Dealing With Idiot Teachers

You’re reading this page because you’re upset.  You may be upset because you’re a student who isn’t doing well in class.  You may be a student who feels as if the teacher doesn’t like you.  You may be upset because you’re a teacher who saw the title of this post and decided to get angry without actually reading it first.

Whichever is the case, this article is written for the students out there who feel as if their chemistry experience isn’t what it should be.  For those students who:

  • Feel like the teacher doesn’t know what to do.
  • Feel like the teacher is out to get them.
  • Feel like their teacher is an inhuman monster from another planet.

I can help you to understand if you’re concerned with one of the first two points.  For the third, I can recommend a good resource.

Let’s have a look:

So, you think your teacher doesn’t know what they’re doing

If your chemistry class is chaotic, you may think that your teacher isn’t a good one.  Maybe the labs he or she sets up don’t work well, or they make mistakes when they’re lecturing, or they lose their train of thought.  No matter what the problem, it’s obvious that your teacher is clueless.

Well, maybe not.  Here are a few reasons that explain apparent lack of teacher knowledge without resorting to the “my teacher isn’t very bright” explanation:

  • Your teacher has a plan you don’t know about:  Just because you don’t know what the plan is doesn’t mean that they don’t have one.  It’s extremely common, and has shown to be effective, to let students discover wonders of science on their own. This process may look extremely chaotic and may also be frustrating at times, but studies have shown that it increases student critical thinking skills.  It also prepares you for the “real world”, where you typically don’t get a set of instructions every time you want to do something.
  • This is your teacher’s personality:  Some teachers like to run a classroom like a drill sergeant, while others prefer a more casual atmosphere.  If you’re a big fan of highly structured learning and your teacher is the casual type, you may be mistaking “relaxed” for “incompetent.”
  • Your teacher is trying new things:  If a teacher is trying a new lesson or lab for the first time, the chances of things going wrong are pretty high.  If this is the case, make sure you’re not interpreting a creative teacher as being one who doesn’t know the subject.
  • You’re being too hard on your teacher:  If you’re a 15-year-old boy, you may hope that you get Dr. Smith, the 25-year-old MIT graduate who used to work as a bikini model. Unfortunately, if you end up with Mr. Jones, the guy with the polyester sweater and the stuffed penguin that you have to take to the bathroom, you may be so disappointed that you assume he’s terrible.  That’s not fair, neither to your teacher (who wouldn’t have taught for so long if he weren’t good), nor to Dr. Smith (who may be a first-year teacher who just wants to be taken seriously).
  • Your teacher is being forced to use a particular resource:  If your teacher is using a SmartBoard all the time (or any other gadget), it’s likely that somebody has told them to do it or else.  Unfortunately, not all tools are good for all purposes, so even if a SmartBoard isn’t a good tool for a particular lesson, the teacher may be disciplined by their administrator for not using it.  Your supposedly “incompetent” teacher isn’t clueless – they’re just trying to keep their job.
  • Your teacher may be young:  Every teacher in the world knows that the first few years of teaching are difficult.  You haven’t figured out what works, you don’t know what resources the school provides, and you aren’t even sure about how to handle it when that kid in the third row makes an obnoxious comment.  These teachers aren’t terrible – they just haven’t perfected their trade yet.
  • Your teacher is tired and/or sick:  Nobody is at their best in either of these cases, and believe it or not, teachers sometimes have to spend their night awake with vomiting toddlers or come to work when the vomiting toddler has made them sick.  If you expect perfection from your teacher – or anybody else – you’re going to have a frustrating life.
  • (Most importantly) You’re not doing your part:  If you’re not doing well in class, the chances are good that you’re not really applying yourself.  Ask yourself these questions: Do you go to class every day?  Do you pay attention when you’re in class?  Do you perform all of the assignments you’re given?  Do you study for exams?  The job of a teacher is not to magically make knowledge appear in your brain, but to make it possible for you to do it yourself.

“OK,” you may be saying to yourself.  “My teacher does a good job, but he or she (presumably you know which) is out to get me because they don’t like me.”  Let’s examine this in greater detail:

So, your teacher is out to get you:

Let’s say that you think your teacher gives you the stink eye whenever they look at you.  Or perhaps you think they speak to you in condescending tones.  Worst of all, you may feel as if that girl in the second row is the teacher’s pet and gets better treatment than you.

Before you deride your teacher as being a jerk, I’d like you to consider the following reasons that may explain these phenomena:

  • You and your teacher have different personalities, and you’re interpreting these differences as dislike.  If your teacher barks out orders while you’d rather have a quiet conversation, you’ll probably think they hate you. Likewise, if you want clear, direct, and brief instruction, you may interpret a naturally friendly and outgoing teacher as condescending.
  • You’re may be interpreting their difficulty with remembering people for dislike.  I tell my students on the first day of school that I can’t remember either names or faces, and that they should introduce themselves to me when they have questions that involve their names.  They laugh, but it’s the truth.  I am terrible with names and faces and there are always a few kids I can’t recognize even at the end of the year.  They may feel that I dislike them if I don’t say hello in the hall, but in reality, I simply don’t recognize them. It’s not the most endearing quality in a teacher to forget names, but it happens.
  • You may be overreacting to a minor mistake.  I once had two students come up to me, both very upset.  These students had given essentially the same answer on a quiz, but I had given full points to one and half points to the other.  Why, they asked, would you do that?  The answer:  I made a mistake.  Just like you, teachers make mistakes and, most likely, pointing them out will solve the problem.  If these two kids hadn’t said anything to me, they might still think I like one more than the other.
  • You may not like your teacher:  If you don’t like somebody, you usually assume they don’t like you either.  Before assuming that your teacher dislikes you, ask yourself the following question:  “If I were to enter this class right now, not knowing anything about my teacher at all, would I instantly hate them?”  If the answer is yes, then you haven’t given them a chance.
  • Your teacher may not like you: OK… I said it.  I’ve had students that I really like and students that I don’t.  I’ve had kids I thought were great and kids I just wished would move to Alaska.  That said, I have never, ever let these feelings affect how I treat students or how I grade their work.  It is inevitable that if you have 150 students that you won’t like all of them, but it’s not inevitable that you treat the ones you don’t like differently than the others.  I take my job very seriously, and part of being a professional teacher is treating everybody fairly.

