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An explosive new look at the pressures on today's teachers and the pitfalls of school reform, Confessions of a Bad Teacher presents a passionate appeal to save public schools, before it's too late.
When John Owens left a lucrative job to teach English at a public school in New York City's South Bronx, he thought he could do some good. Faced with a flood of struggling students, Owens devised ingenious ways to engage every last one. But as his students began to thrive under his tutelage, Owens found himself increasingly mired in a broken educational system, driven by broken statistics, finances, and administrations undermining their own support system-the teachers.
The situation has gotten to the point where the phrase "Bad Teacher" is almost interchangeable with "Teacher." And Owens found himself labeled just that when the methods he saw inspiring his students didn't meet the reform mandates. With firsthand accounts from teachers across the country and tips for improving public schools, Confessions of a Bad Teacher is an eye-opening call-to-action to embrace our best educators and create real reform for our children's futures.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because their teachers were fired?
Since we can't fire poverty, we can't fire students, and we can't fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.
-Diane Ravitch, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education
After we read the section of Homer's The Odyssey where Odysseus and his men confront the Cyclops, we watched a movie clip of how the clever Greek hero blinded that wine-swilling, man-eating, one-eyed monster and escaped. We discussed the story for a while, and I then asked my eighth-grade class to break up into groups and write down various plot points. After about ten minutes, we reviewed the points out loud.
The kids loved the blood, bellowing, running around, and sailing away. But there was a lot of confusion about who was who and what was going on. In other words, a lot of the students were having a tough time figuring out the story. So I set to work helping them figure it out. After all, it's hard to understand the significance of a story if you don't understand the story itself.
The assistant principal, who was observing the class, later scolded me for the lesson's "lack of academic rigor." Instead of merely "identifying" what was going on, he believed we should have been working higher up the cognitive food chain by "analyzing," "differentiating," and "inferring" everything from motivations to psychological states of the characters.
Yet the assistant principal knew as well as I did that at least one of these eighth graders could barely read. Alfred, a thirteen-year-old recent immigrant from Ghana, would smile brightly whenever I glanced his way and pop out of his seat proudly, standing straight and tall next to his desk, whenever he answered a question. But reading comprehension was another matter.
One day during lunch, I pulled him aside and gave him some fourth-grade reading material and multiple-choice questions about the text to get a basic sense of his reading level. "How was that?" I asked.
"Easy," Alfred responded, smiling. "Easy."
But looking at the answers he had circled on the quiz, I could see that he had no idea what the material said. Each day Alfred handed in homework, but it never was related to the assignment; it was merely a neatly copied version of what I had presented the day before on the whiteboard or Smart Board. On tests and quizzes, Alfred copied whatever was on the paper of the student next to him and smiled brightly whenever I gave him a look of "What are you doing?"
All of his other teachers had the same experience with Alfred, and the principal told us to get together and figure out how to bring him up to speed in our "spare time." In fact, whenever there was an issue with a student who was far behind or had a behavior problem, we were told to handle the situation in our spare time. Unfortunately, with his good behavior and smiling demeanor, Alfred often fell to the back of the line as his teachers performed triage in dealing with the problems at hand.
The assistant principal also was aware that some of my students had other obvious special needs and learning disabilities, which were largely ignored or undiagnosed. One student, Siah, spent most of the forty-six-minute period punching the students around him and sticking objects into various orifices of his body. Bigger and taller than the other eighth graders, Siah was a loveable bear of a kid, with a striking resemblance to the rapper Drake and what seemed like a serious case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When he entered my class at the end of the day, his school uniform was blotched with sweat, ink, and the remains of major and minor food fights throughout the day. His shirttails were out, and his tie was loose and flapping like a pennant carried by the color guard of a battle-weary regiment.
Despite seven previous periods of punching, throwing, running, shouting, backpack-swinging, and desk-pounding, by the time he joined my class for eighth period, Siah typically was still raring to go. If another kid wasn't goading him by stealing his backpack and stuffing it in the trash can, or challenging him to a human beatbox contest ("Siah, you go first"), he had his neck craned as he searched the classroom for some action, the way an English pointer searches for a pheasant. And it was rare for him to not find it.
Siah was among the students with obvious special-education needs in my eighth-period class. From what I could figure, at least eight of the twenty-eight kids had learning or behavior or emotional problems that meant they were entitled-by law-to assistance, guidance, and, typically, medication. But dealing with these students as the law required would have meant employing a school nurse and many more special-education teachers. And not only are qualified special-ed teachers in short supply, but also the low student-teacher ratio required by following the rules would eat up the school's budget. So, instead of directly addressing the problems of these kids, the administration made the students' problems the classroom teachers' problem, pretending that they weren't really special-education students at all.
