Goodbye to the bad Mr. Chips

Janusz Maciuba teaches English as a second language at a technical college in the Atlanta area.

I have had a mostly lucky school experience in terms of good and great teachers.

Out of seven elementary teachers in Catholic schools in Lancaster, England, four were kind, inventive, enthusiastic, encouraging and more than competent.

Of the others: One threw a packet of ground pepper into my eyes because I did not have a cultural reference to April Fool’s Day and sprinkled pinches that touched no one; the other two gave old sitting hens a bad name. One of these made a remark about Poles that stopped me ever singing the Old British Empire patriotic songs that were banged out on the piano at least once a week. In fact, I stopped singing. But those four out of seven made me a happy lifelong learner.

I was lucky again at 11 to be in the first class to start at the new comprehensive school, where with great resentment the old secondary school teachers took a back seat to young university-educated department heads. The new English head was a year out of Cambridge University and had spent that year learning how to teach. The young history head praised one of my essays, and I went to the public library to make subsequent essays even better.

All the other heads were about the same age and full of knowledge and enthusiasm. I was also lucky that these teachers at Christmas promoted me to the top stream in our six-class Form One. I wasn’t good with standardized testing.

There were older teachers who were also excellent: The headmaster taught us Latin; the assistant head taught us math; and the ancient woodworking teacher had been a cabinet maker at Gillow’s Furniture and could, without measuring, make a perfect mortise and tenon joint in three minutes. Another history teacher came in the Second Form and started putting on Shakespeare plays and trips to Stratford-on-Avon.

We were the golden children at the top stream of our year, and we got the best teachers to help us prepare for university. The lower classes were not so lucky and got the old, resentful, angry, pension-time-waiting, inept, child-phobic, sadistic career teachers who had not gone to university.

It was Eton cake at the top and Oliver Twist gruel at the bottom.

Looking back, it was grossly unfair that other students did not get a chance to bask in the same sunshine of learning; they were just maintained until they turned 16, when they left to find jobs.

The landmark decision earlier this month by a California Superior Court judge that teacher tenure was unconstitutional because it let bad teachers deprive students of a proper education is the first real reform since free education for all children. (The ruling is being appealed.)

Goodbye to the New York rubber rooms where the inept sleep all day and get full salaries because it’s apparently cheaper than the process of firing them.

Goodbye to the teachers who don’t know their subject matter, who squelch debate, who hate children, or who don’t seem to have gotten the message that you can’t date students.

Goodbye to the mind-dead burnouts, the teachers who are still using mimeographed work sheets from decades ago, the xenophobes and the racists.

Goodbye to unions putting up a fight to save the criminally incompetent, to years of hearings and red tape, to overdue process.

Goodbye to the mockers, the discouragers, the soul-killers of children’s dreams, the dips who teach what they want, not what students need, the emotional harridans, the confidence-destroyers, and all the other idiots who never should have been given teaching certificates.