Confessions of an “Incompetent” Teacher……

I would like to make a confession.  In the past, I was an incompetent teacher.  And I doubt I’m the only one there has ever been.  But bare (bear?) with me, and read my post before you start hurling judgements at me.

I read a blog post today that really hit me the wrong way.  It was related to the Alberta Task Force recommendation that teacher competency should be reviewed every five years for certification purposes.  My thoughts on this are a whole other blog post, but it was the anecdote in this post I read that bothered me.

The blogger tells the story of how when he was in school he had this amazing math teacher that he looked up to.  Fully trained, fully competent and he was a successful math student as a result.  Then he had this biology teacher who left part way through the year and was replaced with another teacher (a gym teacher) whom he felt was clearly “not competent” to teach the Bio 20 class.  His class had marks that suffered accordingly.

I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a story like this.  I too had a teacher who knew nothing about teaching Math 30 and as a result my 85%+ marks that I had received all throughout my educational career tanked to a miserable 63%.  I was devastated.  I spent a good chunk of my university years hating him over the fact that I lost out on scholarships because of those marks.

But now I know a hard truth.  It wasn’t his fault.

In my third year I was given a Home Ec class.  Now anyone who knows me would laugh and laugh and laugh when I told them this.  I wasn’t a half bad cook.  But one of the major components was a sewing module.  Wow… Grade 8 Home Ec teacher watched me attempt to sew a really simple basic skirt and after a month of trying, she felt sorry for me and finished my project herself one day after school.  Should I have been teaching this class?  Not if you wanted it taught well!  Why was I teaching this class?  Because someone needed to and I was the only one with a hole in my timetable.  Fortunately this only lasted a year when it became clear that, seriously, anyone could do a better job then I could.  I’m just grateful that no one lost a finger in a sewing machine or suffered food poisoning because I likely would have lost my job.

I also remember being given a Science 8 class to teach in my fourth year.  I was terrified.  I did not do well at science in school.  I barely passed Physics, did passably well in Chemistry, and was ok in Biology but that was it.  I didn’t take science courses in university at all and was not thrilled about being given this class to teach.  I tried. Really super hard.  I spent hours preparing lessons, reading course material, looking things up online, and talking to other teachers.  I often wonder if my other classes suffered because I devoted so much time and energy into prepping this course that I felt so completely….well….incompetent…to teach.

I would find out days after I had taught a lesson that I had taught it wrong and would have to go back and reteach it.  I tried to use other teacher’s exams but I had no idea what some of the correct answers were so I couldn’t even make up an answer key if they hadn’t provided one.  Many nights I was in tears because it stressed me that much.  And I would love to apologize to those kids from that year because I did a really poor job of teaching that class.

I continued to teach Science 8, however, because it was assigned to me every year. There was nothing else.  Due to conflicting and overlapping schedules there simply wasn’t anyone to trade classes with and so I found myself tackling this issue every year.  And as the years went on I got better.  I attended more and more in services, I managed to get into a group of other Science 8 teachers and plan some common units and assessments.  My comfort level grew, my anxiety level dropped, and I grew as a Science teacher.  What I find truly hilarious is that now each year, after the first couple of months, I always ask my students which of the 4 core subjects they think I am trained in due to my university education.  They almost always say Science……(it’s actually Social Studies due to the number of history and sociology courses I took in university).

If a teacher is assigned a class he or she is not QUALIFIED to teach, who’s fault is that?  When I took on my very first teaching position it was a Math/LA position (of which I felt fully qualified and competent to teach).  Since then I’ve been assigned numerous classes of which I have had no formal training and would not be considered “qualified” to teach.  It’s easy to look at a teacher and point the finger and deem them “incompetent and not fit to teach!”  But many teachers are forced into situations where they are assigned classes to teach that they have no business teaching.  Often the choice is simple….teach the class or go compete with the other hundreds of people looking for teaching jobs.  Well it’s easy to be all high and ‘moralistic’ and say they should resign…..except they’ve got mortgages to pay, kids to feed, and debt payments to make.  What would you choose if forced into the situation?  If a teacher is forced into a situation where they find themselves teaching a subject they are not qualified and trained in teaching, does this make them incompetent? Perhaps, but whose fault is that?  The teacher’s?  The administrator who put them there?  Someone else?

I don’t know.

But I do know that my career has been full of ups and downs.  Some years I’m amazing (nominated for awards, parents love me) and other years the learning curve has been steep and it would have been very easy for someone to come along and label me as incompetent.

Albert Einstein once said……



Well…..I truly believe that the vast majority of graduated teachers are competent to teach……but if you judge a gym teacher by her ability to teach Bio 20, you may spend her entire career thinking she’s incompetent.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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