Author Interview: John Owens

Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education by John Owens (Sourcebooks, 2013)

I’m not lazy. I’m not crazy. I’m great with kids and I love literature. 

970166_462246583856450_431601839_nJohn Owens is an editor, journalist, and photographer. Formerly, he was the Senior Vice President and Editorial Director at Hachette Filipacchi Media, where he oversaw brands including Road & TrackPopular Photography, and Travel Holiday. He has made more than 100 national media appearances, including Good Morning AmericaCBS This Morning, CNN, FOX News, and NPR’s All Things Considered.

For additional information about this book, see this earlier post.

To read my review of John’s insightful book, go here.

Read the article that started it all. 

John left his publishing job at Hachette to become a classroom teacher – in the Bronx. He had heart, and he wanted to help. He learned much about his students, especially the educational needs they were lacking.

But he was going to find that his help wasn’t really required at Latinate Institute (pseudonym), a small public school focused on setting an example for reform. The administration needed teachers simply to push and enforce their “Big Ideas,” as Owens calls it. And when things don’t go according to the Big Plan…the teachers are to blame, and the students are just statistical performance numbers.

Owens gives various documentation to support his claims, including this excerpt from a 2002 report about school reform:

The primary responsibility of schools undertaking comprehensive school reform is creating programs that result in improved student achievement…..grounded in scientifically based research. 

At the end of the day, Owens is espousing what most who have been truly involved in their children’s educational life know: “scientifically based research” is driving all kinds of data about state education systems, school districts, campuses, subgroups and individual students – and that data that schools get back every summer is used to reward and punish teachers. Ironically, this new scientifically based method of education isn’t working – it’s been implemented for years, and yet we as a country are still far behind other countries in terms of education.  Owens points out that studies of charter schools, given more leeway in determining curriculum and length of school days – as well as not being subjected to some of the same regulations as public schools – fare no better in terms of performance than public schools.

It all comes down to really one thing: politicians and moneybags think they know what’s what’s best, yet they really know nothing about education. At all. Teachers, and sometimes even administrators, take the fall. I agree with Owens when he says that our educational system needs “a massive system overhaul”….but that would be too much work, and not a quick fix. All of the reform publicizes to be student-oriented, “students first,” but looking at the entire picture says otherwise: administration first.

You can find John on Facebook. 

Why did you decide to leave your Manhattan publishing job to teach in a public school in the South Bronx? What prompted your need to make a difference?

I love writing, reporting, photographing, communicating—and that has opened a number of doors for me—taken me around the world. However, publishing recently changed dramatically, and a corporate merger took the fun and creativity out of my job. I thought it would be rewarding to help young people build their communication skills. And I heard so much about the desperate need for teachers, and that schools were interested in career changers who weren’t master teachers, but had enthusiasm for their subject matter, real world experience to share, and were eager to work hard to help out.

Why did you write “the article that started it all,” as it’s been dubbed, for Salon.com? What did you think you would accomplish with the article?

I left teaching shell-shocked that NYC and our nation allow such horrible schools to exist. I reeled from how we are willfully neglecting and shortchanging students. When I shared my experiences with friends and colleagues, few believed me. Three pages of rules for how to create a bulletin board?! Tyrannical principals who had no regard for students or teachers?! Since I couldn’t help kids in the classroom, I felt an obligation to bring to light what goes on behind closed school doors.

How did writing the article transform into your book that’s now coming out on August 6th?

Just as I was shocked at the horrible teaching and learning experiences in our schools, I was also amazed by the viral response I got to the article. Teachers from throughout the country told me that they experienced these same conditions and insanity. And so I felt an obligation to try to help the American public understand the truth about teaching. The problem is NOT bad teachers. The problem is billionaires who are trying to treat students like widgets, and impose ridiculous management techniques in schools—so they can make a profit. Too many people who pretend they are education experts put students LAST. I saw firsthand how unfairly teachers are treated, and felt I had to make the public aware that the bad teacher witch hunt is bogus and must stop.

If things had been different – if the school administration was supportive and helpful– would you have stayed?

Absolutely. My plan was to teach until I decided to retire. I felt that I could have fun helping students with a wide variety of creative projects that would help them build real world skills and promising futures.

Do you feel that you failed your students?

I feel that our elected officials are failing an entire generation of students—intentionally. I was surprised that I couldn’t survive in today’s public school – but I hope I am helping to make a difference with my book and advocacy.

 Did you finish your three-year master’s degree at ESC?

That was not possible. I completed the first year. The second and third years were “mentored” teaching. It was required that I have a job as a teacher, with help from my college mentors. If you weren’t teaching you couldn’t continue. Having seen what I did, I realized that it was hopeless for me to try to continue. Once you’ve received a U – Unsatisfactory rating—in NYC schools, you can’t teach there anymore. I went back to publishing because I have a family and a mortgage.

 Can you share a little of your current work with us?

I am now the editor in chief of a chain of 17 community newspapers – Anton Community Newspapers – on Long Island, NY. In this position, I write articles and columns to help improve communities including, of course, public education.

What does your future look like, in terms of educational advocacy?

I am committed to helping get the truth out about what is happening in our schools. I will write/speak/champion wherever and whenever I can. Education leaders from throughout the nation were very kind in endorsing my book. And I am working with activist groups locally, regionally and nationally.

I will be a first-year teacher in Central Texas. I have already experienced the grade fluffing and supporting “social and emotional” needs of students and talk, talk, talk about classroom management in my field blocks and student teaching, as well as an special education system that has no structure or definition, causing IEPs from elementary school to die there, with documented needs and other necessary information not following students beyond 5th grade. What recommendations do you have for me as I embark on this first year?

First, congratulations on your commitment to becoming a teacher. That is wonderful! You deserve a great deal of respect.

Then, hold on to your hat—expect to be challenged in ways you never dreamed of.  I’m sure you realize that teaching is very hard, and that the first few years are difficult for all teachers, regardless of where you teach. Find a teacher to mentor you—and remember, at all times, that teachers make a huge difference in the world. Teaching is rewarding like no other profession.

Over 85% of Texas school districts use an educational curriculum support system, CSCOPE. Most teachers solely rely on CSCOPE for it’s curriculum instead of using it as supplemental curriculum, especially in rural areas, which have expressed that the current dilemma of removing CSCOPE would cause financial strain. What is your take on pre-developed curriculum programs such as this? Do you think it is contributing to the “bad teacher” rap? Is it making it easier for the slackers to make it through teacher prep programs? 

First, I want to make it clear that I did not encounter bad teachers or slackers in my grad program and my teaching. I think that people who go into teaching understand that they are embarking on a very challenging career. I think that the bad teacher rap is totally unfair—it is a way for politicians and deep-pocket businesspeople to break the all-important teacher unions and dismantle the public education system.

Of course there are some bad teachers—just as there are bad doctors, lawyers, etc. But few other groups have been targeted like teachers have.

I am not an expert on educational policy and I’m not familiar with CSCOPE. I think that teachers need and deserve the ability to decide what they need to do in the classroom, with the understanding that there are skills and reasonable standards that must be met.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Thank you for reading! Please spread the word to end the “Bad Teacher Witch Hunt” and to help focus the public on the true obstacles to providing education for our students. Get involved in helping support teachers and students in public schools. Read Diane Ravitch’s blog and become a member of her organization, The Network for Public Education. Join forces with Parents Across America. And speak up so that we can save our precious American public education system before the so-called “reformers” cause irreparable harm.

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