Characteristics of bad high school teachers reveal avoidable behaviors for new teachers, The

characteristics of bad high school teachers reveal avoidable behaviors for new teachers, The

Foote, Chandra

The impending teacher shortage leaves many secondary schools in the United States and Canada facing a faculty turn over in which a majority of teachers will be at the novice level. These young teachers may posses a hopeful outlook that they will one day be great, but having just completed a teacher education program, most would settle for just not being awful. A great deal of research and general press media has been dedicated to identifying the characteristics of “good” teachers. However, very little is known about what it means to be a “bad” teacher, or more specifically what actions a teacher should avoid. This study compares perceptions of the “bad high school teacher” as gathered in interviews with high school administrators, teachers, parents and students. Results show patterns of negative behaviors that are both informative and interesting. Our discussion offers suggestions to teachers on how to avoid being “awful”…and a list of reminders of positive behaviors as well.

Perceptions of the “Bad” High School Teacher

The expected teacher shortages across the United States and the higher learning standards being proposed in virtually every state have left colleges of teacher education and pre-service teachers reeling. We are in dire need of a great number of great teachers, and most of these will be young, recent college graduates. However, these newly minted teachers can not be expected to start out as experts. Contemporary teacher education graduates have been exposed to a magnitude of theory and practical information associated with effective teaching. So much, perhaps, that they can’t begin to integrate “great” teaching into their daily practice. These novice teachers begin their careers often times with a feeling that if they were just not “bad” then they could get by until they are “good”.

Interestingly, with the volumes of research dictating what it means to be a good teacher, it is almost impossible to identify a body of literature addressing the issue of bad teaching, namely specific examples of what novice teachers should avoid. As one newly hired English teacher recently put it, “What not to be is the real question”. This study compares perceptions of the “bad high school teacher” as gathered in interviews with high school administrators, teachers, parents and students. Results show patterns of negative behaviors that are both informative and interesting. Our discussion offers suggestions to teachers on how to avoid being “awful”…and a list of reminders of positive behaviors as well.

As students begin the process of becoming a teacher through a formal teacher education program, they often hold out hope that they will become “outstanding”. Models for high quality are often rolled out and shown off both to inspire these novices AND to show what good teachers do. The literature abounds with Such images, for example, Haberman has described “Star” urban teachers (1995), Ladson-Billings (1994) has told us about Culturally Relevant Teachers who have been superb, Lightfoot (1983) has identified “good” high schools and Dyer’s (1996) survey identified the ten desirable traits of successful teachers.

Seldom. however, have images of the “bad” teacher been available. Dyer’s study produced a student survey showing qualities of effective and ineffective teachers, albeit these characteristics were presented on a continuum (a forced-choice approach). Another recent source, a text called “Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents” (Strickland, 1998) ostensibly offers a handbook to help parents deal with lousy teachers and the administrators who protect them. While providing no definition of bad teaching, Strickland provides exemplars embedded in stories told by youngsters about school. Strickland does offer seven attributes that lead to a description of “bad teachers”:

1. They lack subject knowledge

2. They have poor classroom control

3. They act unprofessionally

4. They can’t diagnose learning problems

5. They are obsessive about method (particularly about whole language, although he himself is obsessive about phonics and is an avid opponent of Madeline Hunter’s work).

6. They focus on the wrong goals

7. They have no goals at all

In truth, avoidable qualities and undesirable images of high school teachers have not been investigated very well…and the result has been a belief that “badness” is the opposite or the absence of “goodness” qualities. We saw this belief as a hypothesis worth deep investigation within our University community. We had already suspected that incoming teachers were less marked by a passion to be “great” than they were horrified at the thought of being bad. Make no mistake, almost all of the novices wanted to become great and had confidence that they would be highly successful…but that was a long term goal. In the short run, they didn’t want to be a disaster: they wished to survive student teaching so that they could grow and develop as they profited from experience. It was thought that the construction of their teaching identities could be helped by the identification of the negative perceptions held by the various constituencies. In essence, many student teachers saw themselves as so far removed from greatness that they couldn’t use that image as a guide: knowing what bad qualities to avoid could more easily help inform their immediate decision-making needs. Thus the question arose: when people hear that X is a “bad teacher”, what images have they constructed to fit that meaning?

Moreover, we thought that it would be very interesting to see if the four major constituencies of teaching saw the “badness” qualities similarly: did teachers, parents, administrators and HS students share similar or discrepant images of the bad teacher? Could these prototypes be contradictory? Our study addresses these questions.


