LeBron James and the Narrative About Bad Teachers

LeBron James is, again, the talk of the Internet. After tying up a crucial Game 3 against the Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors had to watch as the legend skated right to his left and drilled a bank shot seemingly one-handed to win at the buzzer. He’s had the Canadian basketball team’s number for years, and, with the latest buzzer beater, he once again dialed it to put the Cavs on the precipice of another Eastern Conference Finals.

Basketball is a sport in which one dominant player can sway the direction of a game in a way that no other sport allows.

Which brought me back to April 20th, 2018 when the Cavs lost to the Indiana Pacers and this exchange between James and a reporter happened:

In the video, the reporter asks an awkward question about making players “play above their pay grade.” Such a question looks ridiculous for James to answer because, while it might spark a controversial answer from James, it also puts the whole team under the precarious position of discussing the relationship between pay and performance, as if these two elements are perfectly correlated. To his credit, James answers masterfully, dissuading the press from focusing on his teammates and more on his own mistakes throughout the game. Luckily, the Cavs end up winning the highly contested series against the Pacers and LeBron keeps LeBronning.

This is great for James and co. In the education context, such a question would be met with applause from self-proclaimed education reformers and James’ response would be met with suspicion.

While the majority of Americans react positively to teachers as a whole, there’s always a bit of angst when discussing a particular set of educators. They’re dubbed “bad teachers,” and the bad teacher is education’s boogieperson: stories upon stories permeate the conversation yet our society has done little to create a collective understanding of what “bad” means. Lots of people have tried to tackle it either through complicated frameworks, unstable equations, imperfect policy, or clunky implementation.

There are those who believe a “bad” teacher is an academically ineffective teacher. Generally, people believe these are the teachers who aren’t actually teaching students. The range of “bad” includes, but isn’t limited to: not actually making an effort to provide lessons and giving opportunities for students to learn, giving students multiple worksheets to finish sans context, lecturing at students for longer than their attention spans allow, or any number of things that people deem out of bounds. However, we can’t keep defining the provisions of “bad” pedagogy by a tangential set of experiences. Too many of these experiences are often the reflection of the person instead of a collective understanding of what’s required.

Observations fall into this category, too. What we think we’ve observed about a person’s teaching may also be a product of our own biases about the teacher, the students, and the school. I believe observers can get better over time and with lots of conversations and experiences with observations, but these visits often need more than a rubric to get the full grasp of what’s happening in the classroom.

We also see a similar dynamic when we speak of accountability measures. There are those who say a teacher is “bad” if their results look awful. They may look at any number of data, though they usually concentrate on standardized test scores (this includes tests like the NAEP / PISA / etc.). Yet, in striving to seem fair, the equations that determine effectiveness under these tests fail to provide stable information. With high margins of error and environmental factors, effectiveness measures aren’t reliable enough to make solid decisions on effectiveness. Our culture has already moved so far into testing culture that we’ve simply willed the junk science into reliability because “we can’t go back” to whatever system of accountability we had before. It also means we have schools where students feel like they’re learning and their scores don’t reflect their testimony and schools churn out excellent results but their students fight off daily traumas and depression.

None of this is good.

There’s also a dynamic of teachers with overt and covert biases. I do not seek to be on a team with teachers who dehumanize my students. Racism deserves regular callouts, more so than this education culture of faux-niceness allows. I want my colleagues to treat my students as humans and also as students. For too many of us, it doesn’t matter if the teacher’s classroom is Instagram-ready, if they’ve received a million accolades from organizations and governments, or if they prepare students to achieve on an exam. As long as the teacher does all of these things while treating our children as less than (never mind voting in that regard), that’s a “bad” teacher for us as well.

Surely, we can have policies and pedagogies that can help our schools get culturally responsive teachers with learning and achievement in mind and action. Yet, we also need to work on the consciousness and subconsciousness of our society that still hasn’t developed a strong unanimity on what we consider “bad” or “good.” Or if that’s even the appropriate vocabulary for approaching systems-based edifices like schools.

Until then, it’s hard for me to comment too strongly on another colleague’s approach to the work unless it’s an extreme. And even then. It’s not a wall of silence. It’s not even having a union or an association. It’s not about a public image, a brand, or a reputation. It’s about knowing that this profession has serious flaws. At times, I’ve had to work against my better judgment because of school and city mandates. Other times, I’ve bucked the trends to adjust to students only to get interrogated for my pedagogical choices. I got National Board certified during one of my best teaching years, but my patience was tested a million times over the year after I got it.

For students, having that one “bad” teacher throughout the year can make the whole year feel awful. In a game that’s not as clearly defined, I’m always hoping to have more effective days than not before the season’s over.