Confessions of a bad teacher

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

After a three-decade career as a writer, editor and corporate executive, John Owens decided to become a New York City public-school teacher — a bad teacher:

Despite what we read in the press about the “the powerful teachers’ union,” each school’s principal has a great deal of power in the form of a U — unsatisfactory — rating. To a veteran, tenured teacher, a U means stalled raises. For a new teacher, a U is death. You’re out of the System.

Right off the bat, I don’t think he understands how unions work and what the complaint against them is. They exist to protect their current membership — and leadership — not hungry, new recruits.

Anyway, it’s pretty clear what the problem at his South Bronx school was:

With the remaining half-dozen hardcore kids, nothing made them put their phones down and do something resembling schoolwork. I assigned seats, reassigned seats and re-reassigned seats. But with these uncontrollable older kids in the class, it was tough to control the others. And sometimes, the parents were an even bigger problem.

“Please sign the original and keep the copy,” the assistant principal said one afternoon, handing me a manila folder. Inside was a letter from Ms. P to me.

It concerned parent-teacher night. I had stressed to the parents who showed up how important it is for the students to behave, to be quiet and focus on their work. I told them how I had observed a class in a wealthy school district, and how the kids just came in, sat down and got to work.

“They don’t waste time on discipline, so those students get much more instructional time,” I told the parents. “Those kids aren’t smarter. I think the kids here are smarter. But our kids waste teaching time. Please, stress to your children how important it is to behave in class.”

Dear Mr. Owens:

We are giving you this letter to file for your failure to show cultural sensitivity… One parent, in particular, complained about your insensitive remarks comparing students from our school with those of Chappaqua with what she perceived as a racial subtext, i.e. that our students — predominantly African American and Hispanic — do not do as well academically as the predominantly Caucasian students in the suburbs. The parent felt offended and disturbed by your remarks….

It didn’t matter that I never mentioned race or Chappaqua (a place I’ve never been); I was officially a bad teacher.

When he tried to keep the class after school, he was reprimanded by the principal.

Another point he reiterates in a recent interview is that the data driving the process is worthless:

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.]

Lant Pritchett makes a similar point about education in “developing” countries:

I think, well, one of the conjectures I put in the book is that it persists partly by camouflage. It pretends to be something it’s not and then can project enough of the camouflage that it maintains its legitimacy. So, sociologists of organization have a term called “isomorphic mimicry”, which is adapted from evolution where some species of snakes look poisonous but aren’t, but get the survival value of looking poisonous. So, one of the things that’s happened is by this pressure to expand schooling and by the governments’ desire to control that socialization process, they have created all the appearances of schools that provide education but without actually doing it. But have at the same time not produced the information that would make it clear that they weren’t doing it. So they produce enrollment statistics, numbers of buildings, numbers of toilets, numbers of textbooks, numbers of everything. But have, you know, all of which can project the image that there’s a functional system and providing real learning there. But they don’t provide metrics of learning or incentives for learning or feedback on learning or accountability for learning at all. And so persist in this kind of, you know, what I’ve called elsewhere a technique of persistent failure. If you came and said, “How could I fail and yet have never have anybody hold me accountable to failure?” you would design something very much like many of the current education systems.


  1. Bill says:

    I try to look at what a system is really good at doing to see what it is really for. For example, what is Congress for? It turns out that about 94% of incumbents are re-elected in spite of the fact that only 15% of the people have approved of what congress has been doing. Ergo, congress is set up to provide consistent jobs for congressmen.

    So what are schools good for?

    “According to the education documentary Waiting for Superman, every year nationwide one out of every 57 doctors and one out of every 97 lawyers loses his or her license for malpractice.

    “Drawing from U.S. Department of Education statistics, the film notes that only one out of every 2,500 unionized public school teachers with tenure gets fired in any given year.”

    Well, there you go.

Leave a Reply