Following qualitative conventions established by Bogdan and Biklen (1982) and utilized by such scholars as Grant & Sleeter (1994) and McNeil (1986), subjects (10 from each of the four groups were asked to participate in individually held, lengthy interviews about the topic. A pilot study (with 55 subjects) using less structured open-ended questions lead to the generation of a standard set of questions to be used in every interview of study. The questions generated are identified within the results section.

The authors scheduled a series of interviews, with 10 to be conducted in each of the 4 constituency groups, totaling 40 interviews. One to one and one-half hour interviews were conducted, and notes were taken. Although a convenience sample was used, steps were taken to assure diversity amongst the 95 interviewees across the two phases of the study. Researchers transcribed notes to a common form.

Within each group, common trends were identified and comparisons were made for the types of comments made. Once again subjects had been allowed to “ramble” on specific items, hoping to shed insight into the conceptualizations and visualizations that thoughts of the “bad high school teacher” had generated. The research team identified generalizable assertions across subjects and analyzed specific commentary. These are presented in the results section.


The results presented below include the responses of administrators, secondary teachers, secondary students, and parents to each of the interview questions.

1. What is the relationship between the bad teacher and the content they are teaching?

One common belief reflected across subjects was that bad teachers lacked enough content knowledge of the field to express it clearly to students. They were confusing and or boring and the result was that students learn to hate the subject. This quote is exemplary:

“(Bad Teachers) can certainly be instrumental in making kids have a severe distaste in the work that they are looking at.” – Principal

Three themes emerged from the responses provided to this first question. The response most frequently provided by parents and administrators was that the bad teacher lacked content knowledge. Although not the most common response overall to this question, this perception suggests that bad secondary teachers do not posses the knowledge of their own discipline such that they would be capable of expressing it successfully to their students. The most common perception of students and teachers, and the second most common perception of administrators and parents, was that had teachers lacked presentation skills. Their lessons were either too fast or too slow, too easy or too difficulty, and provided no active learning on the part of students. The third most common finding, that lessons by bad teachers were uninteresting or irrelevant to kids (“Boring”), supports this lack of active participation.

2. How does the bad teacher prepare and deliver lessons?

One common belief of respondents suggests that bad teachers’ methodology lacked clarity, enthusiasm and novelty, and focused on “just getting by”:

“…They like to deceive themselves by saying ‘I’m pulling it off!”

– Secondary teacher

This quote describes the strongly held sentiment presented by all constituents regarding bad teachers and instruction. Simply put, they are not prepared for their lessons. Teachers and administrators used more profession-oriented statements such as “lack objectives”, “unrelated goals”. and “isolated lessons which do not form a unit” to describe the disorganization. Whereas parents and students felt that bad teachers had a “poor flow” or “did not provide enough explanation”. Another common concern was that lessons were recycled. One student, who had repeated a course with the same teacher, was surprised to hear the exact same lessons the second time around. Lastly, the four constituents agreed most frequently that the bad teacher used poor methods to convey their topic.

3. What are the classroom management techniques of a bad teacher?

One commonly held perception across our subjects was that bad teachers took student misbehavior too personally, resulting in an extreme discipline style that was either “too easy” or “too hard”. Note the sample of comments offered below:

“too strict” “too easy” “inconsistent” ” teacher directed” “rules for rules sake” -parents, teachers, students, and administrators

These quotes reflect the perceptions about the classroom management strategies of bad teachers. It appears that good classroom management lies between two opposing poles, and the bad teacher can’t find the middle ground. Ineffective managers either had “too much discipline or not enough”, “ignored misbehavior or yelled all the time”. These teachers tended to take classroom management to a personal level. Students had little input into rules and bad teachers were inconsistent in applying consequences, often displaying favoritism.

4. How does a bad teacher interact with students during class time?

One common theme expressed in the data was that bad high school teachers were very poorly skilled in their interpersonal exchanges with students in class, as shown by the following:

“Sleeps during seatwork”, “Uses sarcasm and rolls their eyes”- parents

These statements suggest that bad teachers often do not interact with their students during class, and when they do interact they appear uncaring, and as one administrator puts it “inhumane”. The general sentiment suggests that bad teachers tend to be in control of what little interaction there is. When students make attempts to interact, for instance by asking questions, the teacher either ignores them or challenges the student’s behavior.

5. How does a bad teacher interact with students outside of class time?

One common theme expressed by the subjects was that bad teachers did not interact with student outside of class, as shown by these remarks:

“They leave before we do”. “No where to be found after 3pm”. “I don’t know”

-Secondary students

The interviewers were amused by the confusion this question brought out in all constituents. especially students as evidenced in these quotes. Apparently, no one knows what the bad teacher does after 3pm, but they are certainly not available to students, parents, teachers or administrators.