The assistant principal knew that the two groups of girls who actually did what I asked-make a list of plot points in the scene-had a tough time getting them straight. They were earnest in their attempts but confused about chronology and who did what. Even for these "good students," paying close attention and simply describing what happened in the story wasn't part of their academic toolkit.
The assistant principal also knew that only Santos was far ahead of the rest of the class. When Santos discovered we were going to cover The Odyssey, he read all he could find on the topic in the class textbook and online. The son of Hispanic immigrants, Santos was tall and thin, and wore thick glasses. Bright, eager, and ready with the correct answer to every question ever asked, Santos was the perfect student. He deserved to be attending one of New York City's elite public schools, but his parents, who didn't speak English, didn't press for a transfer. Instead, he was in my class in the South Bronx at the troubled, dysfunctional public school I call Latinate Institute.
Although Santos was ready for an in-depth discussion of The Odyssey, most of the rest of the class was still trying to figure out what the Greeks were doing in the Cyclops' cave in the first place or silently taunting kids across the room by mouthing "Suck my dick, nigga!"
But I knew better than to challenge the assistant principal's assessment. I had done that before and been shot down. Trying to get some help for Siah's ADHD (which would benefit not only him, but also his classmates and me) simply led to the assistant principal's suggestion that Siah was acting up because I wasn't sufficiently challenging the writer within him. It was the same with a ninth-grade girl who was pleasant and cooperative one day, violent and disruptive the next, with the pattern alternating every few days.
"Oh, no. She is a very good student," the assistant principal assured me, waving the issue and me away with a flutter of his hand.
The principal and assistant principal were quite clear that Latinate was a model of school reform, and I quickly realized we teachers were there to enforce that idea. As the principal saw it, all of the problems of a traditional public school in a high-needs area-low student achievement, wildly inappropriate behavior, and a high concentration of special-needs students-would be overcome by the teachers following and enforcing the principal's various mission statements, vision statements, expectations, non-negotiables, and other assorted Big Ideas.
If I pressed the issue of Alfred being unable to read, I would have been told that if I were a good teacher, I would spend as much time as necessary with Alfred improving his skills. If I again brought up the issue of Siah and his ADHD and the need for a school nurse to administer his medication, I would have been told that if I were a good teacher, I would be able to "engage" him with interesting work or use "the force of my personality" to at least make him-and the other twenty-seven kids in the class-sit quietly for the forty-six-minute period.
And if I raised the issue of Santos being so far ahead of the rest of the class that it wasn't fair to keep him here, I would have been told that if I were a good teacher, every lesson and assignment I presented would span the wide range of academic skills among the students. Or, more accurately, each lesson every day would be tailored to each of my 125 students' individual needs-targeting every gradation between illiterate and near-college-and revised constantly. For me, it wasn't just difficult, it was impossible. From 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day during my teaching career, I was consumed with the work of teaching. It was as though I had just joined the circus as an apprentice clown and was immediately required to juggle plates, bowling pins, butcher's knives, and axes all day long while walking along a tightrope in midair.
Clearly, I wasn't a good teacher. In fact, the assistant principal had "proof"-file folders bulging with observation reports and other alleged evidence that any shortcomings in my students' academics or behavior were solely my fault. At Latinate Institute, as in schools across the country, all problems apparently boiled down to one simple cause: bad teachers like me.
America's public school teachers are being loudly and unfairly blamed for the failure of our nation's public schools. From Bill Gates, to hedge-fund-enriched charter school backers, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to an endless stream of reports in the media, everyone "knows" that we must fix the Bad Teacher problem.
If only teachers were better...smarter...more committed to their students. If only they had a longer workday and a longer school year. If only they didn't have tenure. If only they didn't have such powerful unions. If only they didn't stand in the way of progress.
Today, all teachers seem to be considered bad until proven otherwise. Campaigns for school reform and corporate-style management of our public schools are sweeping the country. As a result, individual principals have been given a stunning amount of power and leeway to decide who's a good teacher and who's a bad teacher. With that much authority in the hands of a few top administrators who have little accountability for their decisions, it's easy for good management and honest evaluation of teachers to be trampled during administrators' efforts to deliver stellar results in unrealistically short periods of time.
On top of that, precisely what defines a "bad teacher" isn't clear. There are too many factors-from standardized test scores to subjective department evaluations-and the criteria vary from state to state, school district to school district. But from what I've seen, unless a teacher turns in grades and standardized test scores in the highest level of academic achievement while the students perform in class as the educational equivalents of the von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music, there's a chance of being branded a bad teacher. Too many of America's schools are run on the belief that everything would be great if not for these bad teachers. Today, the term seems to be used almost interchangeably with the word "teachers" itself.
