Killing ’em with class; why bad teaching can be fatal

The academic rule of thumb states that if you’re good at science and mathematics, you’re supposed to suck at languages. And the reverse also applies. I guess I’m the exception that tests the rule since, at the tertiary level institution where I am still a student, I am able to assist many of my peers in both college level mathematics and English.

During a recent maths session with a nursing student, I saw a bemused look on her face as she pondered the answer to the question we had just done. It turned out that her answer differed from mine. She automatically assumed that hers was wrong and was hesitant, as so many students often are, to challenge me.

Photo: A teacher (right) offers some help to his student. (Courtesy Mase TV)
Photo: A teacher (right) offers some help to his student.
(Courtesy Mase TV)

I always implore students to cease and desist from this behaviour which, I am certain, hurts them more than it helps them. Focused almost exclusively on getting the right answer, they are often left with little or no understanding of what was done, which I consider to be the true goal of formal instruction.

In the event, her answer was not “wrong.” I had worked, as I often do, with the numbers up to six or eight decimal places until the very end of the question, only then rounding them off. She had rounded off some numbers early on in her calculations, with the result that her eventual answer was slightly off.

After the class, I urged her never to be afraid to politely and respectfully challenge a teacher, which is something real education encourages and that teachers should encourage. Besides being an obvious benefit to the student, it also helps to keep the teacher on his/her toes.

That exchange brought back memories of an almost-30-year-old incident, the memory of which still stays with me. To protect the identity of this still active teacher (his retirement should be soon), I shall use only gender to identify Mr Teacher.

Less than two weeks into the first term, Mr Teacher was demonstrating the solution to a homework problem on the board. He quickly sketched a diagram and, implicitly contending that it was the complete solution, was about to move on. But before he could erase the material and continue, Young ScottyPedia, a stripling closer to 12 than 13 at the time, piped up.

“That’s not right, sir,” I said.

Photo: A substitute teacher sketch in comedy, Key & Peele.
Photo: A substitute teacher sketch in comedy, Key & Peele.

Incredulous, he looked at me, looked at the blackboard, looked at me again.

“You know better than me, boy?” he asked. His sarcasm was palpable, audible, visible and, for me, risible. I knew I was right and he wrong!

Wordlessly, I advanced to the blackboard and, chalk in hand, amid deafening silence from my classmates, I demonstrated to the increasingly excited class that his solution was in fact incomplete. He had omitted something for which any student careless enough not to include it in his answer in an exam setting would surely have been sanctioned.

I returned triumphantly to my seat. He muttered some grudging compliment under his breath and hurriedly moved on with the lesson. Also beneath his breath, one of my classmates warned me that I had better watch out—“Teachers don’t like you to show them up,” he said.

How right he was! The matter did not end there.

At the time, fortnightly reports were used to track a pupil’s progress in all subjects during the term. Fortnightly scores for each subject were tallied on a big mark sheet, with pupils’ performances rated from 0 to 10. The form teacher would thus be able to intervene if trouble appeared to be on the horizon.

My form teacher was Bro Patrick Fitzgibbon, a genuine Brother of the Order of Presentation, who hailed from Ireland. As my friend had predicted, while my other classmates registered scores from 5 to 9, yours truly received a 4. Mr Teacher had exacted revenge on me in the only manner he could at the time. This was, mind you, the very first fortnight of the term.

Photo: A teacher (right) interacts with his student at class. (Copyright Raa Network)
Photo: A teacher (right) interacts with his student at class.
(Copyright Raa Network)

Of course, the matter did not end there.

The following fortnight, I was treated to the delight of a second 4 out of 10 in that subject. And the next. And the next. In fact, as the term progressed, I felt like a golfer whose swing had deserted him: “Fore! Fore! Fore! Fore! Fore!”

Of course, I didn’t deserve it.  Like several of his contemporaries, Mr Teacher had settled into the lazy habit of simply copying the previous fortnight’s scores rather than writing in new scores reflecting the individual pupil’s progress in that particular two-week period.

After the third or fourth instance of this outstanding—for the wrong reason!—score, Bro Patrick summoned me and very discreetly inquired whether I was having any problems with the subject. I showed him my corrected assignments. His eyebrows arched slowly upwards as he examined the neatly labelled section of the binder in his hand and simultaneously surveyed the mark sheet.