6. Describe the personal characteristics of a bad teacher

Summarized, our data suggest that bad high school teachers are often out of touch with accepted mainstream styles of personal care or professional demeanor. For example, a number of parents, students, and administrators identified unprofessional dress as a personal characteristic of bad teachers. “Too hip”, “too flashy”, “sloppy”, and “dull” illustrate a few comments in this area. Administrators also noted that bad teachers were “unhealthy”, had “poor hygiene”, and appeared “depressed”. Overall bad teachers were viewed as having poor communication skills and a negative outlook on life. They were commonly perceived as not “people persons”, as they did not “care” about kids.

7. Describe the professional characteristics of a bad teacher.

Respondents suggested that in their work and in their public comments, bad teachers show little understanding of adolescents or modern strategies of teaching. The following quotes exemplify this finding:

Parents, teachers and administrators agreed that bad teachers were “stagnant”, “not seeking to develop themselves”. and “not current”, suggesting that they did not actively seek to improve their teaching skills. All four constituents felt that bad teachers were not empathetic to the developing nature of children. While parents and teachers agreed that bad teachers were only “concerned with their own subject” and “not compatible with other teachers”. Teachers especially, but also parents and students, felt that bad teachers were disorganized.

8. How does a bad teacher interact with colleagues?

One common perception found in our data was that bad teachers are often aloof from others, non-collegial in their professional practice and negative in tone when required to interact. Note the following comments:

“Unwilling to cooperate, compromise, or problem solve”, “Not a team player”, “Undermine the teaching profession by bad mouthing peers and gossiping about students” -secondary teachers

Those who would have the best perspective regarding collegial interaction of bad teachers, teachers themselves, offered the most detail on this question. However, all constituents seemed to feel the same way. If bad teachers interact at all, the interaction tends to be one way and negative. Bad teachers do not appear to want to learn or grow with the profession. They are as one administrator puts it “Nay-sayers” when it comes to their conversations with other teachers.

9. How does a bad teacher interact with administrators?

Frankly, our data suggest that administrators aren’t perceived as having much direct contact with bad teachers, as shown by the following comments:

“Administration may, many times, overlook them” -parent

“The union has them too well protected and insulated against dismissal” -administrator

A large number of respondents, regardless of constituency, viewed administration as taking a hands-off approach to dealing with bad teachers. Parents and students often viewed this as either ignorance or lack of awareness on the part of the administration. Teachers tended to view the relationship between administration and bad teachers as a “them against us” situation, in which bad teachers tried to rally support against administration. Administration on the other hand, viewed bad teachers as a “thorn in my side” because “bad teachers cause parents and kids to grieve administration”. Only two administrators and none of the other constituents viewed administrators as working with bad teachers to help them improve or leave the field.


Being a “good” teacher is much more than the absence of “bad” teacher characteristics. However, the following list of 10 positive tips is derived from our analysis of the data and is offered to novice teachers wishing to survive their first years and avoid being perceived as “bad” by the four constituencies that we have studied:

1. Teach beyond the textbook.

2. Teach to the students’ current level.

3. In lesson planning be sure to (a) connect daily teaching activities to the Standards and to the curriculum (b) relate one lesson to the next, and (c) establish clear objectives.

4. Revise lessons often (sometimes during the lesson itself).

5. Keep students active throughout lessons.

6. Involve students in establishing rules and consequences.

7. Be professional in dress, speech and attendance.

8. Stay healthy; show vigor, enthusiasm and confidence.

9. Dedicate yourself to continual professional growth; model adult-like development.

10. Interact professionally with colleagues and administration.

Finally, we offer a check-list of AVOIDABLE behaviors that clearly make up the conceptualization of the “bad teacher” that is held by our sample. We see it as a useful self-reflection tool for new teachers concerned that they not be “bad”.


Dyer, T. J. (1996) Personalization: If schools don’t implement this one, there will be no reform, NASSP Bulletin, Dec., I-8.

Grant, C. and Sleeter, C. (1994) After the School Bell Rings. Falmer Press: London.

Haberman, M. (1995). Selecting star teachers for children and youth in urban poverty. Phi Delta Kappan, June, 777-781.

Landson-Billings, G. (1994). The Dreamkeepers. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Lightfoot, S.L. (1983). The Good High School. Basic Books: New York.

McNeil. L. (1986). Contradictions of Control: School Structure and Knowledge. Routledge: New York.

Strickland, G. (1998) Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents. Pocket Books: New York, NY.


Assistant Professor of Education

Niagra University


Professor of Education

Niagra University


Student Teaching Coordinator

Niagra University


High School Teacher

Niagra Catholic


High School Teacher

Niagra Falls City School District

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