GUEST POST by John Owens

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

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 that were lacking to be met.

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.

For additional information about this book, see this earlier post. To read my review of John’s insightful book, go here.

This is the article that started it all. 

Why I Left Publishing To Teach In The South Bronx

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John Owens

By John Owens, author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher

When I left a high-level publishing job in a Manhattan skyscraper to teach English at a public school in New York City’s South Bronx, I thought I could do some good for underprivileged kids. I am a middle-aged professional, but I’m not lazy. I’m not crazy. I’m great with kids and I love literature.

My love of words has taken me from a troubled, working-class childhood to a wonderfully happy, successful life. I have been writing—and teaching others to write—for a long time. And I have enjoyed helping younger writers build great careers. During a three-decade career as a writer, editor, and corporate executive, I had traveled to more than a hundred countries, met heads of state, and picked up some wisdom about getting along and getting ahead in life that I thought was worth sharing with those just starting the journey. I wanted to make an impact directly with kids in the classroom. To use the cliché, I felt it was time to “give back.”

There was something else at work here, too. For want of a better word, I will call it patriotism. The flood of immigrants into New York City in recent years has been astounding. Currently, nearly 40 percent of the city’s residents are immigrants, according to data compiled by the Weissman Center for International Business at Baruch College. Queens and Manhattan have seen huge influxes from China. The Bronx and Brooklyn are teeming with Dominicans. Africans, especially from the central belt of the continent, are numerous in the Bronx.

Needless to say, the children who have come with or been born to these recent arrivals are the future of our country. They need teachers and mentors, guides to help them navigate what often is a new world. Teachers like I had growing up. Teachers who can present a passion for the greatness and potential of learning and the greatness and potential of America. Teachers who can make kids want to be upstanding, successful Americans.

You can find John on Facebook. 

Book Review: Confessions of a Bad Teacher

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

John 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 postYou can find John on Facebook. 

We talk about bad teachers, but too often we mean all teachers. 

I chose this book from a plethora available from publishers on NetGalley. Mainly I scope out fiction, but I singled out this book because it’s about education, and that’s what I do. With the evolving state standardized testing and the commentary I’ve overheard over the years about the backlash of poor performance, I knew this was something I had to read and share for all my fellow teachers out there — especially the new ones like me. I think most Americans can agree that our education system is broken, but those who have the power to change it don’t understand it. There have been many bills passed in the last 15 years that flew with the banner of improving education, but all they did was cripple education – and take away much-needed resources.

The principal and assistant principal were quite clear that Latinate was a model of school reform, and I quickly realized we were there to enforce that idea. 

In John’s school, he…

  • was told to “get together and figure out how to bring [a student] up to speed in [their] “spare time“” by the principal
  • had “observation reports and other alleged evidence that any shortcomings in [his] students’s academics or behavior was solely” his fault
  • had to insure that all of his students received passing marks on each failing assignment for each grading period – absolutely no failing grades on anything
  • was constantly berated for lacking classroom management skills, when conflicting instruction about it was presented by the principal and the hired mentors
  • was expected to teach in the poorest area in the nation, where students didn’t receive any special needs assistance due to budget cuts
  • was blamed for all the happenings in his classroom, due to him being “a bad teacher”
  • reported to the police by the school principal for holding his students 10 minutes after school for deplorable behavior
  • was threatened at every turn to receive a U (Unsatisfactory rating) by the principal (which, for first-year teachers meant he wouldn’t be allowed to teach in NY ever again)

If we are not willing to pay, we will have to leave some children behind. 

really want to discuss this book, with teachers vetted and new, and share the content and commentary I experienced while reading this book. But we’d be here for days, maybe weeks. Once I’d reached the halfway point in this book I realized my highlighting and noting in my e-book had significantly increased, indications of all the vital pieces of this book I wanted to share in this post. Unfortunately there are just too many, so I’ve tried my best to showcase what I found most important about Confessions of a Bad Teacher.

If you are a teacher or a parent of public school children, I urge you to read this book.

If you are a school paraprofessional/administrator (ahem, superintendents) or you sit on the school board, I urge you to read this book. It will shed more light on the workings of your teachers – and might be an eye opener to your high vantage perch.

