When I was a child, my mother took a black marker and crossed out the adjectives "good" and "bad" in all our Christmas books. There were no good children or bad children; there might be kids who did bad things, but you couldn't be a bad child. Mom thought the "bad child" thing was a 19th century idea. No such absolutes presided in the house where I grew up. It was the 1970s; everyone got Christmas presents.
My mother was right. People aren't good or bad. And teachers aren't either.
So why am I using the words "good" and "bad" to describe teachers? The preferred terms in the teacher quality debate — the words used by experts and advocates — are "effective" and "ineffective."
But those terms sound so — well, so much like terms. They're technical and "experty." They seem like euphemisms to me.
I try to stay away from language like that, especially on the radio. My goal is to talk like people talk in everyday conversation, and when I talked with friends and colleagues about this project on teachers, no one used the terms "effective" or "ineffective." They all said "good" and "bad."
I asked some teachers about this. What do they think about the phrase "bad teacher?"
Melanie Agnew, a teacher at a public high school in Washington, D.C., smiled slyly. "I'm an English teacher," she said. "So I think 'good' and 'bad' are weak adjective choices."
In an interview with another District of Columbia teacher, Maggie Thomas, I tried the term "poor" teacher. "Well, I don't believe in the term," she said. To her mind, there are great teachers, and there are teachers who need to improve.
But I couldn't use the term "teachers in need of improvement." Much too clunky — and besides, there's debate about whether bad teachers can get better. Even if Thomas had accepted the phrase "poor" teacher, I couldn't use it. You'd think I was talking about teachers who don't have enough money.
So in the end, with apologies to my mother and offended teachers, I decided to go with the weak adjectives, "good" and "bad." The bottom line is making sure everyone listening and reading knows what I'm talking about.