Mrs. Herring1 came to us from a neighborhood High School, where she taught various forms of social studies for almost two decades. She was given the large room near our primary staircase. I didn’t take much notice of her during that summer’s professional development, which may damn me as a jaded teacher who has seen so many teachers come and go that he no longer notices, or vindicate me as a savvy veteran who has finally learned that to survive the usual summer professional development is to furiously work on things that matter or quietly, peaceful leave one’s body to enter a happy place. No matter. Mrs. Herring was the worst teacher I have ever met, and this is the story of our brief interaction.
I’ve seen three teachers in my career (8 years and two schools) who I can say, with zero reservations, have no place in a school. Two of them, one young and one old, aggressively picked fights with students. Either the student would be put out or they could take a vacation on leave. Or both. 2 Mrs. Herring was another breed.
My first doubts about Mrs. Herring surfaced when 3 of my Juniors reported she spent the first 3 days of class doing nothing but taking roll and talking about “Indiana Jones”. Even more curious was this conversation, which I initially chalked up to exaggeration, was taking place during Mrs. Herring’s class. This continued. There were lectures about vacations, projects that didn’t make sense, and lot of mid-class trips to the copier. The “aha” moment for me was 3 conversations we had in the space of 2 weeks on “which stairwell leads to the office”. There are two stairwells in Robeson. One of them is 7 feet from Mrs. Herring’s classroom and it leads directly to the office.
And, look: I don’t know this woman. I don’t know what she’s been through or how she got here or anything significant about her other than she had a superhuman ability to be terrible at her job. I want to empathize, I do. But, reflecting on that school year, I didn’t really want to empathize. I wanted a good teacher to help with my 11th graders or, at best, someone competent who wouldn’t have them bouncing off the walls. I wanted Mrs. Herring out. Now.
Being a considerate soul, Mrs. Herring managed to break her foot come October. And, in the recovery and cleaning that followed, we made a discovery. Mrs. Herring’s lesson plans, gradebook, and essentials turned out to be impeccable. She dotted her “i”s and crossed her “t”s; her ducks were in an unshakable row and her bases were meticulously covered. The kicker? Mrs. Herring had a long, storied history of breaking her foot during the school year.
We debated whether she was crazy or brilliant. No matter. Chris Lehman wrote something that sticks with me:
“Our schools are structurally dysfunctional places which, therefore, makes teaching and learning much harder than it needs to be, so that teachers — and students — have to succeed despite the system, rather than because of it.”
In a dysfunctional system, the survivors will be people who thrive in dysfunction. Mrs. Herring was nice enough where kids wouldn’t swing at her, competent enough where there would be an activity on the board, strange enough where you didn’t want to see her explode because she might actually have a bomb strapped to her chest.
What’s the next part of this story? A young teacher gets fired, Herring stays on, seniority destroys another generation of children. Click the button here to donate.
Except, in the real world, something very different happened. The staff at Robeson was strong and professional3. Upon her December return, Mrs. Herring was at the top of everyone’s enemy list. For most of us, that meant avoiding any contact with her. One teacher told her, point blank, she was not carrying her weight and was not welcome. My Principal started the process to host a formal hearing and, despite Mrs. Herring’s best efforts, launched the required formal observations. Mrs. Herring was on her way out the door.
There was a lot more low level drama, culminating in a 700 word letter to my regional union representative4. She arrived for Mrs. Herring’s formal hearing which, dramatically enough, took place in the midst of another round of layoffs. I clearly remember our conversation: “Everyone gets a hearing. I don’t have to talk, I don’t have to play defense. But everyone gets a hearing.” Mrs. Herring had her hearing. She was out before Valentine’s Day.5
There’s been a well funded and well executed campaign to convince people that schools are propagated with intractable parasites. The spearhead has always been horror stories of unionized cronies, their shenanigans, and the poor teachers who have to pick up the slack. It’s a small sample size, but in eight years, two schools, and a lot of conversations, I’ve never known this storyline to be true. It’s dramatic. It turns heads. It raises money and reinforces this notion that schools are really easy to “fix”. And these stories always seem to have a sample size of 1.
So here’s my n=1 “terrible teacher story”: When you give administrators enough time, when you give teachers6 agency and purpose, the problem of The Worst Teacher I Ever Met is a self correcting one. If the whole debate could move onto bigger things, we would be much better off.