If you pay public school taxes, volunteer in a school or other community events, take a look at this book. Perhaps you can find a place in the public school system that could utilize your skills as a community member and volunteer.

It seemed quite a lot when I first started (probably because I had to start and stop constantly), but it is well worth the read and provides insight into experiences and similar aspects that teachers all across the country are dealing with in their classrooms, with their principals, on their campus, and in their district. For parents, it will give a whole new meaning and definition to the job and duties of your child’s teacher, and the conflicting dilemmas they are often put in.

Owens doesn’t just spout off the shortcomings and cheating, from students all the way up the ladder to the principal; he provides evidence from various, related  well-publicized studies that have documented the particulars in classrooms and campuses across the country. Most of his students should have qualified and been tested for special education or other learning and behavioral disorders, such as dyslexia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). “But dealing with these students as the law required would have meant employing a school nurse and many more special-education teachers.” Our federal government has made it clear over the last 15 years or so that education is not an important concern for our country, with massive budget cuts every legislative session, usually with states following suit. Cutting corners is as old as time, but cutting out necessary positions for students with very strong needs, that is mandated by law they be given the option to receive, shows the absolute devaluation of our children and their education. And often, these are children of poverty. And they are the ones who experience the brunt and hardship of budget cuts.

So, instead of directly addressing the problems of these kids, the administration made the students’ problems the classroom teachers’ problems, pretending that they weren’t really special-education students at all. 

It’s a tough message to hear in today’s tight economy, but high needs schools are called that for a reason, and it’s time we started helping them,  not hurting. 

This book is filled with humor and sarcasm, with stories that I think almost anybody, regardless of your attachment to public education, can probably relate to with the evolution of the teenager over the course of the last few years. Indeed, one thing that struck me absolutely funny yet honestly true was a statement John received in the tonnage of paperwork for his New Teacher Orientation: We must never count on the copier working. So, so true. At least Latinate had the decency to warn him of that often occurring mishap.

Like Ms. P, America is demanding too much from its teachers without giving them the proper support to educate students effectively. 

John describes some things that were handed down during his New Teacher Orientation…and they are still handed down in teacher preparation courses, or in district policy. I experienced some of the same things during the course of my two-year teacher prep courses and field blocks (classroom field experience prior to student teaching). I was told in my middle school block (spring 2012) in a Central Texas consolidated school district that I “must support the social, emotional and academic needs of [my] students” just as Owens was instructed – but I had to go several steps further: I also had to support their physical and psychological needs – and all of this “support” must be documented in each lesson plan, and exactly how this support is provided. For example, if students would be out of their desks and moving around, I would have to include something to this effect in my lesson plan:

According to the NMSA, this lesson addresses student’s physical needs by allowing movement throughout the lesson. This alleviates the discomfort of students experiencing growth spurts and….

The kids, the teachers, and the administrators in the American public school system are awash in a sea of corruption. 

Also in the district that hosted me for my field blocks and student teaching, it was policy that students receive nothing below an 80 for all non-test grades, and nothing below a 70 on test grades. And the kids knew it too! When some found out they received a test grade between the 70-79 range, they immediately asked if they could retake the test for a higher grade – and they did this because the previous school year it was that way. Essentially, the administration gave unlimited number of attempts to have the highest grade possible on all assignments and tests, setting up students for an unrealistic outlook of the real world and life as they will experience it outside of the public education system. Students were sent to ZAP, an ineffective lunch program where students were responsible for getting their lunch and reporting to a designated classroom to complete their assignments, make-up work or corrections. A teacher volunteered her free period to act as a monitor and allow a space for students to complete their work. No administrator or other designated teacher on duty received a list of ZAP students and escorted them to ZAP. Only the student who cared about their work went to ZAP.

