Bad Teacher

Is it possible for a bad person to be a good teacher?

The Husband and I have been on an adventure.  We have been looking for a condo for the last couple of months – mortgage pre-approvals! Real estate agents! Notaries and house inspectors! We feel like grownups – and two weeks ago, we found what we were looking for.  It was the upper half of a duplex, small but well divided, so The Husband and I could each have an office.  It had a nice roomy kitchen, and a pantry!  It was half a block from the metro, a five-minute bike ride from Jean-Talon Market, and in a new neighbourhood that was still very close to our old neighbourhood.  It was in our price range.

We asked the vendor’s agent about our indoor/outdoor cats.  No problem, he said.  Cats are explicitly allowed in the co-ownership agreement.  On the balconies? we asked.  In the yard, even though the yard will not be ours?  No problem, he said.  It’s in the agreement.

We made an offer.  It was accepted. We were over the moon.  We scheduled an inspection for the following weekend.  No can do, said the agent.  The downstairs co-owner, Mme X Y, is out of town, and so we can’t get access to the basement.  We’ll have to do it the following weekend, when she gets back from her spring break holiday.

Ah, we thought.  A teacher on spring break.  Well, ok.  Less than convenient that she’s away, but it gives us time to confirm our financing and look over the co-ownership agreement.

“Didn’t the agent say that our hot water tank is in the basement?” I asked The Husband.

“Why yes, I believe he did,” The Husband replied.

“And while Mme X Y is away, no one has access to the basement?  What happens if the hot water tank breaks while she’s away?”

“Good question.  Maybe we just need her permission to go into the basement, and she’s not reachable.”

“So the agent didn’t ask, before she left, that she give permission to go into the basement in the case of a sale and inspection?”

“I guess not.  Let’s look over the co-ownership agreement, shall we?”

The co-ownership agreement was all in French (not to mention legalese), so the reading of it was time-consuming.  Our agent assured us that it looked pretty standard, so we should just make a note if anything jumped out at us.  Two things did: the description of the downstairs co-owner on the first page as “Mme X Y, enseignante [teacher]” – surely a kindred spirit! – and the clauses saying that cats were permitted in the building but that animals were “not to be kept or left in common areas.”  Common areas included balconies and fire escapes, and no mention was made of animals making their way into the yard.

We called our agent.  This is a routine clause in co-ownership agreements, she assured us, and can usually be worked out between the co-owners; let’s get on it right away.  We emailed our questions to the vendor’s agent.  “Questions about the co-ownership agreement will need to be addressed with the downstairs co-owner when she returns,” he replied.  “We can discuss them with her the morning of the inspection.”

The morning of the inspection?  The Husband and I stared at one another.  The inspection was going to cost us $600.  If Mme X Y refused to allow our cats to pass through her yard, we wouldn’t need to do an inspection.  We wrote him back.  Is there any way at all to contact the co-owner and straighten this out before then?  Not likely, he said, but I’ll see what I can do.  I’ll leave her a message, but I can’t guarantee that she’ll get it.

We re-scheduled the inspection again, for a couple of days after Mme X Y’s projected return.  This would allow us to meet her on the morning we had originally allotted for the inspection, so we could discuss the co-ownership documents and iron out any problems.  Re-scheduling the inspection involved not just the inspection agency, but yet another amendment to our promise to purchase, requiring signatures from us, our agent, the other agent, and the vendor.  Calls were made.  Papers were delivered back and forth.  We sat on our hands waiting to see if Mme X Y would get back to us.

Several days before Mme X Y’s return, we got an email from the vendor’s agent saying that he had heard from Mme X Y and that she “seemed open,” but that she would not amend the co-ownership agreement (as this would involve notary fees).  We would have to discuss it all in person, but that “as long as the cats don’t make damage to her garden, she cannot be against cat.”

Fine, we thought.  There was no need to change the co-ownership document – we’d already spoken to a notary, who said that we simply needed an entente in writing.  It would not be legally binding, but would signal an  understanding.  We wrote up a brief entente stating that Mme X Y would not object to cats in the common areas and in her yard, and that if the cats did damage to the garden, we would repair and/or compensate for it.  We sent it to the vendor’s agent and asked him to forward it to Mme X Y if he could.

The night before our scheduled meeting, we received a message from the vendor’s agent.  Mme X Y did not wish to meet with us the following morning if the inspection was not taking place.  She did not wish to discuss our cats: she did not want our cats coming into her yard.  What was more, she was not available at the time of our (twice re-scheduled) inspection, so the inspection could not take place at that time.

Our agent came by the next morning and we declared the promise to purchase null and void.

