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 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.

Book Review: Confessions of a Bad Teacher


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

Coming Soon: Confessions of a Bad Teacher

17016779Confessions 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.

New Book Claims the Problem with American Public Education Is Not “Bad Teachers”

Author Exposes the War on Education: School Reform Earns an F for Cheating Children, Demonizing Teachers, and Mistaking Data for Learning

“John Owens’s book is an eye-opener about what happens in real classrooms today. It shatters many of the myths about ‘school reform.’” Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and bestselling author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Author John Owens left his lucrative publishing job in Manhattan to teach English at a public high school in New York City’s South Bronx, the nation’s poorest congressional district. He thought he could do some good. Faced with a flood of struggling students, Owens devised ingenious ways to engage every last one. But as his students began to thrive under his tutelage, Owens found himself increasingly mired in a broken educational system, driven by broken statistics, finances, and administrations undermining their own support system—the teachers.

“Everyone claimed that the kids were the top priority,” says Owens, “but the students were just cast members of a bizarre, heartbreaking drama that only looked like education.”

The situation has gotten to the point where the phrase “Bad Teacher” is almost interchangeable with “Teacher.” And Owens found himself labeled just that when the methods he saw inspiring his students didn’t meet the reform mandates. With firsthand accounts from teachers across the country and tips for improving public schools, Confessions of a Bad Teacher is an eye-opening call-to-action to embrace our best educators and create real reform for our children’s futures.

“Billionaires blame teachers for America’s educational problems and throw money at ‘fixing’ our public schools without understanding the dynamics of teaching,” says Owens. “Public education is a precious part of our democracy. Our families, our future, and our country are paying an unbelievable price as ‘reformers’ dismantle an education system that once was—and still should be—the envy of the world.”

As Owens points out in Confessions of a Bad Teacher, the real issues in American public education include:

  • Poverty, the leading cause of problems in schools, not the teachers trying to overcome issues beyond their control.
  • Test scores and other data used to evaluate student and teacher performance. Not only does a constant barrage of tests impede learning, but such a single-minded reliance also invites cheating.
  • Discipline, which is not taken seriously, and a system that forces teachers—and teachers alone—to handle even the most serious problems and most disruptive students.
  • Teacher evaluations, which vary widely from district to district, and focus on punishing educators rather than helping them improve.

Here is what one fellow NetGalley reviewer had to say about Confessions of a Bad Teacher:

This is my school, this is my experience, this is my career. And it’s all laid out far more succinctly and calmly that I could ever have done. This book is going into the school library if I have to pay for it with my own money. The teachers (and parents, if any of them pick it up) have got to see that what we are going through isn’t just us, it isn’t just an isolated situation. God bless John Owens, where ever he is.” –  Allison Dollar – School Librarian, Gallup, NM

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