The same was the case with John Owens when he taught at Latinate: he could not give students less than a 65, to allow a 10 point range for students to bring up their grade to slightly above the fail line, which had been pushed back to 65 to reflect better passing rates. If he failed a student, he had to “insure that each failing mark for each marking period [was] reversed to a passing mark via makeup work.” In other words, doctor the grades; the grown-up form of cheating on a test. And it’s not just the teachers who must fudge the numbers, principals and administrators do as well, with several documented cases of school districts falsifying standardized test scores over the last several years. Obama’s Race to the Top, “which got underway in early 2010,” passes out rewards to states via federal funding – and the biggest way to do this is set up a measurable system where teachers are directly held accountable for their students’ standardized test scores. This has done nothing to help decrease the cheating epidemic in public education. Our educational system is “massaged, manipulated and invent[s] data [as] part of an even wider systematic failure in education evaluation.”

John discussed the two largest pieces of legislation that have effected education policy: George Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barrack Obama’s Race to the Top. He explains exactly what NCLB was, how it was structured, and the aims of the act. It is quite a parallel to Obama’s Race to the Top, which he also discusses, but with one very distinct difference: NCLB measured school districts as a representative entity of its students based on their test scores, and Obama’s “Race” has given school districts and principals to fire teachers based solely on their students’ test scores. He talks about how policy makers and district officials are looking for a instantaneous miracles overnight, which we all know is impossible. Yet people keep trying to “fix” education and see immediate results. If not, you’re a bad teacher.

Perhaps the greatest miracle of all would be America recognizing that saving our educational system would be a long-term, big-budget project similar to the way we tend to look at things like wars

Like with John, classroom management was thrown around A LOT in my own teacher-training courses, most notably in my middle school field block. The topic of classroom management was grazed, but never discussed. Just that “it is all about your classroom management.” Your kids need to have routine and know your classroom management style. If you have classroom management, your kids won’t act up because they know what you expect. (I have three younger  brothers who not only push the envelope of my mother’s expectations, but tear it wide open, and have also done that in their classes, a most obvious observation that whoever says this is not truly in touch with the youth of today.) Like John, I’m still confused about classroom management. What exactly does it mean? How do you do it? Where’s the Teacher’s Instructional Manual to Classroom Management? Why isn’t there a rule book for this? Why does something Coach Jones uses in his classroom not work for Ms. Smith’s students?

The nuts and bolts of classroom management and instruction are essential to a teacher’s success, yet from what I could see, the people in teacher training and licensing haven’t’ gotten that message. 

No, indeed they haven’t. This is the number one issue for first-year teachers, because this is an area where teachers are left to their own devices…and often the reason those who had difficult first years leave the teaching field.

The Latinate Institute was “[F]ounded on the noble mission of helping kids who otherwise wouldn’t go to college,” and its primary responsibility was to “improve student achievement.”  Obviously you can see how that worked out, and how much we are failing our students. Owens left his first year teaching not quite half-way through the spring semester to go back into the publishing world because of the lack of support from his principal, and all of the corrupt and inane things he was required to do and ultimately blamed for. The principal and assistant principal were removed from Latinate at the beginning of the following school year by New York Department of Education officials. Owens also shares where his fellow teachers and some of his students ended up as the conclusion of this book. It is quite telling.

Owens gives 10 recommendations to start work on fixing our blatantly broken education system. But those recommendations, which are quite thought-out and excellent, are not going to go anywhere without a national conversation and push for a better education for the children of America.

If you want to help in some way, or want to find out exactly what’s going on in classrooms, Owens lists a few solid groups or individuals who have it figured out that you can partner up with to help, or just become more informed :

*Author’s Note: As a recent graduate, I’ve accepted my first teaching post in a Central Texas school district located in an area that has exploded over the last 10 years and is no longer considered rural as of this year. Based on things I experienced during my field blocks and student teaching, and the experiences John Owens had in his reform school described in this book, it’s a very real fear that I could be fired when my students’ test scores come in next summer. Indeed, both of the same grade-level, subject-level teachers I and my partner replaced were new teachers and are no longer with the district, and most of the teachers in my department from the 2012-2013 school year have left my campus and the district entirely. The fact that my district provides a first-year teacher mentoring program does nothing to ease my jitters of first-year teaching. If you are a veteran teacher, I would love to hear from you about your classroom management and all manner of other things! Email me at girlof1000wonders@gmail.com.