‘I Was a Bad Teacher’: Five Months In a Corporate School Reform Nightmare

“Run away! Really, run away now.” This is not the kind of encouragement anyone wants to hear right before a job interview. But this is exactly what was whispered to teacher candidate John Owens at the South Bronx high school where he was applying. Owens brushed off the warning from the veteran teacher and the negative comments about the school he read online. Owens, who was leaving a lucrative position in the publishing industry, was determined to make a permanent career change and become a full-time educator.

Owens was hired as English/language arts teacher at a new, small (350 students) public high school in the fall of 2010. A mere five months later, he received the dreaded “U” from the principal – “unsatisfactory. “And just like that, Owens had joined the national ranks of “Bad Teachers.” Was it his students? Not really. Yes, they were disorderly, to say the least, and some were impossible to reach. Nonetheless, Owens believed that he would survive and even thrive in the classroom if given the time and necessary support. But that never materialized. He also wasn’t prepared for a principal who scapegoated her teaching staff, not to mention the gobs of paperwork and data that devoured so much of his time.

Owens’ teaching career lasted all of five months, but now he is telling his story and taking an urgent message to the public in a provocative and compelling new book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education. Recently, Owens spoke to NEA Today about his experiences and the so-called “reforms” that have degraded public education.

Five months into your teaching career, the principal gave you a “U” for unsatisfactory. What made you a ‘bad teacher’?

I was a bad teacher because the kids in my class were too noisy. Even if they were learning, but making a bit too much noise, I got in trouble. I was told that the school was a “cathedral of learning,” so this was not acceptable. I was a bad teacher because, I admit it, I had difficulty keeping up with the data. My background is in the private sector and I am used to dealing with a lot of numbers, including million dollar budgets. None of that prepared me for the volume of data and spreadsheets that I have to deal with at my school. It was unbelievable. This is not what teaching is supposed to be about.

Why do you think the term “bad teacher” became such an accepted term in the education debate. It’s hard to have a conversation about schools with anyone without that expression being front and center.

It’s culturally acceptable to beat up on teachers. Nobody thinks twice about it, right? “Bad teachers” are blamed for everything. You have these very prominent, savvy people – Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates – who have the attention of the media and they spout this nonsense about bad teachers.

Some of what they say makes sense, at least on a superficial level. It makes sense that small schools can work, it makes sense that a strong leader is required, it makes sense that you track data. It all sounds like common sense and so the public buys it. I believed a lot of this before I became a teacher. Of course, once you enter the classroom, you realize what the real problems are. But this is a sound-bite country. We look for sound-bite answers. “Let’s just get rid of all the bad teachers” is a sound bite – and an extremely destructive one.

There does seem to be a fixation in the U.S. about running everything like a business, isn’t there?

Yes, and the problem is that these reformers are distorting the business practices they think will work in the schools. I saw what business is really like. Yes, it can be full of jerks and crazy people, but not like anything like I saw in my school. The administration took the notion of management and accountability to absurd lengths. They would basically say, ‘Here’s this great thing that you can do’ but then not give you the tools to implement it. So, yes, by all means set goals, but how am I going to achieve these goals? The answer would be “Well, if you were a good teacher, you would know how to achieve these goals.” So they threw me into the classroom where a quarter of the kids are serious disciplinary cases and I need help, I need training. But no, I was immediately accountable for this. So they push these things too far. They push the notion of data way too far. The reality is our schools are not a business.

Obviously you knew the kids were going to be challenging, so what did you expect from the administration?

First of all, I thought the administration would be glad that I was there. They weren’t. I expected them to help me and not penalize me when the students made noise. I expected we were all going to be on the same team trying to do the same good. Again, a good business doesn’t treat new employees as if they are about to fail. That’s what my school did. You have to understand – people don’t teach at that school because of the neighborhood or that the kids are hard to handle. It’s primarily because the school blames the teachers. They get pushed out and it’s impossible to get evaluated fairly.

Do you believe that no real progress in education– or at least progress in the public dialogue – can be achieved until everyone recognizes that poverty is a huge drag on student learning?

Absolutely. School reformers don’t want to see it as a problem. What they want people to think is that academic success is totally a classroom issue. What happens during that 46 minutes every day is what determines if they succeed or fail academically. Of course, that’s not true at all. There are all these other factors. I had a kid who was homeless. He and his mother were going shelter to shelter. But we’ve had wars on poverty and we haven’t won. So now we’re having a war on education,I guess.

You were only in the classroom five months, but do you think you were able to accomplish anything?

I don’t want to sentimentalize my time there and say that I taught them lessons they will never forget. I really don’t know. But I do know that I got them to the point where they enjoyed reading and writing. I tried to engage my students by assigning them work that got them thinking about music, culture, what they like, what they don’t like. To see them actually get into writing  – actually enjoying it -was thrilling.

What would you say to a teacher who may be on the verge of leaving the profession, frustrated at how these policies have taken their toll on the profession and students?

I think we are going to have change soon.  I really believe that. I think the public is beginning to see through all the nonsense about the data and the testing. I think the opportunity for teachers and other education activists is to really express clearly what we really want to do for the kids. When teachers speak out, the public often takes it as a demand for more money or more this and more that. The teachers I worked with wanted what was best for the students. They wanted more time to work with them. They wanted more training and smaller classes. They want their students to achieve. That’s the reality. So if teachers keep hammering that message, the public will listen and turn away from these corporate reformers. We’re getting close, so don’t despair. I would still be in the classroom if they wanted to keep me.