Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

September 4, 2013 by twalker  
Filed under Featured News, Top Stories


By Tim Walker

“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?

John Owens, author of "Confessions of a Bad Teacher"

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.


64 Responses to “‘I Was a Bad Teacher’: Five Months In a Corporate School Reform Nightmare”
  1. Rhonda says:

    I left teaching after 15 years in the same district. I can honestly say that I did not get into teaching to become rich or famous but to make a difference in the lives of children. It is hard to do a job when administration is not supportive and your union is weakening by the minute. Colleagues are afraid to stand up and be supportive, or are cut throat attempting to get to the top of the heap. Any teacher that has a voice that opposes the status quo in districts or is at the top of the pay scale should be concerned at this point in time. Currently, I hold a bachelors degree and two masters degrees in the field of education and am applying for paraprofessional positions just to get my remaining 8 years in for a full 30 year pension.

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  2. C. L. Palmer says:

    I’ve got the same dilemma. I’ve been in the business for 15 years, and I’m desperate to get out. It’s tough, though, since you get pigeon-holed by potential employers. Our evaluation system in Indiana is highly subjective; at one school the principal would not rate anyone higher than a three on a four-point scale, and at another in the same district the principal rated everyone at a four because he thought they all worked hard. Such subjectivity makes scores meaningless. It becomes a matter of personal politics. Does the principal like you? Awesome! You get a four! Does your teaching style match the latest fad literature your principal is into? You’re a star! Are your children learning the subject? Irrelevant, as far as your score goes. Do the random pop-in observations look like the video clips your principal is showing at staff meetings? That’s all that’s important.
    I’ve got a blog post on this at http://theuseofreason.blogspot.com/2012/06/realistic-accountability-will-retain.html for anyone who’s interested.

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  3. Maureen Williams says:

    Reading this encourages me to hang on in there. I’ve been teaching for 5 years now and I’ve grown to loathe Tuesday staff meetings. I’d much rather tutor students than to hear at each weekly meeting “we need you to do more for less and with less”. Oh and by the way you’ll need to write a mini IEP and call it student planning team, fill out 144 question questionnaire for school psychologist, try this new teaching trick or that new gadget, but spend your own money to get all the materials you may need. Oh and as your admin I know you’re not paid for 90 days during the summer months, but you just gotta manage your money better despite student loan payments. It’s extremely disheartening and negative.

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  4. diana says:

    After 14 years, I was forced to retire early due to a principal (and administration) or be fired for charges such as allowing a student, who was not suppose to be in my class, get me a cup of coffee 7 years ago; putting my grades in late (before computer grade books) a day late; etc. In 09 I received my MA with a 4.0 GPA and received a Star Teacher award for the second time. In 2010, my primary class was eliminated without any discussion by any principal. Then without any warning I was put on a PIP. Mid year of ’11, before contracts were out, I was called in with my two principals and a letter ending with I didn’t take my job seriously was put in my file. My response letter, addressing each allegation, ended with any teacher that stays 10 hours a day takes her job seriously. The building principal just replied things had better improve or the next step would be taken. The end of the year showed improvement so I signed my contract.
    First day of ’12, I was ordered to report to administration with no explanation and was given my 30 day warning letter from the new HR (who we hired from an unaccredited district) and was told this was the first step at releasing a tenure teacher. The charges, including the above, were addressed one by one by my union reps at scheduled after school meetings. None of their comments were included in the principal’s minutes.
    Surprised observations came 2 or 3 times a week, with negative reviews (and nothing regarding what I was teaching). The only “scheduled” observation was rescheduled for later that day, when the HR could unexpectedly stroll in, visit with the students while I was lecturing, and after the building principal and students left, strolled up to me and asked how I thought it went. When I told her I thought pretty well, she proceeded to tell me she didn’t understand anything I said, students weren’t listening (even though some answered my questions) and that “. . . we just don’t want you here.” That took place the day after my union reps submitted a letter to them from my doctor stating that they were affecting my health and all I wanted to do was teach.
    With 157 accrued sick days, I was advised by a union lawyer that no company was

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  5. diana says:

    (finishing earlier posting)
    . . .required to give you EARNED sick leave once they’ve determined to “relieve” you. In order to receive leave under FMLA, I had to sign a “settlement” with an intent to retire, and agree not to sue them. Once I signed that, the HR said I would be on sick leave through the end of the year and I could then apply for Medicare. I had to tell her I wasn’t that old.
    My union rep told me afterwards, not to take it personally, they were doing it everywhere. Enjoy my retirement. I was replaced with a part time teacher.
    Over the past summer the building principal mistakenly sent out to the entire high school (obviously meant for administration) the high school teacher evaluations by ranking with (misspelled) comments such as “lazy”, “too old to observe, retiring soon”, “doesn’t know what he’s doing”, etc. The new “hit list” puts older, tenure teachers on the bottom of the list.
    Even with a vote of 65% of no confidence by the teachers, he is still there.
    If he is still there next year, I’m withdrawing my life time NEA membership.
    To all those that have and WILL experience this, my advise is–don’t take it personally.

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  6. Leslie says:

    Coming from industry as well, I was not prepared for the fights in the classroom between students, the noise, the attitude that I cannot do anything to them because there is not a working phone at home. Adminstration calls it “classroom management”, but all it is, is the attitude of the students; many of whom do not want to be there. Adminstration is as frustrated as well, but the buck is pushed upon us. Unfortunalty, there is no overtime for the work I perform on saturday and sunday, tutoring after school, or any of the other student activities I must attend in order to keep my job.