There was no correlation between the completed assignments, which attested to a clear aptitude for the subject, and the recurrent fortnightly failing grade. But I was left to presume that either teachers were not allowed to challenge their peers in matters of this sort or that I was the wrong colour or the wrong race or the wrong social standing to be deemed worthy of an intervention.

But the matter still did not end there.

Photo: A substitute teacher sketch in US comedy, Key & Peele.
Photo: A substitute teacher sketch in US comedy, Key & Peele.

Because this was a subject that the entire Second Form (in excess of 100 students) was undertaking and required the use of very limited space and resources, there could be no end-of-term examination in the subject. The end-of-term score for the subject, after some corrective adjustments, was based on the fortnightly results. Every other pupil in my class attained a score ranging from 50 to the high 80s.

Young ScottyPedia? Do the math. Mr Teacher added all my individual scores for the seven fortnights in the term and I received a measly 28 as my official end-of-term mark for the subject. My enthusiasm for the subject dulled to the point of complete indifference and, over the next two terms, my end-of-term marks reflected much less my aptitude for the subject and much more my disdain for Mr Teacher.

Which is really the moral of this story. Bad teaching is what one of my COSTAATT lecturers calls “a residual-action zealicide”—it keeps on killing enthusiasm long after it is first administered. I’m resilient, though, and not easily beaten down.

A couple of years later, I chose to attempt the subject at CXC ‘O’ Level and had as my instructor—would you believe?—the same Mr Teacher.

By this time, I was not just older but had developed a considerable reputation with pupils and staff through my extra-curricular exploits. I don’t think I’m being immodest in affirming that I was one of the best students—if not, the best student—in that class. I ended up with a deserved distinction in the subject.

Photo: Teacher at work. (Copyright
Photo: Teacher at work.

So the ending of my story is, fortunately, a happy one. But had my personal disposition and ambitions been different, things could have gone oh so horribly wrong for me.

As it has for how many thousands of pupils, ruined by the rubbish that routinely recurs in classrooms all over the Republic. Despite my unsavoury experience, without reservation I urge every student to never feel so overwhelmed in a classroom setting as to be totally afraid to question authority. Teachers, often knowledgeable, are never infallible. Every true educator knows this and will embrace such situations for the genuine teaching moments they are.

I hope Mr Teacher has evolved enough over the years so that if and when he reads this—I hope it will be soon—he might draw a similar conclusion.

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About Scotty Ranking

Scotty Ranking
Damian R. Scott is an ICT professional and a lifelong student (and part-time teacher) of language and communication. As Scotty Ranking, he frequently comments on topical issues of the day, dispensing knowledge to all and sundry.

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  1. This is a well written article, loaded with many items for discussion. It is unfortunate that many subscribe to the stereotype about math, science and language students. I for one, hate stereotypes, as so many exceptions exist.

    On another note, I also encourage my students to ask their questions, particularly when they believe something is wrong or doesn’t make sense. This though, can be a double edged sword, as there are students who have used this opportunity to make the teacher ‘look stupid’. An action which can turn the classroom dynamics on its head, by undermining the influence of the teacher, especially when students don’t understand that the teacher is also human. On the other hand, many more students experience tremendous growth on the learning curve through such interactions. The benefits for students here far outweigh any drawbacks.

    I love your article. Lots of food for thought. Great job!

  2. Warning: Undefined variable $userid in /www/wired868_759/public/wp-content/plugins/user-photo/user-photo.php on line 114

    Excellent article, Damian R. Scott! There are some Maths geniuses who are just as proficient in Languages. It’s a pity that you had such an experience at college.
    Some teachers demotivate and scar students to such an extent that they despise the subject and school on a whole.
    I have had to try to undo psychological damage done to many a student in the little room designated for my subject area. My students, who excelled last year at CSEC in various subjects, nominated me for the TGU Excellence in Education Award for inspiring them, among other reasons.
    I try to teach the child, more than the subject. What lesson was that teacher trying to teach you? Where was his integrity, his honesty, fairness, accountability and all the other core values that a “good” teacher should exemplify? What legacy did he leave behind? Let’s pray that he has done some introspection and modified his approach over the years.
    You, certainly, have not emulated such a man. You already are an exemplary and selfless human being who is knowledgeable and competent in many fields. When you have the time, drop by my Academy. We welcome such a fine individual with open arms!
    Your colleague in education,
    Kirsten Ross
    Dip Ed, BA
    Ross Academy of Languages and the Performing Arts

  3. Marcia Nathai-Balkissoon

    You discuss some concerns that are really pervasive in this article. Our negative educational experiences can establish limitations that stay with us for the rest of our lives, while positive experiences can spur us forward. Thanks for sharing your personal story – it might well help a student facing a similar challenge. Also, I heartily commend your efforts to open new vistas for your students. You seem focused on teaching beyond course content to open new vistas for your students. Congrats!

