Monday, May 19, 2014

What I thought of Mr. Tram

I promised you last week that I would demonstrate by example just what kind of detail you need to include to show that someone is a bad teacher. We went through Mr. Tram’s diary where he recorded his impressions of my work as a student teacher, and everyone agrees that he paints a horrifying picture of me. But it is oddly lacking in detail. This doesn’t bother the haters out there, who were quick leap to Mr. Tram’s defence, even claiming that his lack of specifics should be excused on the basis of his obvious difficulties with the English language. I don’t think Mr. Tram had a problem with English. I think he had a problem with telling the truth. But that’s something we’ll argue out in court if my case ever goes to trial. Today I want to go in a different direction.

I didn’t think Mr. Tram was a very good teacher, and I’d like to tell you why. I’m not doing this because I want to get even with Mr. Tram, but because I think if someone is a bad teacher, it’s not all that hard to list specific examples of what went on the classroom. I didn’t spend all that much time observing Mr. Tram…maybe five or six classes. But I didn’t think he was doing a very good job. Now I am going to tell you some of the things I saw.

1.  I watched Mr. Tram teaching the Biology Unit of Grade 9 Science. One of the big topics in that unit is Meiosis. I didn’t see him teach it from the start, but I saw him reviewing it with the students, and he had them going to the blackboard and drawing those eight circles with the squiggles in them. You’ve seen the pictures:

From what I could gather, Mr. Tram’s idea was that the students were supposed to be able to match up the correct names (Anaphase, Teleophase, etc.) with the pictures. I didn’t see him talking about the process of what was going on inside the cell: just, “What is the name of this picture?” I didn’t think that was the right way to teach meiosis, and actually the curriculum guide backs me up on this point. It specifically says you’re not supposed to dwell on the names.  

2.  The next day Mr. Tram asked the students if they wanted to act out Meiosis in a dance? Then he led them outside to the school yard. He had some colored chalk and started drawing circles on the pavement. He spent about ten minutes drawing those eight circles with the squiggles in them; I don’t remember if he wrote the names or just numbered them. Meanwhile the students were just milling around. In the end, he didn’t know what to do with the students and the chalk circles, so he just took them back inside. One of the girls said, “Well, at least you tried.”

3.  Another topic in the Biology Unit is dominant vs recessive traits. There are some standard examples of dominant vs. recessive which teachers use to illustrate, like the ability to roll the tongue or the presence of a widow’s peak. He also talked about sickle-cell anemia. He said all these were examples of mutations. Of course this is quite incorrect. These are traits already present in the gene pool, and what is interesting is the circumstances under which they become visible in the individual. A mutation is an error in the gene code, unrelated to anything in the parents DNA. After the class I brought this up with Mr. Tram, asking him if it wasn’t incorrect to call these things mutations? Mr. Tram immediately suggested we ask Mr. Wong, a knowledgeable and respected teacher within the department. Mr. Tram explained my question without disclosing who supported which position, and Mr. Wong answered correctly, as I expected him to. I thought Mr. Tram would then say something like, "I guess you were right, I'll have to make sure I don't call those mutations next time; but instead, he looked at me with satisfaction and said, “There, does that answer your question?”  It sounded like they'd just proved that I was wrong; and when I paused before replying, Mr. Wong exchanged what I can only describe as a “knowing glance” with Mr. Tram and observed, “I think he still wants a different answer.” 

4.  Mr. Tram’s class was what he called a “transition class”, made up of problem students. There were two social workers and one parole officer in attendance when all his students were present. One day, at the start of class, one of the tough kids, who was sitting at the very back of the room, slid his desk over so it was touching the desk of the girl beside him, who was sitting in the corner. So she was totally blocked in. The kid started chatting her up, and I thought she looked uncomfortable. I waited for Mr. Tram to do something, but he didn’t. So I said to the kid, “I think you’re crowding her personal space”. He said she didn’t mind, and I looked at her. She didn’t say anything. She looked a little scared. So I said I thought he should give her some space. After a short pause, he slid his desk back over to his own row. I think Mr. Tram should have dealt with this and not left it to the student teacher who was only there as an observer. I think he was a little afraid of the students.