So, you have a lousy teacher

If, upon reading this section and the one above, you still think your teacher is an idiot, you may actually have one that’s not going to win Teacher of the Year.  It happens.  Some people are good at their jobs and some people aren’t.  That’s true if you work as a lawyer and it’s true if you’re a teacher.

Now that you’ve decided you’ve got a lousy teacher, here is what you need to do:

  • Reassess whether your teacher is really lousy:  It’s natural to assume that, in any disagreement, the other person is at fault.  You’ve taken a look at the comments I’ve made above – now I want you to really look deeply into them and make sure that you were honest with yourself.  If you find that you overreacted, there’s no shame in admitting it.
  • Talk to your teacher:  Before getting all bent out of shape, you may want to have a 1-on-1 conversation with your teacher about the problems you’re having in class.  This will give you a good chance to see what they have to say, and to see their side of the story. Teachers take great pride in their work, and if you can (gently) let them know how you feel, your teacher will take it seriously.
  • Talk to your counselor:  Your counselor knows how to handle the teachers.  If one teacher is known for some particular quirk, they can give you good advice for how to handle it.  If they decide that something really is wrong, they can purposely run into the teacher in the hall and just make a couple of quick comments about the matter. School counselors are sometimes unfairly treated as failed teachers – in reality, they are skilled professionals who are absolutely expert at solving problems before they start.
  • Have your parent talk to the teacher:  If you’re still upset about things, have a parent talk to your teacher with your concerns.  Make sure you pick your calm parent, because it’s important that this conversation be courteous for it to be effective.  Email is an excellent tool for getting in touch, as it expresses concern without sending the “I’m going to come to your place of work and yell at you” message that a conference sometimes sends.
  • Set up a conference with your counselor, the teacher, his administrator, your parents, and (most importantly), you:  Remember, this conference is not to cast blame or to get anybody in trouble.  The purpose of this conference is to find a constructive solution to the problem in which everybody’s interests are represented.  As with the parent-teacher contact, make sure that your calm and collected parent be present to represent you.

I have never noticed that this set of steps hasn’t brought results.  At some point in this process, somebody (possibly you!) will realize that they’ve made a mistake and take steps to make it right.  The most important thing you can remember is that your teacher is a professional who wants to do the right thing, your school administrator is a professional who wants to do the right thing, and your parents know you better than anybody else and want to do the right thing.  With all of those people working to solve this problem, it’s hard to imagine things not getting better.

What not to do if you determine you have a lousy teacher

The steps in the section above describe what you should do if you believe that your teacher isn’t doing a good job.  These steps treat everybody in the process in a respectful way and make it possible to find a solution without making life hard for anybody.

On the flip side of this coin, there are some common things that people do which make things far worse.  These actions don’t treat everybody respectfully, but rather take the position that “the student is 100% right and the teacher is a terrible monster who we should take out back and shoot.”  It’s hard to imagine how such an approach could ever yield a result that’s fair for anybody.

Anyhow, here are some things you definitely don’t want to do if you’ve decided that your teacher isn’t a good one:

  • Argue with the teacher:  If you argue with the teacher in class, nobody will take you seriously ever again.  Instead of being somebody who stands up for him/herself, you’ll be seen as a hothead with poor self-control.  Which, in this case, will be true.  Even if you’re right, an argument will absolutely result in your concerns being ignored.
  • Say anything negative to anybody:  Same result as above.  If you want the teacher and/or school to deal with this professionally, you have to act like a professional, too.
  • Write a petition:  Petitions are ignored.  Always.  They will serve to let people know that you’re angry and more interested in getting mad than solving the problem.  This doesn’t help you.
  • Blog/Tweet/etc about it:  You will find some people who think you’re awesome, but most people will think you’re either a hothead or whiny.  Additionally, there is a small but real chance that the school will take action against you, which is legally questionable but annoyingly effective.
  • Write an editorial for the school newspaper:  They won’t publish it, so all you’ll do is waste your time and make yourself madder.

Though it’s fun and popular to think of schools as giant useless bureaucracies, I know from experience as a teacher that the system for dealing with complaints is a good one.  Use it.

Some closing thoughts

I hope this article has given you some insight about your problem.  Please think very hard about whether your teacher is really incompetent, or if you just have another issue with them that’s nowhere near as serious.  Especially consider that you may be the one who’s angry, and that the teacher is just doing their job.

There are bad teachers out there, just as there are people in every profession who doesn’t know what they’re doing.  However, the chances of your teacher actually being a bad one are small, so make sure you look at all the facts before you get too upset.


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