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  7. Warren Pugh says:

    Just wrote a note to Van Roekle. Discipline is the number one problem regardless of any treatise on ‘expectations’. This story reminds me of the video ‘The Knights of the South Bronx”. Don’t expect the NEA to learn anything from a bunch of chess players and their mentors. Sad. 30 counties have chess in their curriculum, and many schools in the U.S. offer programs. A leading nation in chess, among many others, is that nasty place Venezuela. I disagree with that, of course, but between music,chess and academics Caracas is a world leader and they don’t take ‘poor’ as an excuse either.

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  8. Geraldo says:

    My first contract ended in a situation mediated by the local Uni-serve director near the end of my first semester (Fall 1998). One day at the beginning of class the last week of school before Winter Break, a male student in one of my classes placed his open hand (palm up) on the seat next to where he was sitting, as a female student was about to sit down in the adjacent seat. Upon sitting down on the male student’s hand, she was embarrassed to have been touched on her “bottom” by the male student who promptly tried to remove his hand, “fondling” the female student’s lower anatomy. I was passing back the previous day’s homework assignments and unfortunately did not see the incident, but from previous times that he had “attracted my attention,” realized that the male student was capable of such a deed. After thinking about her body being violated over the Winter Break, the female A+ Honor Roll student had decided to share the unauthorized touching incident with her parents. They, in turn, contacted the principal to try to understand why and how such an incident could happen in an academic classroom. That same day after school I was asked to visit with the principal in his office to discuss the situation. He told me that I should resign due to my failure to prevent the incident from happening due to my apparent unsatisfactory ability to manage my classroom, and that was cause for administrative termination. After our discussion, I requested another meeting, this time with the local National Education Association state affiliate Uni-serve director present. The results of that meeting awarded me a suspension from my teaching duties at the end of the semester (a week or so away) and an uninterrupted continuation of my salary and medical benefits for another three months (into mid-April 1999). Reflecting back, I should have held out for two more months of salary forcing the school district to honor the length of their contract with me, but the Uni-serve director advised me at the time to accept the school district’s offer explaining that it was unusual to be awarded that generous a settlement being a new teacher working under my first contract. School districts are not accountable for dismissing untenured teachers and don’t have to give any reason or explanation for doing so. Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I realize that the administration’s “scapegoat” from sexual harassment charges being filed by the female student’s family was to offer the over-used educational lie that the teacher was incompetent and expedite his or her termination to remove the “problem” from the classroom. All the while, the administration lacks the intestinal fortitude to take responsibility and discipline the offending student.

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  9. Spike says:

    I can fully feel the pain from Mr. Owens situation. I too was a “bad teacher” because I was told by the principal that my music students needed to use “whisper voices” in my class because they were too loud. This was what I was told after my principal walked through my classroom while students were in small groups writing a Christmas carol. I also was told by parents that their child should not get the grade of a “C” because, “Music is not a real class.” These attitudes make it very hard for a teacher to go to school in the mornings. Principals should realize that they do more damage than good when they label a teacher. I gave up teaching music, which I dearly loved, and moved to computers. The subject is taken more seriously by principals and parents, but not nearly as fun. All you “bad teachers” hang in there!!

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  10. Bruce Wayne says:

    From the students perspective, its all true. Most students don’t care about school, and seriously think teachers got there job because they hate students. The same students that will cuss out a teacher are the ones that report a teacher for any and every word that could be considered offensive, and find offense in it if it was not put that way, and put it out of context if needs be. Teachers tell us all the time to be respectful, but if we’re not, so what? Worst they can do is have us call home, send us to the office, or give us a detention. Most parents take the side of the student, and even reward the student for acting courageous to there teacher. Office doesn’t care, and usually sends them back, or rewards them, by talking to them few a few moments and letting them spent the rest of the period in the office, and out of class. Detention is not mandatory, so if you don’t go, we just get lunch detention once or twice. But all that students friends will be there, so what lesson did they learn? Cheating the system solved problems? No punishments for the immoral? I’m not kidding, and my smart moral friends agree, that the school system needs to reimplemented the paddle into the school. It is not assault, but the only punishment these brats will take seriously. Then wee need to make rules about Administration. Lets have all the people who make the rules apply them by having them teach a class with all the students who they think are only bad because the teacher, and have them teach a class once a week for the rest of there career and be held accountable for that the same way teachers are. We can fix this system. But it is not going to be easy.

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  11. ExTeacher says:

    In today’s teaching world, a “bad teacher” is one who does not conform to any and all things, reasonable or unreasonable, which are demanded by administration. It’s really that simple. I found that the only solution was to resign, permanently. That’s what I did and have never been happier. Nobody deserves to be a mental punching bag. Nobody.

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  12. Joseph B says:

    Thanks so much for sharing the review of this book. I am also a career-changer, currently in my first year of teaching. After reading the review I picked up the Mr. Owen’s book and finished it in a week. In a bittersweet way I shared many “Yes, that is my story” moments while reading the book. My area of teaching is high school mathematics and my experience of attempting to make sense of how to teach amid the public school adventures of a low-performing school have led me to repeatedly question all year whether I should career-change back out of teaching. Thanks for offering a lot of good thoughts for me to ponder.

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  13. Michael Silvia says:

    I didn’t make it 15 years…I was labeled a ‘bad teacher’ in a turbulent school district with sky high poverty…After 14 years, what I have to look at is that I’m a bad teacher…It’s so discouraging and disappointing…I thought the world of education was above this kind of cannibalism…so much for the corporate model in education…

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