Now, here’s the thing.  Obviously, the vendor’s agent bears some responsibility for all these events – for misinforming us in the beginning, and for not taking steps to ensure that things could unfold in Mme X Y’s absence.  And obviously, Mme X Y is not the sort of person one wants to live above.  But what interests me most in all these circumstances is that Mme X Y is a teacher.

What kind of a teacher is she?  Perhaps she conducts herself entirely differently in the classroom than she does in the rest of the world, but let us assume some consistency of character.  Without having once met Mme X Y, here is what we learned about her:

  • She is not available to others even when her availability is crucial (we, and the vendor, delayed everything for two weeks because she did not leave any way to contact her directly, even though she must have been aware that her co-owner might need her.)
  • She does not trust others (no one was given permission to enter her basement while she was not present, regardless of the impact it might have in these or other circumstances.)
  • She is willing to cause enormous difficulties to others on specious grounds (the vendor lost a sale, and we lost a condo, because she wants to protect herself from cats.  Is she under the impression that no cats will come into her yard if the upstairs neighbours don’t let their cats out?  Cats get into yards!),
  • She is defensive and afraid of others (she refused to walk upstairs and meet us to discuss these issues; she has no interest in being introduced to the people who could very well end up living above her for the next thirty years.)

All of these qualities make me think of some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had, people who were inflexible, defensive, terrified of their students, unreasonable, and controlling even when the benefits for them were not clear.  And it makes me interested in hearing your stories about bad teachers.

What do you remember about the worst teachers you’ve had?  What made them bad teachers?  Were they also bad people?  Is it possible for a person like Mme X Y, who seems to the sort of person you would never want as a neighbour, to be a good teacher?  I am furious about how this  all went down, but at the same time, I am feeling a clinically detached interest in the questions it raises about the teaching profession, human nature, and society.  I look forward to your observations.

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski

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42 responses

  1. I am horrified at the time, energy and other expense that went into this nightmare — but here is hoping that she and her eventual co-owner deserve each other! I have nothing about bad teachers. I have had some *ineffectual* teachers but none who was a bad person, as far as I could tell. If anything, the opposite.

  2. I had one teacher that couldn’t spell to save her life – she tried to convince us that exercise was spelled ‘excersise’. I don’t think she was a bad person, just a bit iffy in the spelling department.
    I think I’m in the same boat as souliersnoirs, in that I’ve never had a teacher who was a bad person, just not a very good teacher.

  3. I can honestly say I’ve never had a ‘bad’ teacher but my parents may beg to differ! ;-) I will say that I have had new teachers who had a hard time controlling the class but that’s about it.

    This woman, however, sounds like someone very impressed with herself, who thinks people should treat her different because she’s a teacher and believes that people should bend to her will.

    In short, not a terribly nice person and perhaps not a good teacher either. I have discovered that people who have their ego tied to the job ‘I’m special! Look at me!’ are virtually impossible to deal with.

    In the U.S., at least, that is a LARGE part of the problem with public education, in this teacher’s humble opinion. We have FAR too many people who think that just because they’re involved in the educational system, even if all they do is sit in an office, they should be bowed down to. Forget about the children, it’s all about ME!

    I have one thing to say to those people: It’s not about you, so get over yourself.

    I would SERIOUSLY cuss out, metaphorically speaking, the vendor’s agent while I was at it.

    • Amy: “people who have their ego tied to the job ‘I’m special! Look at me!’ are virtually impossible to deal with.” Interesting. I’m not sure I would have identified those qualities here, but it’s certainly a possibility.

  4. What a frustrating waste of your time!

    One thought on the teacher is that she could be suffering from burnout! Here are the ten stages of burnout: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnout_(psychology)

    Note in stage 5: “In this stage, people isolate themselves from others, they avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs while their perceptions change. They also change their value systems. Etc.

    And stage 6: The person begins to become intolerant. They do not like being social, and if they were to have social contact, it would be merely unbearable for them. Etc.

    This (perhaps) shows the effect of burnout on the people around the teacher. Not a happy situation for anyone.

    • Karen: It never occurred to me, but your quotes fit the situation very precisely. Maybe she once was a good teacher, and teaching turned her into a bad person? The fact that she refused any contact at all while away on spring break suggests that when she’s not in the classroom, she needs to hide and lick her wounds.

