Bad Grades for Bad Teachers
In my past essays, I’ve talked about some of the school teachers who inspired me, who challenged me to become better.  Now I’d like to talk about some of the ones who did the opposite.  It’s hard enough to be a kid trying to find your way in the world – to make sense of who you are and what small gifts you might have to offer the rest of humanity.  It’s a lot harder to find yourself when careless, unthinking, or just plain bad teachers undermine you and crush your sense of self-confidence.  There is an assumption in our society that being a teacher is somehow inherently noble.  We always seem to want to give teachers better pay, as if they’re always giving a lot more than they are getting.  Well, sorry, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  

Here’s one example.  The assignment from my fourth grade teacher Mrs. F was simple enough: write a short story.  To a kid growing up in the cheap seats of Clarence, NY, whose sense of culture was that which I learned from Hollywood at 6:00 AM on Saturday mornings (snuggling close to the TV screen while turning the sound down so low that it wouldn’t wake anybody else in our tiny house), this assignment was the most exciting creative thing that had thus far happened in my life.  Sure the pinch pots were cool in 1st grade, but I didn’t think, at that time, that that my contribution to the art world was significantly better than anybody else’s in the class.  But writing a story – a story of my own creation – what a challenge!   And I was up for it.

By fourth grade, I was living on a diet of Tarzan, Ramar of the Jungle, and my personal favorite, Jungle Jim – played by a post-Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller and a post-Cheetah chimp named Tamba  (amazing the things we still carry around in our heads!).  Any surprise that, with my cultural influences, for the assignment I wrote a jungle tale?  Set in Africa, it was an action-adventure story of a young native boy who discovered a large precious stone and tried to keep it from the white hunters who desperately wanted to take it away from his village.   He was captured by the hunters and enslaved, but managed (through pluck and determination) to escape with the stone and save his tribe.  My story was full of “run and jump” action and in retrospect it sounds vaguely like Avatar.  I was proud as could be when I turned it in.  But for my efforts, dear Mrs. F gave me absolutely nothing in return.  Not only was my story not one of the ones read in front of the class, it was handed back to me with spelling and grammar corrections as the only comments.  When I later walked up to her desk and asked her what she thought of it, she said “it was all right, but just not as special as the others that I read in class.”  I was crushed.  The reason I don’t remember more of the details of the story is that I tore up the pages into tiny pieces and threw them into the garbage.  And I never wrote another word of fiction for the next twenty years.  Seriously.

In fairness, I don’t remember Mrs. F as an overall bad person.   Maybe she was just having a bad day.  But her bad day obviously had lasting repercussions.  If I could, I would like to send her the following message: Mrs. F, no thanks to you, but after I eventually got over your snub and realized I could be a writer, I wrote many episodes for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate SG-1 and other shows.   Thankfully, you weren’t in any of those story meetings to judge the “specialness” of my writing ability.

Next up is, in my book, a pretty mean character – my high school art instructor Mrs. K.   In freshman and sophomore years I was taught art classes by a really great teacher – Richard Kaltenbach – a truly decent man who gave of himself to every single student.   At the time, and because of his tutelage, art meant a lot to me.  Art was not only my favorite class, but the one class in which I thought I excelled.  I aced English, History and Music, managed to get B’s in Math and Science and for the most part survived gym class without serious damage (except for “dodge ball” and “sharks and minnows”).  But for me, art class was the best hour of the day – at least until my junior year when I was assigned a new art teacher – dear Mrs. K.  I knew from the beginning that she didn’t like me.  But her job wasn’t to like me, but to teach me.  And I have to say that the disdain with which she treated my work was really off the charts.  

There were many examples I could give, but one assignment in particular stands out.  We were to create a drawing of an alien.  She said that she wanted us to use our imaginations.  Well, I was a fan of The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and The Day The Earth Stood Still.  I thought I knew my way around sci-fi characters and I drew a picture which I thought was pretty imaginative, blending wolfman with spaceman.  When she reviewed it before the class she said that my drawing “showed very little imagination” as “it was too human in form” and she told the class as much.  I was humiliated.  Recently, I took the drawing out of a faded portfolio of my high school art projects and looked at it for the first time in years.  It hit me like a photon torpedo: but for the crab claw hands, my alien drawing looks more than a little like a Wookie – an alien drawn ten years before George Lucas created Star Wars.   But, of course, according to Mrs. K, my alien didn’t show much imagination.  

