Disposable heroes


John Owens’ CONFESSIONS OF A BAD TEACHER: THE SHOCKING TRUTH FROM THE FRONT LINES OF AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION gave me flashbacks.  And not the good kind, either: the kind that lead to, the night you finish the book, having stress dreams about a school you left behind seven long years ago.   It is, in a lot of ways, a book that every American should make sure to read, because it is that very rare teacher book that isn’t about how the author Changed Hearts and Minds and Here is How to Do Shit Like Me.  The book is accurately named: the author isn’t a very good teacher, and isn’t really trying to pretend to be one.  There’s no Rafe Esquith-style smoke-blowing and ego-stroking here; in fact, the book is not only refreshingly free of ego trips, Owen is careful to point out that a lot of the Hero Teachers that get movies made and books written about them aren’t in the classroom anymore, and generally weren’t there very long to begin with.  It’s good to hear; I’m as tired of the Teacher as Martyr stereotype as I am the Teacher as Union Thug, and Teacher as Martyr is arguably the more dangerous of the two.

(There are stories about how much I hate these movies; I can rant about how much I hated that fucking Hilary Swank teacher movie for hours.  And then launch into a week about what an asshole I think Rafe Esquith is.)

John Owens wasn’t a very good teacher.  But John Owens was a first-year teacher.  With all respect to any first-year teachers who might be reading this, all first-year teachers are bad teachers– if nothing else, they’re bad in comparison to what they become after a few years on the job.  John Owens, unfortunately, got tossed into a school with a piss-poor, autocratic, paperwork-pushing principal who didn’t actually have any real interest in making him any better.  The book is honestly less about Bad Teacher and more about Shitty Boss.

You can find my-boss-is-crazy narratives elsewhere, I know.  What is harder to find is a more accurate picture of the bullshit that is drowning teaching as a profession more and more every year, and the sheer amount of obstacles thrown up in between teachers– of any quality– and actual teaching.  Also is the sheer negative impact that a bad principal can have on a building– as Owens points out, the principal is the single most important factor in the success or failure of a school; it is virtually impossible to have a good school without having a good principal, and a bad school with a good principal won’t remain one for very long.  Much of this is familiar from my time in Chicago; the main differences are the acronyms– luckily for me, my current district, for all its flaws, has yet to embrace the reliance on statistical tricks and impossible, contradictory mandates that are common in the nation’s two biggest school districts– and I am absolutely certain that Chicago has gotten much, much worse in this regard since I left.

True story:  upon being given a form at a faculty meeting detailing how many graded assignments we were expected to give in each class every day, I ran the math and pointed out to my principal that I was expected to give nearly eight hundred graded assignments a week– which, if I took only a minute to read, grade and record each one, would take over thirteen hours a week to grade.  Her response was to shrug and go on with what she was talking about.  I ignored the requirement, and– luckily for me– no one ever paid attention.  For Owens, however, each and every violation of these ridiculous rules, including absurd insistence on complicated bulletin boards that I remember well from Chicago– leads to a threat of a “U”, or Unsatisfactory, on his official evaluations.  Too many U grades and he becomes effectively unhireable ever again– and the system is set up to make receiving positive teaching evaluations virtually impossible.

(As a side note, any evaluation system that includes two levels that mean “fail” and only “satisfactory” as a positive descriptor– there is no equivalent of “exceeds expectations” or something similar, only “satisfactory”– is clearly setting the staff up to fail and people of conscience should refuse to work under such a system.)

You need to read this book to see what we are up against, people.  Because, yes, this guy was a bad teacher– but he didn’t have to be.