What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?
I know I am a bit late to the party with this review of Confessions of a Bad Teacher by John Owens. After I read it, I looked around to see what other people were saying about it online. Those who have a problem with the book seem to take issue with the fact that Owens was a teacher for a mere 5 months, meaning he did not stick around long enough to gain a big picture view of the Department of Education under Bloomberg. I say that this is one of the strengths of the book.
The book is an account of what any outsider might find if they cared enough to spend time in the public school system.
John Owens left a successful career in publishing to teach public high school students. Unfortunately, he ended up at one of those schools that represented everything wrong with the Department of Education under Bloomberg. It was a school located in the South Bronx that Owens calls “Latinate”. In reality, it was Eximius College Preparatory Academy. Owens’ biggest obstacle as a new teacher was his principal. He never names who his principal was but a basic Google search reveals that it was Tammy Smith, who was eventually fired for giving students credit for classes they never took.
Owens was hired as an English teacher. This fact alone should tell us something about the school. There is a flood of English and history teachers in the system. That means job openings in these subjects tend to be at schools with high turnover rates. According an Insideschools comment quoted by fellow blogger jd2718, turnover at Eximius was between 31% and 56% under Smith between 2006 and 2008. There is no reason to believe it was any lower when Owens was hired, which was probably a year or two later.
Smith told Owens to refer to the students as “scholars”. She envisioned the school as a “cathedral of learning”. The stain glass in this cathedral were bulletin boards, which had to be updated with new student work every month. The liturgy had to follow the workshop model and each hymn had to follow the strict timeline laid out by Pope Tammy I. Pope Tammy’s clergy were required to input a daily stream of data about their students. It was an unwritten rule that no less than 80% of the scholars in the cathedral should pass. Teachers whose students dipped below this number were subject to Tammy’s inquisition, including the dreaded “U” rating of which she was so fond.
Owens learned early on that what counted in Bloomberg’s DOE was appearance. The bulletin boards, workshop model, data and passing rates were all there to make the school and, by extension, the principal and, by further extension, Bloomberg, look good. Actually building a solid learning environment for students did not even figure into the calculations of school leaders. Helping new teachers like John Owens perfect their craft mattered even less. As far as Tammy Smith was concerned, teachers were there to build what Owens refers to as the “pageant”. All of her efforts went into making the school seem successful. The obsession with perception is Bloomberg’s biggest education legacy, which is perfectly consistent for a man who made his billions as a media giant.
The real victims in Tammy Smith’s efforts to put on an educational pageant were the students. Owens does a great job of describing the kids he was charged with educating. Any NYC teacher would be able to relate to them. Eximius is a secondary school, meaning it serves grades 6 through 12. Owens taught English to 8th and 9th graders, which are probably the two toughest secondary school grades to teach. Early in the book, Owens describes a boy who specialized in distracting other students. He was a particularly handsome boy and he used his charm to mill about the room talking to various girls. By the end of the period, the boy would find the time to rush some of his class work to completion, yet none of the girls he had distracted ever found time to do the same. When Owens spoke to the boy’s mother, the mother said “that’s how he has always been”. Owens equated the mother’s reaction to saying “yeah, his unbelievable charm and good looks are your problems to deal with.”
Many NYC teachers can relate to parents who seem to excuse or even encourage their children’s distractive behaviors. That is not to say that they represent the majority of parents. Owens describes children who could be made to behave by threatening to call their parents, a situation to which many NYC teachers can also relate. However, in his five months as a teacher, Owens learned that overall discipline is a problem in NYC schools. He found that getting children to settle down was a challenge and a good chunk of class time was spent on discipline. On parent-teacher night, Owens told a parent that children in a suburban school district in which he observed classes did not need to be told to sit down and, consequently, were able to concentrate on actual learning. The parent took this as a racist remark and complained to the principal.
The next day, Tammy Smith put a letter in Owens’ mailbox admonishing him for his racist remarks. Along the way, she was sure to embellish many of the details to make Owens sound like a tried and true racist. This situation illustrates everything one needs to know about why teacher turnover was so high at Eximius under Smith. It illustrates why teacher turnover remains so high throughout the NYC DOE.
New teachers in NYC find themselves caught in a vice. They have students who might have special needs or unstable families or who live in violent communities or suffer from poverty or all of the above. Understandably, this affects their ability to focus in school. No new teacher, no matter how smart or educated or dedicated, can effectively educate all of the students who suffer under these circumstances. They need guidance from administrators and more veteran colleagues on how to reach young people. However, administrators like Tammy Smith are not interested in guidance. Instead, they have internalized the reformer ethos of carrots and especially sticks. A whole generation of DOE administrators have been nourished on the reformer ethos that teachers are low-level bureaucratic functionaries in need of a good beating. Owens’ book demonstrates the hopelessness experienced by many new teachers who are caught between the hammer of punitive administrators and the anvil of students who are in need of a tremendous amount of attention. Like so many other teachers, these pressures forced Owens right out of the system.
The system did literally nothing to help mold John Owens into a great teacher. If Owens was having trouble controlling his class, he would get a sanctimonious lecture from administration on proper classroom management. Instead of learning effective teaching methods, he was subjected to endless professional development sessions on the latest buzzwords in modern “pedagogy”. In order to practice this “pedagogy”, Owens was forced to travel from classroom to classroom between periods because his administrators feared that giving teachers their own classrooms might actually make them feel like professionals. His veteran colleagues, instead of being called upon by administrators to be role models and mentors, were instead harassed because they cost the school too much money. From day one, John Owens and his students were set up for failure.
