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Book Review: John Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher

November 25, 2013

I teach. I blog. I speak publicly. I advocate. I advise. I counsel.

Not much time left for reading for pleasure.

However, from the very opening paragraphs of John Owens’ firsthand account of the contemporary, reform-beaten American classroom, Confessions of a Bad Teacher, I was hooked:

After we read the section of Homer’s The Odyssey where Odysseus and his men confront the Cyclops, we watched a movie clip of how the clever Greek hero blinded that wine-swilling, man-eating, one-eyed monster and escaped. We discussed the story for a while, and then I asked my eighth-grade class to break up into groups and write down various plot points. After about ten minutes, we reviewed the points out loud.

The kids loved the blood, bellowing, running around, and sailing away. But there was a lot of confusion about who was who and what was going on. In other words, a lot of the students were having a tough time figuring out the story. So I set to work helping them figure it out. After all, its hard to understand the significance of a story if you don’t understand the story itself.

The assistant principal, who was observing the class, later scolded me for the lesson’s “lack of academic rigor.”…

I could immediately identify with the reform-promoted, administrative disconnect between the classroom realities (and the teacher’s use of his or her own critical thinking and experience on how best to promote learning by identifying where students are and working upward from that point) and the ignorant-yet-demanding push to make students and teachers conform to some inflexible ideal “student achievement.”

I was sold on Owens’ book right then and there.

Corporate reform is designed to destroy the web of collaborative relationships indispensable to the public school learning process. Teachers must be valued for their ability to informally identify student academic needs. Dedicated, career teachers do not desire to frustrate their students. They delight in seeing their students learn. Dedicated administrators who were once classroom teachers themselves understand the teacher-student dynamic and desire to support both teachers and students in the learning process. They do not see themselves as critical, punitive evaluators.

Corporate reform values and rewards the administrator-as-punitive-evaluator. Just look at how successful former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee continues to be.

John Owens is not a career teacher. He is a writer, editor, and publisher. However, he decided a couple years ago that he wished to “give back” to the world. So, Owens enrolled in a teacher certification program in order to become a classroom teacher in New York.

In that short-lived role– Owens did not make it through one school year– he learned that he was a “bad” teacher– and that he was far from alone. As Owens observes:

America’s public school teachers are being loudly and unfairly blamed for the failure of or nation’s public schools. From Bill Gates, to hedge-fund-enriched charter school backers, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to an endless stream of reports in the media, everyone “knows” that we must fix the Bad Teacher problem.

If only teachers were better… smarter… more committed to their students. If only they had a longer workday and a longer school year. If only they didn’t have tenure. If only they didn’t have such powerful unions. If only they didn’t stand in the way of progress.

Today, all teachers seem to be considered bad until proven otherwise.

Again, I can identify with Owens’ writing. The Common Core standards for English II (my subject) require that my students read “complex” texts “independently and proficiently.” Thus, if I teach– if I attempt to bridge their knowledge and skills using my own expertise in order to connect struggling student to difficult text– then I am not “meeting the standard.”  As for Louisiana’s COMPASS teacher evaluation: In order for me to be rated “highly effective,” the students must assume the initiative to learn on their own– without me. I am to be a “facilitator”– on the fringes of the learning process.

If my students can proceed without me– or with minimal assistance from me– then I am a great teacher in the eyes of corporate reform.

These people need to be in the classroom and demonstrate.

I assure you, they will not.

And so, to those removed from the process, public school teaching is “easy,” and most teachers “fail” their students through either incompetence or laziness.

In Confessions, Owens clearly dispels this convenient, blame-game myth.

Owens tried to be a supportive teacher. He faithfully pushed his cart around the halls of Latinate, going from classroom to classroom, struggling for a timely entrance into classrooms for which he had no key. He was mindful to have pens and paper for students who lacked supplies. He prepared lessons late into the night. And he attempted as best he could to meet the demands of Latinate’s principal, Ms. P:

…Ms. P was not just an imperial figure; she had a serious case of Crazy Boss syndrome. As someone who has been a boss and been subject to all manner of bosses, I know the problem well. Ms. PO was demanding–that’s fine. But she was delusional about what could be absorbed and achieved. …

There wasn’t an aspect of Latinate life that Ms. P didn’t have covered with a demand, edict, or what she called an “expectation.” From what I could see, what she practiced wasn’t so much management, or even micromanagement, as bizarre stagecraft with moment-by-moment choreography of our day.

Read about Owens’ attempts to meet Ms. P’s demands and avoid the dreaded “U” (“unsatisfactory” rating) while managing to actually teach his “wild eighth graders” and headstrong tenth graders in a school short on facilities (Latinate shared facilities with the undeniably-favored “Blue school”) and high on burnout-promoting unreality.

Read about Owens’ students, as well, whom he presents in such careful detail that the reader cannot help but be drawn into a compassionate– and often frustrating– relationship with them.

And be sure to read his final two chapters, in which he offers what he learned from his brief teaching experience as well as information on becoming involved in genuine school reform.

Read Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher.

After 240 pages in Owens’ undeniably challenging public school world, you will want to rename the book.

From → book reviews

5 Comments
  1. Linda permalink

    We all need to be writing our own “bad teacher” books to flood the public with a type of backlash so that people can wake up and understand wht is really going on in their children’s school.

    • Want to collaborate on it?
      I think a collection of shore stories would be great.
      I want to title my section, The Stick is not long enough. It is about the first time I tried to teach measurement to HS students who have never measured anything.

  2. Bookworm23 permalink

    Mercedes, this was one of the first books I read when I first began educating myself on the corporate reform movement. It was actually through John Owen’s that I first heard of Diane Ravitch. For that and for his important book, I’m very grateful.

  3. B. Stephens permalink

    I started to read John Owens book and found myself stupefied. Could this be what is going on in or schools? Especially for the schools where students are most at risk? It is a cautionary tale of what happens when teachers are removed from the process but accountable for the results. Hmmm sounds familiar ? Common Core, Charter Schools, CEOs running education as a business??? Heaven save us.

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