a great deal from bad teachers. This blog is an ode to them.

My high school physics teacher did not know physics. It was not ideal, but I taught myself physics and occasionally taught the class what I learned. That was good for me.

My college history teacher was so shy that he mumbled daily at the podium without looking at us. I studied with a future lawyer in that class. Sometimes I sat in the front, but sometimes I sat in the back with the lawyer-to-be, probably giggling and exchanging notes. We were given the questions for the Final Exam in advance with some vague instructions that talking to each other was all right but we should form our own essays. I decided I should not study for the Final with the lawyer-to-be and the group he was forming – my internal moral compass strongly indicated that doing so was wandering into the dark gray area of acceptability. Instead, I did something surprising – I wrote my own essays and went to talk to the professor during his office hours. There I learned the only thing that has stuck with me from the course: that a terrible teacher could be a terrific human being. The professor was not shy at all in a one-on-one conversation, was very kind to a fairly bad history student, and must have given me good advice since my grade in the course turned out much better than I expected.

One of my favorite college mathematics professors received bad reviews from many students, at least in the student course guide available at Emory at the time. In this case, I think the students just didn’t recognize good teaching, which sometimes involves not teaching and letting students work things out for themselves. I cannot say that I believe student evaluation of teaching is a gold standard for measuring real teaching effectiveness, and I always think back on this example of a teacher I loved with not-so-great student reviews.

One of my high school mathematics teachers, if he could have, would have preached the gospel to us every day in class. He could not, so he saved it for when we visited him at his home. I learned that when a man proposes to a woman he should think about it in advance for a year and the woman should take just as long deciding whether to accept the proposal or not. I may not be remembering correctly, and the teacher may have been trying to prevent an inadvisable wedding on the part of a young classmate, but the advice struck me as being reasonably sound. He wanted us to take marriage seriously when we considered it. By the way, I didn’t follow the advice when I married, but I did consider the marriage seriously, as seriously as someone who has not been married can consider such a thing. The advice may have saved me from some undesirable unions.

Much of what I learned from teachers, good or bad, was not the material they were assigned to teach us, but bits of advice they gave out, not necessarily to me. I went to summer school in high school in order to graduate a year early. I took 9th grade English in the summer before my 9th grade and some silly non-academic subjects like personal finance. In one such course, the teacher was counseling another student. I don’t know that I overheard the entire conversation, but part of it was that the student did not have to love his parents. At the time, this was a radical notion to me. I am sure the teacher meant well and was counseling a student with a very difficult home life. It is advice that I still remember overhearing, even if I chose not to accept it for myself. My favorite college mathematics teacher was also a wealth of advice: Always dress up to teach and dress down to deal with the administration; You can enjoy a beer privately, but it is morally wrong to drink with students.

My college German teacher for first semester second year German chose to teach us linguistics instead. By second semester second year German, I decided to take the class pass-fail. It was a good thing I did. While knowing linguistics might be a good thing, it isn’t particularly helpful for reading Gunter Grass in German and writing a coherent essay in German about it!

My college Statistics teacher chose to teach us Stochastic Processes instead. One day, he showed off a Markov Chain simulation of Monopoly. I hated it. I thought if we were going to be playing with computers in class, I should get to play with the computer in class. Ironically, I often demonstrate software to my students, and I always ask if they want me to do it, citing this example of my hating it myself. My students always want the software demonstrations.

I had two teachers who decided that they were not going to lecture. They announced that they would come in and answer questions about the assigned reading. We never had questions, but they could not dismiss the class, so they rambled on about the material in an unorganized way for the entire class period. Of course, there is a natural thing to do instead; if there are no questions, give a quiz over the material and see how the students do. If they can do the quiz, they read and understood the material and you can safely dismiss class. If they cannot do the quiz, then they didn’t, and so there should be questions to be answered! I got my worse grade in a college mathematics class in one of these courses. It was an A- and it was the highest grade the professor gave out that term. And nearly 2 years later, the linear algebra I taught myself and my classmates helped me answer an unexpected qualifying exam question at the University of Virginia.

I can’t justify teachers who really don’t care. Mental lapses and teaching courses outside our immediate area of expertise can lead to a teacher not being able to answer a question immediately in class. Teachers are often nervous and shy people, which does not lead easily to dynamic lecturing styles. However, there is a lot to learn from other people in this world, even from bad teachers, and I am glad I had all of the teachers I had, even the bad ones.

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