  5. Dear Ms Curious,
    My frequent observation is that people who do not like cats are indeed on the inflexible side of the character flexibility scale and thus can never (OK – rarely) be fine teachers. Are they bad people? That too is quite likely although not absolutely true. As for bad teachers, I had one very grumpy math teacher (sorry math teachers) who, in three years, never learned my name, and who scared me so much, I never once asked a question in class even though I desperately needed to. Currently, I have a colleague who doesn’t adequately prep and so goes into the classroom unprepared for discussion or lessons, so much so that students tell other students and teachers about her follies. She often wants to “borrow” lessons from other teachers and is quite angry when you have nothing to offer that exactly fits her requirements. Is she a bad person? I don’t think so. But she is not honouring the work code that so many of us honour. I have occasionally been a bad teacher myself. Lately, during talk teaching lessons, I find that the slightest gossipy whispering amongst the students unhinges me and I lose my train of thought. Then bad things are said by this cat lover.

  6. Well, I’ve certainly met some good people who were not very good teachers, because that was simply not where thier talents lay, but I can’t say I’ve ever encountered a disagreeable person who was a good teacher. Teaching takes too much patience and focus on others. I can’t imagine someone who is selfish in his or her personal life could “flip a switch” so to speak and be patient and selfless in his or her professional life. I imagine a person who acts like Mme X Y has would be an unresponsive, unsupportive teacher, someone who may be knowledgeable but just pontificates, leaving students who have difficulty all on their own.

  7. This lady sounds like a sucky person more so than a bad person. (She seems really inconsiderate more than anything.)

    I’ve had (and worked with) bad people who were good teachers, good people who were bad teachers, good people who were good teachers, and bad people who were bad teachers. Just like any other profession, teachers come in all varieties.*

  8. I had a philosophy teacher in class who would only call on the males in the class. He ignored the females completely, and downright dismissed all of us and what we had to say. I even saw him dismiss what a young lady said when she added a comment (without being called on….I guess she was desperate to be heard) and then praised a man not two minutes later for saying the exact same thing. It was my first introduction to misogyny and I will say it was disheartening and unpleasant. How horrid to be a second class student in a college class simply by your sex! Nowadays I am a lot less naive. I would be in reporting him……but back then I was too unsure of the world. Bad teacher!

  9. Siobohan, I think that you are absolutely right.

    I have lived in France for all my adult life & my children have endured some of the worst of the french education system’s dysfunctional staff, as well as enjoying one of its best teachers. I will spare you the long litany of woes. Sadly, teaching in the primary sector especially has often not been about caring for children, but about making pension contributions, and a schedule friendly to one’s own childcare needs. (Yes, there are wonderful people working in the ‘education nationale’, but they are up against a deeply engrained system and deserve our admiration.)

    As to the reservations some of your readers have expressed regarding the link you make between this lady’s behaviour and her fitness to teach, at the very least a complete inability to question one’s own point of view definitely does have a bearing on the classroom.

    Good luck with the househunting!

    • Catherine: “…at the very least a complete inability to question one’s own point of view definitely does have a bearing on the classroom.” Agreed. If you think you are always right, what behaviour are you modelling for your students?

  10. Wow, wow, wow. Sorry to hear about all the house drama. What a weird woman! I doubt she is a good teacher. How could she be?
    The worst teachers I have had were the ones that you could tell wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else, other than the classroom. Some of them even blatantly told us so. They usually were the ones that gave busy work and were unwilling to help their students learn the material and do well. Unfortunately, I had quite a few over the years. Even in college and grad school.

  11. I’m really sorry about your less-than-pleasant experience with a teacher. Are you certain she’s a teacher? Paraeducators (like me), secretaries and other support staff also get spring break (which can’t come soon enough for me!)

    I think someone can be incredible at their job and be not a very nice person. I work with a few teachers who are remarkable with their students but have no adult social skills at all. The opposite is also true. My son had a math teacher in high school who was the nicest guy ever; he’d give you the shirt off his back. Unfortunately, he couldn’t teach math. I don’t think the two things are related, although, like you, I’d like to think teachers everywhere are nice people.

    • Sharon: Yes, I’m certain she is a teacher (the co-ownership agreement identified her as such). I’d agree, though, that some people are great w/ kids but have a hard time manoeuvring in the adult world. I always find this a bit creepy. And although I wish teachers everywhere were nice, experience tells me that this isn’t the case! I have had plenty of teachers who were nasty people, but they were also bad teachers.

  12. Let me start off by saying that I had some wonderful teachers who were really nice people, knew their subject thoroughly, and could teach it. Now there is a winning combination for you. But, since you asked about awful teachers:

    Worst ever was the 9th grade algebra teacher. Wow did he have a chip on his shoulder. No idea why, but when we didn’t learn because he couldn’t teach, that was obviously our fault and he got worse. One day I thought I’d try to make a new start and gave him a smile when he walked in the classroom. Fifty-seven years later his snarled reaction is still burned in my memory: “Wipe that smirk off your face.” What a jerk. I couldn’t wait to get out of that class and be done with him.