This must change. The bad teacher witch-hunt is destroying our schools and robbing our children of their future. My experience on the front lines of education has brought me to the conclusion that America's public school policies are drowning children, not helping them. Many good, well-intentioned, and truly effective educators across the country are reaching, stretching, trying desperately to save these kids, but those in charge increasingly beat them back, insisting that these teachers are not using the appropriate method of rescue. Meanwhile, the children are carried off downstream, flailing.
This is not an exaggeration. Throughout the country, we are told that everything we have been doing in our schools is wrong. The education system that once was the envy of the world has become a hopeless, costly, out-of-control dinosaur.
Further, we hear that the only way to save American education is through school reform-to manage our schools as though they were businesses, employing powerful, hard-nosed leaders who make tough rules and use data to measure students' progress and teachers' accountability in order to punish those who impede success. This version of school reform is rooted in the appealing notion of using scientific studies to determine what's needed and how to fix it. A 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education envisioned school reform this way:
The primary responsibility of schools undertaking comprehensive school reform is creating programs that result in improved student achievement. One of the most important tasks in this process is choosing highly effective reform strategies, methods, and programs, those that are grounded in scientifically based research.
But these days, "scientifically based research" has been replaced by "data"-test scores, class grades, and, as I saw, virtually any number that can be recorded and crunched.
The current version of school reform, as championed by those such as Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and now chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has a common-sense ring to it with mantras such as "put students first, support effective teachers, and continue to hold everyone accountable for results."
But the more subtle and much more important point is that all too often Bush and others like him replace "scientifically based research" and "highly effective reform strategies, methods, and programs" with data-driven grades for schools and data-driven rewards and punishments for teachers. As Bush put it in a 2011 article on Politico.com:
A–F systems [for grading schools] are more intuitive to parents and the public. They also help leaders to clearly differentiate rewards and interventions for schools....Many states and school districts are now adopting more advanced data systems, linking student performance to teachers. For the first time, we can measure teacher effectiveness using transparent objectives and standards.
It's a data-driven solution that speaks of efficiency and the digital genius that has built technology powerhouses such as Microsoft and Google and made billionaires of hedge-fund managers. But it masks the real truth.
We see the success stories in films such as Waiting for "Superman," which portrays teachers' unions as venal, data-averse impediments to better schools and casts "reformers" as visionary leaders heroically struggling to overcome the forces of self-interest that are holding children back.
We also hear how charter schools produce ama...
Title: Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking ...
Publication Date: 2013
Book Condition: Used: Good
Book Description Sourcebooks, 2013. Book Condition: Good. 6/26/13. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. Bookseller Inventory # GRP77922239
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Book Description Sourcebooks, 2013. Book Condition: Very Good. 6/26/13. Ships from Reno, NV. Former Library book. Great condition for a used book! Minimal wear. Bookseller Inventory # GRP89759880
Book Description Sourcebooks. Paperback. Book Condition: GOOD. Spine creases, wear to binding and pages from reading. May contain limited notes, underlining or highlighting that does affect the text. Possible ex library copy, thatâ€™ll have the markings and stickers associated from the library. Accessories such as CD, codes, toys, may not be included. Bookseller Inventory # 2786135468
Book Description Sourcebooks. Paperback. Book Condition: VERY GOOD. Light rubbing wear to cover, spine and page edges. Very minimal writing or notations in margins not affecting the text. Possible clean ex-library copy, with their stickers and or stamp(s). Bookseller Inventory # 2788097749
Book Description Sourcebooks. Paperback. Book Condition: GOOD. Spine creases, wear to binding and pages from reading. May contain limited notes, underlining or highlighting that does affect the text. Possible ex library copy, thatâ€™ll have the markings and stickers associated from the library. Accessories such as CD, codes, toys, may not be included. Bookseller Inventory # 2790415627
Book Description Sourcebooks. Paperback. Book Condition: VERY GOOD. Light rubbing wear to cover, spine and page edges. Very minimal writing or notations in margins not affecting the text. Possible clean ex-library copy, with their stickers and or stamp(s). Bookseller Inventory # 2800646809
Book Description Sourcebooks. Paperback. Book Condition: GOOD. Spine creases, wear to binding and pages from reading. May contain limited notes, underlining or highlighting that does affect the text. Possible ex library copy, thatâ€™ll have the markings and stickers associated from the library. Accessories such as CD, codes, toys, may not be included. Bookseller Inventory # 2814464257
Book Description Sourcebooks. Paperback. Book Condition: GOOD. Spine creases, wear to binding and pages from reading. May contain limited notes, underlining or highlighting that does affect the text. Possible ex library copy, thatâ€™ll have the markings and stickers associated from the library. Accessories such as CD, codes, toys, may not be included. Bookseller Inventory # 2825438029
Book Description Sourcebooks, Incorporated. Paperback. Book Condition: Good. Minimal damage to cover and binding. Pages show light use. Bookseller Inventory # G1402281005I3N00