In 2009, after working for three decades in magazine publishing, John Owens decided to become a teacher. He quit his job and enrolled in graduate school for a year before being hired as a writing teacher at the pseudonymous “Latinate Institute,” a high school in the South Bronx in New York City.
Owens faced many challenges right off the bat, one of the greatest being the school administration’s relentless focus on data. “Ms. P,” the principal at Latinate, demanded teachers maintain an 80 percent student-pass rate for their courses. Owens managed to meet this quota, but still had trouble pleasing his higher-ups. At one point, he declined to participate in a workshop for writing teachers in New Jersey because he didn’t want to take time away from the students—a move that Ms. P interpreted as noncompliance. Later, when he had problems with a parent, his principal not only refused to defend him but didn’t ask for his side of the story.
Suddenly, Owens writes, “It became clear to me that Ms. P & Co. weren’t so much interested in making me a good teacher as proving I was a bad teacher.”
Owens’ career in teaching ended less than a year after it began. Not surprisingly, though, his experience at Latinate stuck with him, leading him to write a piece about it for Salon. The article received more than 140 comments, and thousands of people reached out to Owens. Education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch tweeted it to her many followers, and MSNBC asked him for an interview.
Now, two years later, Owens has published a book about his experiences called Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education. We recently spoke to Owens by phone about his new book and his brief, unhappy career as a teacher. Below is a lightly edited transcription of the conversation.
Why did you decide to leave what sounds like a successful career in publishing to become a teacher?
I’d seen these signs on the subway: “Become a teaching fellow” or “Become a teacher and be remembered.” And I said, “You know what? I think I should do that!” I guess I was very naïve or very idealistic, which is something that’s unusual for someone who’s been a journalist for so many years.
I got a job in the South Bronx, and that’s when it went bad. The school I ended up at considered itself a model of school reform. It was just a heartbreaking place. It was not about so much teaching kids as making it look like kids were learning—as putting on a big pageant of uniforms and slogans and data. The place was just run by data. It was spreadsheets taking over the education in the school.
Schools need to monitor students’ progress, though. How can they avoid doing this without approaching education as a stream of data?
We have to understand that the numbers that we’ve been looking at—that most of them are meaningless. And made up. And bogus. They are. We are not using scientific research. We’re using data. I had to put in 2,000 points of data a week for my kids. Everything from attendance to homework. But I also had to put in things like self-determination. I mean, what is self-determination? I don’t know, but it can really help boost your grade if you have it. It was just so that the administration could prove whatever they wanted to prove. They didn’t want to prove that the kids were learning, they wanted to prove that they were passing. And then that they would graduate.
[Ed. note: According to Owens, Ms. P, his principal, and the school’s assistant principal were eventually removed from their positions for alleged involvement in a scheme to falsify student records.]
In the book, you call yourself a “bad teacher.” Why do you say that?
Because I was constantly told that if I were a good teacher, the kids who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would sit still and learn. If I were a good teacher, the kids who didn’t speak English would speak English. If I were a good teacher, all the problems that these kids faced would be solved in my 46 minutes a day with them. Basically, the administration was trying to have plausible deniability for anything that went wrong in the school or with the kids anyplace. In or out of school. And good teachers could solve these problems. Well, obviously, you’re not a good teacher if you can’t.
You argue in the book that teachers have become scapegoats for our failing education system, even though cops haven’t been blamed for crime rates and nurses for health problems. Why, in your opinion, do we scapegoat teachers?
I think that we keep hearing from people like Bill Gates that the teachers are the most important aspect of learning. All these experts kind of slide over the fact that poverty has a lot to do with kids not learning.
Also, I think that people have historically resented teachers. Teachers supposedly have a soft life. They have the summers off. But I’ll tell you what: I have worked in many, many jobs, for decades, and I never had a harder job than that. But I think that there’s been basically a public-relations campaign against teachers.
You argue we need a better way to evaluate teachers. In your book, you say that Ms. P’s supposedly objective classroom observations were “highly subjective and capable of turning in any result Ms. P wanted.” Yet you mention peer, principal, and student reviews as ways to get information that can’t be put into an Excel spreadsheet. Why do you think that type of data would help to evaluate teachers?
The school I was in—and maybe the district I was in, which is the New York City school district—they’re very negative on teachers. I have never worked in a place where they hated the employees so much. I think that in a system where we’re trying to make teachers better and we’re trying to make the kids better and we’re trying to make everything better, those peer and principal reviews could work very well. They’re not the perfect answer. There’s no perfect answer. If you work in any place—I mean, any place—there’s politics and there’s subjectivity and there’s personalities. There’s no way around that. But the kind of hatred I saw in schools seemed to be systemic.
At a turning point in the book, Ms. P, the principal at Latinate, offers to pay for you to attend a workshop, but you ultimately decide not to attend. Why did you make that choice? And would you choose differently if you could do it over again?
I’d heard so much about classroom management and that the important thing in classroom management was consistency. Because these kids don’t have much consistency in their lives. A lot of them were moving among schools, among relatives. A lot of things change. And I’d read and I’d heard that consistency was important. Between school holidays and test days and all these things, we hadn’t been that consistent. I get this offer to go out of state and learn how to teach writing for a day or two. It didn’t even occur to me that I would be considered a bad person for saying no. I just wrote back and I said, “I’d rather stay with the kids here in South Bronx and bring some consistency to the class.” Well, little did I know that that was considered ungrateful and lazy. And so the woman took a big dislike to me. And there was no way she was ever going to ever forgive me for that.
One part of your book that stuck with me was when your student Keena wrote a story about a girl being raped by her father that seemed a little too vivid to be fiction. You asked the administration how to handle this with the social worker, but they dismissed your concern by saying that Keena’s story wasn’t real. How do you think that this incident should have played out?
I think the girl should have been contacted by the social worker, and sat down and talked to. These kids want people to talk to them. I’m no psychologist but I could see that these kids, so many of them, were just bringing out their lives in any way they could. I had a student, the very first day, she wrote a story about how she had witnessed her father being arrested at a check-cashing store. It was a real story. Another kid wrote a story about how her cousin was shot and killed on a playground. And so these were very real stories. This was not made-up. That’s why when someone wrote a story about being raped by their father, I didn’t think it was fiction.
Are there times when a teacher should go against the advice of their administration?
I tried to be a good team player and I was getting in big trouble. If you went against them, you would basically not have a chance. They hung the “unsatisfactory” rating over you like a sword on a daily basis. It really was sort of a career gun being held to your head constantly. Everything from the bulletin board to the way you dismissed the kids from the class could lead you to an unsatisfactory rating. If you went against the grain, you might as well just pack up your Smartboard. It’s over. At least in the school I was in.
You say that we ask a lot from our schools. What should we be asking of our schools? What is fair to ask?
Well, I think what’s fair to ask is that we give the kids a well-rounded experience and we try to teach them to be good citizens, not just good employees. What we’re hearing now all about the Common Core [State Standards] is that they’re designed to make students college and career ready. I don’t know what’s going to be required of someone who graduates 12 years from today but I do know that if they have a love of learning, and they have a sense of community and a good moral compass, they’ll do just fine.
You say you wrote this book to give back to your students. What do you think the book has achieved?
I’ve had teachers from all over the country saying, “This is my life. Somebody finally expressed it.” I’m hoping to get parents to understand what the teachers in their communities face, and how their children are being short-changed, and to demand that this kind of nonsense stop.
All I have to do is get a couple people in a couple communities to kind of take it to heart. That’s how snowballs are built.