  13. A teacher whose personality is marginal or inadequate can teach well only to students who have actively chosen to take the class and are old enough to own the responsibility for learning the subject. So, can’t be an elementary school teacher; can’t teach a high school subject that’s required for graduation. On the other hand, in college I had a few professors who were quite deficient in terms of empathy, insight into people, etc. But extremely good at their subjects. Was it optimal? No. But there was no one optimal available, so they got the job.

    • Sadly, I must take issue with your use of the word ‘can’. Such people shouldn’t become grade school teachers, but alas, they do because they can ; ) Views on who is ‘optimal’ may be focussed on paper qualifications…. it’s a difficult one.

      • Catherine: I agree. When I think of “bad teachers,” the first one who comes to mind is the woman who taught me sixth grade. She seemed to HATE children and life in her classroom was always tinged with helplessness and dread. Maybe things have changed? That was a long time ago.

        • Of course, your’re right Siobhan and Catherine. I should have said “shouldn’t,” because I had my share of K-8 teachers who should not have been in the classroom, but were. And I practice-taught under one too. When I told the supervisor from my Ed program that she hated children and I needed to transfer out of her room, he told me that would not be possible!

          • The supervisor was having a hard time lining up enough student teacher slots at local schools, and was also a “suck it up” type of a guy. He was more interested in “education” than in children. I did continue teaching, but was not at all ready when I had to take on my own classroom!!!

  14. I think it really depends. I’ve never seen a person be an excellent teacher who is a terrible person; but on the other hand I have no reason to assume they can’t be.

    In my experience of teaching, good teachers ALWAYS show some sort of interest in their students. They don’t need to be buddy-buddy (teaching middle school while trying to be students’ friends is a BAD idea, in fact), but they do need to care and show that care.

    A person who has the kind of qualities you mention, in my experience, is the kind of teacher who marks time until retirement, convinced that students just ‘don’t know how to behave nowadays’ and that nothing can change a student who ‘doesn’t want to learn from me’. In short, the worst kind of teacher.

    What would be the best kind of teacher? One who has a passion for their material, shows students that they care not just about their learning, but their personal welfare, and one who has enough knowledge to model correct attitudes, behaviours, skills, and concepts for the students.

    • Jazzman: I would agree with your assessment of this person’s probable teaching personality. And I agree that being interested is key, but trying to be your students’ buddy is never a good idea! (What adult needs middle-school friends? An adult who probably shouldn’t be in the classroom…)

  15. I’m so sorry that you went through all of this. But in my heart, I really think you dodged a bullet! Can you imagine if you didn’t find all this out until after the sale! I think her actions speak louder than words and that if she has a bad attitude in her life, it also carries over into her teaching. I for one would not even want to work with this person as a colleague!

    • Pat: I totally agree – we feel very fortunate not to have ended up living above her. It has rather scarred us, though, and we are now approaching our house hunt much more tentatively than before! I also agree, though, that having her as a colleague would be almost as bad as having her as a neighbour…

  16. I am sorry to hear about your condo-hunting fiasco and I hope you find a cat-friendly place soon! I don’t know if “bad people” can be “good teachers,” but I know that teaching has made me a better person. In my life outside the classroom, I tend to be selfish, lazy and generally unmotivated. However, I know that in order to teach well, I need to be just the opposite, and so I push myself and overcome my natural tendencies. I also have a rather complicated and not always joyful personal life. But, without any conscious effort, I always leave all that stuff outside the door of the classroom. I believe that concentrating on other people rather than myself is helping me become better.

    • Jessica: I feel the same way – I think I’m a better person in the classroom than I am elsewhere, and I have definitely learned from teaching to be less self-involved and more empathetic!

  17. Worst teacher; university prof who was a drunk. Yes, drunk in class, as well as frequently not showing up or showing up very late because drunk or hungover. This was a first-year economics class in undergrad, he gave an assignment that my friend’s father, another economics prof, said was at a Master’s level. Then when nobody could do it, he gave out grades based on how often each student said they had been to class, noting that no one would get less than a C+….. Sigh

    But also had quite a few teachers who clearly hated their job and the students. Doesn’t matter how much you know, nobody’s going to learn much from you if you feel like that!

  18. Mr. Monodrone’s history lectures included (I am not kidding) reading out of the textbook. Half the class time was spent doing “homework,” which was no more than answering the questions in the book. Openbook tests consisted of looking up the answers in the book and copying them into the test blanks or checking multiple choice boxes. After enduring this unspeakable soporific for a semester, I heard that Mr. Monodrone’s son had died in a terrible car wreck. Poor slob. No wonder he “taught” on autopilot in room full of everyone else’s kids. Unfortunately, 4 times 20 students each semester suffered from his tragedy as well. We learned exactly nothing.

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