5.  For the end of his Unit, Mr. Tram gave a test where all the questions were written by the students. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I was there when he assigned the students to write their own questions, and I don't think he did a good job of it. I used to be a test question designer for the industrial trades, and it can be a lot of fun to write questions that really make you think. Mr. Tram didn't talk at all about how to write good questions: he just divided up the topics and assigned each student a topic. They were pretty much on their own. I think they needed more guidance than he gave them. And there was one more thing: he told them they could share their questions with their classmates. This was an obvious acknowledgement that they hadn't really learned anything, and the only way they could pass the test was if they knew the questions (and answers!) in advance. I acknowledge that you have to do the best you can with the students you've got, but I still think his expectations were a bit low. Especially when you contrast it with the way he raked me over the coals for not making enough progress in the curriculum and having still had "no assessment" when I was only five days into my Unit.

These are the things I saw when I was observing Mr. Tram as a student teacher. After I took over the classroom, I saw a few other things about Mr. Tram that I didn’t like very much.

1.  In my first class, I was doing some demonstrations with static electricity. I had a balloon handing from a string in the middle of the class. I rubbed it on wool to give it a negative charge, and then took a second balloon and charged it as well. When I held it up to the first balloon, of course I wanted to demonstrate repulsion; but instead, the hanging balloon spun around and stuck to the balloon in my hand. I started to explain to the class that one of the problems with Static Electricity is that you’re experiments don’t always work. At this, Mr. Tram became very agitated: “Experiments ALWAYS work!” he said, and to prove his point, he grabbed two balloons, rubbed them on his sweater, and floated them in the air towards each other. Of course they latched together, just as mine had! So he grabbed them again, rubbed them on his sweater, physically pressed them together,  and then let go. Of course they flew apart. “See!” he said.

2.  Before I started my second class, Mr. Tram said he had a video he wanted to show them. It was about electrostatic spraying, showing how you could coat tomato plants with insecticide by using a sprayer that put a charge on the droplets. This was supposed to be an example of how charged objects are attracted to neutral objects. I didn’t say anything at the time, but the video was not helpful to me. First, it was way out of sequence: I had only started with “positive attracts negative”, and I had a whole bunch of demonstrations prepared to show how charged objects attract neutral ones. So the video really was jumping the gun on me. But more importantly, it was a very bad video from a scientific point of view. Electrostatic spraying doesn’t work on the same principle that a balloon sticks to the wall when you rub it. The targe need to be grounded, so you have a complete circuit. It’s a very different mechanism, and the video completely ignored this point.

3.  During my fifth class, Mr. Tram said he had another video that he wanted to show the class. It had something to do with faith healing; it was that Filipino healer who reaches right inside your body and pulls out a tumor or something. After the video, Mr. Tram led a short discussion about why you shouldn’t believe that kind of nonsense. I don’t think this digression belonged in my Grade 9 Static Electricity unit.

4.  For my sixth and last class, Mr. Tram insisted that I abandon my own lesson plan and teach according to his. His “lesson plan” turned out to be a worksheet with ten “fill-in-the-blank” questions. I thought this was inappropriate for the nature of the course, which is designed (according to the curriculum outline) to be highly experimental. The theme of the worksheet, as might be expected, emphasized vocabulary knowledge instead of understanding; and it included questions on the gold-leaf eletrometer which is definitely not on the curriculum. The curriculum guide has the students build their own electrometers by hanging a bit of tinfoil from a thread, so that students learn you can do scientific investigation without needing commercial equipment. This is the way I did it in class.

And there you have it. Those are my observations of Mr. Tram as a teacher. As I explained, I have no interest in trying to get Mr. Tram into trouble or making him look bad. I am just saying that if someone is a bad teacher, you can easily make the case. You just have to tell what he did in class. Mr. Tram, in his diary, was obviously trying to make me out to be a horrible teacher. But where is his anecdotal evidence? I think if I was as bad as he makes me out to be, there should have been a story or two along the lines of the eight little stories I've told here.


  1. Unfortunately, I doubt there is anything you could write that would get Mr Tram in trouble. Horrible English, poor understanding of the material, inability to control the classroom - none of this seems to matter. He will be protected by the system. He is on the inside.

  2. Apparently, Tram also teaches a mathematics course, an Introduction to Calculus, for the University of Winnipeg. You can google “Hiep Tram + rate my professor + University of Winnipeg” to see what his former students wrote about him.

    1. Yes, it's interesting that he gets a glowing rating from his U of W night school class. On the other hand, Mrs. Skull gets trashed pretty badly on RateMyTeachers: