Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Is John Owens Really a Bad Teacher?

This must read account of a career-changer who had a highly successful career but found that teaching in a dysfunctional school with an all too typical principal turned him into a failure - by the measure of the  system. He lasted through February. Owens was no different than I and so many other first year teachers were. But we were given time and more support than he received. Just his bad luck to get this school and not one with a reasonably sane leader. He would still be teaching.

In fact, Owens was reaching the kids in his own way and would have found his style - like I and others did in days of yore - but...
John Owens is an editor and writer who survived his detour/U-turn into teaching, though he misses the kids.

John Owens's Salon stories

Monday, Aug 29, 2011 19:01 ET

Confessions of a bad teacher

I took a job in the NYC public school system because I wanted to make a difference. I ended up living a nightmare

Commentary by Arjun Janah

This initially enthusiastic teacher, John Owens, a corporate veteran who ventured into teaching, lasted a year in the New York City classrooms. He taught in one of the small public schools launched by the Bloomberg administration under his Chancellor, Joel Klein.  As has been the practice, this school was created after closing down the large school that used to occupy the building in which it, along with other such small schools, are currently housed.

Mr. Owens' sincerity was an insurmountable obstacle. He remembered what schools were (and still are, to a large extent, where the problems are fewer).

He accurately (and engagingly) depicts a few of of the problems faced by teachers in our schools. Some of us have lasted in these for a quarter-century or longer, and have, in our time, met and had to deal  with some of the things described here by him -- and many other things, besides, that Mr. Owens would have gone on to discover if he had stayed for a while longer.  But many, who have not taught in a typical urban classroom such as described here (or forgotten how it was or do not know how it is now), should read on.

As with the Iraq war and others like it,  a bit of background knowledge on the part of the general public could have avoided-- and could still limit -- a senseless waste of human lives.

A problem has to be acknowledged before it can be solved. And the causes of the problem need to be understood. Treating a cancer patient with antibiotics may not be the best way to go in most cases. As with cancer, the symptoms described here, as well as the underlying ailment, require sober attention. And there is no fast and easy cure.

Having spent many years breaking up larger schools, dismissing most of their teachers and creating smaller schools in their buildings, and with little to show in the way of success, the Bloomberg administration is now turning more and more to charter schools -- initially a concept pushed by teachers, but now part of a push, backed by big business and Wall Street hedge funds, to privatize the management of the schools while maintaining their public financing. Typically, teachers in such schools have even less rights and more pressures than Mr. Owens did in the school that he (unfortunately) taught in.

The idea that the unions are active in supporting teachers in the schools should also be put to rest. While there are exceptions, this is generally (in my experience) far from the case. And this is even more so currently.

-- Arjun

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Norm.

    It's a criminal shame that John Owens got shafted -- as so many other sincere teachers are being -- both novices and those with decades of experience. At least he had the good sense to quit in time, after just a year of taking the nonsense. Yes, he was unlucky -- but perhaps not that atypical in the treatment he received.

    You bring up the issue of the evolution, over time, of a personal teaching style. I'm glad you mentioned this. It wasn't something discussed (or even mentioned) in the education textbooks and classes some of us read and attended decades ago.

    And I would venture that this matter of personal style is even less acknowledged, in the books, classes and "professional development sessions" that are extant today.

    Yet, it is something as essential and as wonderful as the flavor and aroma in a wine that makes it of value -- or as unique and personal as the brushstroke of a painter or the incision of a surgeon, for that matter.

    To evolve this style, one needs time and practice, with some degree of autonomy and peace of mind.

    Try telling that, however, to the barbarians that are rampaging through an admittedly troubled and beleaguered civilization -- that of K-12 education.

    As with the misguided and criminally destructive wars we wage -- be they abroad (as recently in Iraq and elsewhere)or even here at home (as with the longstanding war on drugs or the recently intensified war on workers -- especially on those in the public sector, such as teachers, a little better understanding, on the part of the public, of the local reality on the ground could be of service.

    It might help avoid further senseless waste of time, energy, resources and precious human lives.

    This is why it is important that workers -- be they soldiers or teachers -- find their individual, collective and political voices.


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