Friday, August 02, 2013

Booknote: Confessions of a Bad Teacher

John Owens, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2013. ISBN: 9781402281006.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Memoir, Education reform.

I enjoyed this book very much, and I found myself nodding a lot as I read it. I am a former school teacher, and I can relate to a lot of what Owens went through. From the inane pre-semester new teacher training to tyrannical principals, I've experienced much of what he describes as well. I was also labeled as bad teacher for wanting to actually teach and having high expectations of my students. I was young back then, and I have learned a lot and grown as a teacher since then. So many memories and thoughts ran through my mind as I read it. This book spoke to me without the "wonder teacher" syndrome or excessive sentimentality that so many teacher memoirs have. Once I started it, I was not able to put it down.

Public school teachers should find something to relate to in this book. In some cases, it may hit very close to home, especially for good teachers who care and work hard for their students for this is not a book about a "bad" teacher. It is a book about a teacher caught in a very bad system. A lot of parents and community members have no idea what really goes on in public schools; they often fall for the brainwashing scam that school teachers are to blame for every poor school and for every child's ills in schools. That is simply not the case, and John Owens shows why in this book.

The book is organized into fourteen chapters where Owens takes us through his school year at Latinate Institute.Then, like a good teacher, he ends the book with a summary of lessons learned from the classroom experience.  He also adds some strong suggestions on what can be done. Additionally, the book includes footnotes here and there that serve to bolster his arguments or to illustrate his points. Plus, there are some segments selected by Owens where other teachers speak on their experiences. Given the culture of retaliation that exists in the education establishment, some of those teachers remain pseudonymous. Owens does note that names have been changed to protect others as needed.

In this book, not many people come out looking good, deservedly so. Ms. P, the principal, is in essence a tyrant more worried about the school as a pageant than in actually educating kids let alone giving teachers the resources and support they need. Owens' teacher colleagues vary: one or two were brave warriors trying to educate in impossible conditions; others were nothing more than dead weight protected by tenure and/or sycophants of Ms. P. That latter group are the truly bad teachers, the ones we should get rid but fail to do so. As for the students, we get a broad range of issues and experiences. They are challenged by issues such as poverty, living conditions, parents with various degrees of neglect and self-entitlement, lack of institutional support, and in the case of special education students, lack of legally mandated classroom assistance and support. To a large extent, it is no wonder there are so many discipline problems. However, in the ultimate insult, teachers are made powerless to deal with disciplinary problems in any efficient way. As for Ms. P, she pretty much washed her hands when it came to student discipline. She left it up to the teachers but then in essence ordered them not to discipline. The way Ms. P managed Latinate evokes Dilbert's pointy-haired boss. Yet Dilbert is a funny comic strip (even though for many workers it does hit close to home). The situation at Latinate Institute is a farce and a tragedy. It is a tragedy that happens in schools across the United States.

Parents do have to shoulder some blame here. Owens at times may go a bit easy on them due to their often bad conditions. But there are moments when parents simply have to take responsibility and discipline their kids, and they often simply flat out refuse to deal with their kids. That is neglect and irresponsible parenting, and it needs to be denounced as such.  Then again, between neglectful parents and lack of consequence for bad behavior in the school, is it any wonder the kids lie, cheat, and steal as well as act up? The adults, as Owens shows, have abdicated their responsibilities. It's easier for them to label all teachers as "bad" teachers than to actually look in the mirror, accept responsibility, and do what must be done. Now, there are some bad teachers out there, and they need to be removed from classrooms. But most teachers are decent, hardworking, knowledgeable and dedicated educators that get labeled with the "bad" teacher mark for no other reason than it is easier to do so. As for parents, it seems one or two are the good ones, the exception rather than the rule. That has to change.

I don't really care for teacher memoirs as they often turn into miracle worker narratives that don't really say anything other than "we done good." However, Owens' book truly exposes what goes on in classrooms across the United States, a view from the trenches. This is a book that parents and policy makers need to read, and then they need to start some long and hard conversations to fix the educational system over time. It can be done, but it won't happen overnight.  And while there are truly bad teachers out there, the majority of teachers are good, and they care for your children and wish to educate them well. But they need your support, and this means more than just platitudes, some kind words on some "Teacher Appreciation Day" or yet another mug. They need serious help support, and resources. It's time to change the narrative of blaming and labeling all teachers as bad teachers. Read this book, learn more, and take some action.

If you ask me, this one gets a 5 out of 5 stars.

Librarian note. Books with similar appeal that I have read:
  • Samuel G. Freedman, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. I read this when I was getting ready to do my student teaching. The book came to mind in reading Owens' work. If anything, I think things have gotten worse since Freedman's book was before NCLB, and NCLB basically launched the "test everything and teach to the test" mentality running rampant now at the expense of actual education. 
  • The works of Jonathan Kozol related to public schools such as Savage Inequalities.

Note to appease The Man: I read Owens' book as an electronic galley provided by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. The book is scheduled for release in August 2013.

1 comment:

Zippy The Chimp said...

Thank you so much!