That was par for the course.  The belittling of my work continued on a regular basis to the point where I pretty much gave up on art by the time I left high school.  Despite her “guidance” I later developed a career in advertising and marketing, working for major clients in the music, consumer electronics and computer fields.  But never on the “art” side – I had given up that dream years earlier.  Instead I developed my writing ability (despite Mrs. F and thanks to other teachers that made me feel a bit more capable).  

Back to Mrs. K – the capper is how she signed my junior yearbook (why I even asked her to sign is now a mystery to me – probably a weak moment for an insecure 16-year-old).  She wrote: “To an outstanding (?) art student.”  Yes, she put a question mark after the word “outstanding!”  What was that supposed to mean?  Did she have any idea of what a nasty thing that was to say to a kid?  Actually, in her case, I believe she did.  

After I moved on from advertising and became a successful (meaning, produced) screenwriter in Hollywood, I was invited to teach screenwriting by UCLA Extension, where I had myself learned screenwriting skills.  Since I started teaching in 1995, I’ve taught forty-seven ten-week classes, three hours each night.  I have had quite a few students go on to become successful writers themselves.  In my classes, there is only one word that is forbidden.  I call it the “T-word.”  That word is – talent.  Why is this word not used in my classes?  Because I believe “talent” is a word that far too many people use to discourage themselves from being productive.   As in… “Oh I could never do (whatever) because I just don’t have the talent for it.”  And it’s a word that justifies the behavior of lousy teachers who give their attention to one student at the expense of others because one supposedly has talent and the other doesn’t.  

Well, guess what?  Talent is one of the most elusive concepts ever created.  Most people who are judged to have talent don’t even have it all the time.  How many great actors or directors have we seen make lousy movies?  How many great writers or songwriters turn out a clunker or two?  How many great companies occasionally produce a bad product?  Happens all the time.  Talent comes, talent goes.  Some days you’re great, some days, you’re not so great.  The important thing is to try.  To be productive.  And if you put limits on yourself by thinking you don’t have talent, you’re never going to be productive.  It’s easy to consume.  It’s a lot harder to produce.  Consumers are important, but it’s the productive people who move the earth forward.  We need more of them.   And we need our teachers to encourage students to be productive.

I’m not saying that all my bad teachers were bad people.  Maybe they just had an “off” day.  Well, in the case of Mrs. K, I suppose there were a lot of “off” days.  I know some other students liked her (though I don’t know of any that went on to a career in art).  In my view, I think that an art teacher whose judgmental criticism ultimately discourages a student from ever producing another piece of art would qualify as a pretty bad teacher.  Those that teach others have to ask themselves an important question.  Am I teaching them?  Or am I judging them?

A teacher’s job is to teach, not to judge.  We give teachers enormous power over those that we allow them to teach – especially when their classroom is made up of our children.  A judgmental comment thrown out casually by a teacher can have ramifications on a child that last for years.  Trust me, I’ve been there, as, I’m sure, have many of you.

Another kind of teacher belongs in my hall of shame:  the teacher who feels that because they’re in front of a class they have the inherent right to voice their political views.  My first such teacher came in college. 

It was with some distress at my uncharacteristically low first semester GPA that I first learned of Ms. H’s class in Art History.  “She’s an easy grader” I heard.   “Everybody gets an A.  But she only takes students by request.”  Well, at the time, it seemed like a good idea to seek her out at the off-campus hippie-house where she lived with more than a dozen students and ask to be allowed into her class.  This should have been a tip-off, but at the time, I thought it was cool. 

And with the War in Vietnam in full-blown controversy it didn’t seem so odd when she announced at the first class that she was suspending the art history lectures entirely.  From this point on, she was going to be teaching us about revolution.  And that’s pretty much what we got for the rest of the semester.  I was no fan of the war, so, at the time it seemed like a good idea.  There were no tests, no finals.  Everybody got an A, but we didn’t get much of an education other than her subjective view of the world. 

Over the years I have encountered many such teachers who feel that because they have a captive audience they have the right to spout their political beliefs.  It is an incredible abuse of power.   In the screenwriting classes I teach at UCLA, I make it a point of pride that by the end of the semester my students should have no idea what my political leanings are.  A teacher’s job is to teach the subject to which they are assigned, not to spout their political views in a class that has nothing to do with politics.

So, once again: a big thank-you to those teachers who have taught me well.  To the rest, just know that you have also taught me well, but probably not what you thought you were teaching.   

Originally posted on 02.27.10