  4. This was a well written article. Perhaps it can inspire pupils to rise above these situations and teachers to do the job they signed up to do.

  5. Well the truth is I’ve always heard that not necessarily from teachers along but from a broad spectrum of the public that if you’re good at math then you’re probably no good at English. For myself I’ve proven it to be true but the reason could be also we literally had a robot for a teacher and he was a good robot, to this day I hate math and also I’m convinced that I am no good at it..
    My daughter on the other hand loves both subjects and with some discipline, some extra help and commitment I expect great things, so Scotty you might have a point there, and if I may touch on the point of knowing the teacher was wrong but wondering what the consequences would have been if I did say something or wasn’t confident as you were… well!!! Lessons learnt maybe with an unprofessional teacher who is insecure I might just wait till the class is over…..??

  6. Teachers often have to teach courses in areas they don’t know very well.
    The challenges are even greater when students don’t share your cultural background, lifestyle, or assumptions about how to behave in a classroom.
    In this practical world experienced teaching offers many creative strategies for dealing with distinctive problems.
    How do you adequately prepare to process most efficiently new information in an innovative area of concentration?
    How do you look classroom manage in credible way?
    What do you do when you don’t have a clue how to answer a question?
    How do you engage students to think of themselves as learners rather than passive recipients of prepared information or teachers with limited knowledge output?
    confronting authority where silent acquiescence to wrongdoing is the too-high price too many are prepared to pay..!

  7. Earl Best

    Seriously, though, you have it all to do. They don’t come more authoritarian than primary school teachers who need both parents and children to believe in their infallibility. Twinned with the undemocratic households that area feature of Trini life, where is the confidence to speak truth to authority that you are calling for to come from?

    Your blog? QRC classrooms? With the help of the current big-stick-wielding Minister of Education? Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

    That’s 500 plus 700 people per year.

    At that rate, you should be able to democratise the entire school population of T&T by the time your great-great-great-great-great-grandson is ready to have a great-great-great-great-great-grandchild.

  8. Earl Best

    Scott, Oh! So you hope it will be soon? Nice one, Scott, nice one!

  9. This is so true….. it probably accounts for why I still face trouble with Mathematics while I excelled in every other subject I tried…. even the Sciences and Accounts.

    As a teacher myself, I encourage my students to question everything…. I am not the fountain of all knowledge. I may know quite a lot… but I do not know everything. I am human and I can make mistakes from time to time. I don’t take offence to a student pointing out an error I might have made. The classroom is a place where learning takes place. Everyone learns something – both the students and the instructor walk away from the classs gaining new knowledge and experiences. Learning is a lifelong process. Who made up the rule that teachers can’t learn anything from their students? I learn things from my nieces every day… and they are all under the age of 10. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to say that. And my students certainly enlighten me on topics that I am unfamiliar with. I prefer to be thought of as a guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. Lights can get to be too bright in the spotlight and when embarrassment comes…. well… yuh by yuhself in de spotlight. When you’re on the side…. the whole class learns… including the teacher.

  10. Well one of my son’s teachers in high school told him he will amount to nothing after he challenged the teacher on a point in an A level comp sci class. Of course my son sat in on a couple comp sci classes i was teaching at the college level during the summer in the US. My son is interning with google this summer. Go figure.

  11. Good article, I remembered this happened in a STAT tutor class, at UWI, where the student had to correct the tutor. However sad to say this issue is alive and well. Gone are the days of the Best , Girvan , Farrell, Pantin, etc who challenged students at UWI re critical thinking. How dare you think outside the box, or challenge the Dr. Today PhD is a paper not critical thinking. You dare to contradict , you are vicitmised. i’m sure you can get a novel with several Volumes. about similar stories. I remember challenging my lecturer on something he said about Lloyd Best, I got my first D at the end of the Semester, that is after getting an A the previous year. Think for oneself and challenge authority. I’m the Teacher.

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