Not every teacher at Eximius was forced out after five months. Owens described how some of his young colleagues got along in the system. All they had to do was chaperone dances and oversee afterschool activities for absolutely no compensation. In this way, they helped make Tammy Smith look good. She was able to show the DOE that the school was offering a litany of great activities for their students, which allowed the DOE to pretend that they were indeed putting “students first”. In return, these young teachers got to work longer hours at the school instead of writing lessons or learning how to perfect their craft. They got to go home at 8 pm, at which point they would have to work on grading papers or planning the next unit. It was probably a rare circumstance when any of these teachers got to go to bed before midnight. A “good” teacher was measured not by what they did in the classroom but how much blood and sweat they gave to the school building for the benefit of the principal.
Unfortunately, the ritual harassment of veteran teachers at Eximius was a lesson to these youngsters in what they had to look forward to if they miraculously survived in the DOE. Instead of enlisting veteran teachers as mentors, Tammy Smith enlisted the teachers who kissed up to her as the staff’s role models. Owens describes one arrogant, smart-alecky woman who administration held up as the paragon of pedagogy. The one thing she seemed to do better than anyone else at the school was toe the administration line. This was surely no accident. Many schools have literacy coaches, math coaches, master teachers, lead teachers or just teachers who are held up as masters of their craft. Some of these teachers are great at what they do and have a genuine desire to help their colleagues. And then there are those who act as the resident snitch or lackey. The implicit lesson that was taught to John Owens was that the best way to be considered a master teacher was to be in the pocket of the administration.
While teachers can most certainly relate to John Owens’ story, it is non-teachers who need to read his book the most. So many odious impacts of what passes as school reform in this day and age converge in one place. Eximius is one of Bloomberg’s small schools. It was run by a principal who enthusiastically embraced the reformer obsession with data, appearance and jargon. The name of the school itself is an exercise in marketing. “Eximius College Preparatory Academy” sounds like one of these expensive boarding schools to which many reformers send their own children. However, unlike those fancy boarding schools, Eximius under Tammy Smith did not provide a rich curriculum taught by experienced teachers. Instead, it was a revolving door of disempowered staff suffering under the thumb of a principal who ran the school like her personal fiefdom. This was made possible by Bloomberg’s war on the teacher’s union, which resulted in principals gaining almost unlimited power over the careers of their teachers. With this unlimited power, Smith chose not to do right by her students or faculty. Instead, she chose to make her school a “pageant” where most of the “scholars” graduated thanks to her crooked tactics.
Unfortunately, there are many Eximiuses and Tammy Smiths throughout NYC. Making a school into a “pageant” might further the careers of selfish administrators. It does nothing for the students of the inner city who are in need of a first-rate education. Tammy Smith committed educational malpractice, as so many administrators still do throughout the DOE. Bloomberg’s school reforms have given birth to rampant educational malpractice dressed up as progress.
Owens’ book resonated with me because I started my career in a school similar to Eximius. It was a small neighborhood school that served students similar to the ones described by Owens. However, this was back in 2000 before the election of Bloomberg and the rise of the educational pageant. My principal was the complete opposite of Tammy Smith. He believed in helping teachers, not harassing them. He is the one who set me up with the mentor who I credit for molding me into the teacher I am today. As a veteran teacher himself, he knew what it took to set his students and staff up for success. My first year teaching was also his first year running that school. When he hired me, he made me feel as if I was going to be a part of something special. And I was.
Before he took over, the school had a reputation as sort of a mad house. The previous principal was forced out of the system for financial malfeasance. She locked herself up in her office all day while discipline and school tone deteriorated. When the principal who hired me took over, he made discipline the centerpiece of his vision. He doubled the dean staff, of which I was a part. Students who disrupted class had their parents called into the school. Chronic offenders were suspended. He hired a crop of retired teachers to come in a few times a week to act as mentors to the young staff. After his first year in the building, there was a tremendous improvement in school tone. He stayed on for three more years after that. His tenure was probably a golden age in the history of that school. Everything was not perfect, but the quality of education the students received in that building was light years beyond what it was before he took over. In the end, that is the only thing that matters.
Somewhere along the way, Bloomberg and his obsession with data took over the DOE. The principal was shuffled to another school and then eventually forced to retire. In the meantime, we got a new principal who was rumored to be a hatchet woman sent by the DOE. She brought with her the obsession with pageantry required to be a school leader today in NYC. She cut the dean staff down to one, causing discipline to deteriorate. Teachers were expected to work for free on silly things like curriculum maps. We were tortured with endless professional development sessions by people who could not teach their way out of a paper bag. The morale that had been built up over the previous four years evaporated. Teachers started leaving, including me. Most of all, the students who remembered the good old days noticed the marked decline of the school and resented it. She was not as bad as Tammy Smith, although she was cut from the same cloth.
I could only imagine how things would be different for me today if I started my career under Tammy Smith. Chances are that I would not be teaching. How many good teachers have been forced out of the DOE by the Tammy Smiths of the world? How many millions of students have been deprived of a good education thanks to Bloomberg’s reforms? These are the uncomfortable questions raised by John Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher.