Every student has had a bad teacher. If they don’t, they probably know at least five less lucky students. In any case, it’s unlikely that a student has managed to dodge a “bad teacher” throughout their academic career — that teacher who seems to be learning the material with everyone else, has a complete lack of enthusiasm for the content, or has made one or two racist comments.
Bad teachers can be divided into two categories. Category one encompasses extreme cases — the ones where teachers inflict sexual, psychological, and physical harm on students. Former Berkeley High School teacher, Matthew Bissell’s activities of sexual assault flew under the district’s radar for over a decade, but he was eventually dismissed from school grounds. In these instances, the offense is so explicit, the district is forced to act, for fear of public backlash or legal action.
Category two teachers are the ones with an infamous reputation across campus, whose names — when brought up in conversation — elicit a chorus of stories. While these offenses are less directly harmful than in category one, they are still impactful in their regularity. The issue at hand lies with category two teachers, who can continue to teach for many years without major repercussions for their behavior. Since their offenses are easier for school administrators to ignore, students’ frustrations persist. We as a community have gotten comfortable and perhaps complicit in the passive acceptance of these teachers who, year after year, negatively impact students.
Once a class begins, students are alone with a teacher for the subsequent hour. During this time, poor teaching habits form, due to a lack of accountability. Older teachers can become resolute in their policies without regard for changing attitudes, and newly recruited teachers might not be equipped with the proper training and resources to meet students with necessary accommodations. Without frequent evaluations or student input, these teachers’ methods further the divide between teachers and students. Of course, over the years, these kinks can smooth themselves out, but for the classes of students circulating through the classroom, their education ends up negatively impacted during the time spent with their teacher.
According to former BHS Dean of Students and current Math Department Vice Principal Kiernan Rok, it is required that a teacher is evaluated within their first two years at BHS. This involves an administrator to attend the teacher’s classroom three times in a year to record observations. A teacher’s second year, they are reevaluated and coached by an administrator after which they are evaluated every other year. However, these visitors spend a fraction of the time that a student does in a classroom. Eventually these evaluations end, and students are left without support.
Currently, there are no concrete systems in place to report continual poor teaching among teachers, possibly because they are harder to quantify. A student may be encouraged to talk to a guidance counselor or administrator if they feel the learning environment is detrimental to them, but there is no guarantee that anything will change. Even if a student is able to switch out of a teacher’s class, the teacher’s behavior will continue to impact hundreds of their other students. The lack of accountability and head-on confrontation of conflict builds animosity between teachers and the student body. This in turn limits positive educational experiences at BHS.
The solution is not to fire teachers — they are by no means expendable. According to Rok, BHS is no exception to the nationwide teacher shortage brought on by the pandemic, saying that it’s proved challenging to recruit teachers to the school’s “many vacancies.” He cited a high turnover rate with multiple teachers leaving BHS this year for various reasons.
In recent years, Berkeley Unified School District has made good efforts to improve their training for teachers, particularly with their antiracism workshops. It’s clear BUSD understands the value of proper training; however, the issue is the lack of student input on these training sessions.
BUSD must stop dismissing student concerns about teachers. More than anyone, the students know on a day-to-day basis how teaching could be improved. More opportunities need to be instilled for students to voice their opinions on BHS teaching — both general and individual improvements. It would be beneficial to incorporate these criticisms into trainings to ease the exchange of feedback between teachers and students. If a complaint becomes so abundant that it’s a cause for concern, the individual teacher can be informed and recommended alternative options. It is clear to the students, something needs to change.