From idealist to ‘bad teacher’

John Owens quit a successful publishing career, studied education for a year in graduate school and became a writing teacher at a South Bronx high school that “considered itself a model of school reform.” It didn’t go well, Owens writes in Confessions of a Bad Teacher.
bad teacher
Owens talks to Ed Week Teacher‘s Hana Maruyama about his “heartbreaking” year as a teacher.

His principal was obsessed with data, says Owens, but the numbers were meaningless. “I had to put in 2,000 points of data a week for my kids. Everything from attendance to homework. But I also had to put in things like self-determination. I mean, what is self-determination?”

He was told he was a “bad teacher,” he complains. “If I were a good teacher, the kids who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would sit still and learn. If I were a good teacher, the kids who didn’t speak English would speak English. If I were a good teacher, all the problems that these kids faced would be solved in my 46 minutes a day with them.”

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  1. The insanity of the modern K-12 system at work. He probably would have been an awesome writing teacher – if he’d been allowed to simply focus on being a writing teacher, and not be forced to be an administrator, a psychologist, etc. on the side…

  2. That sounds like insanity. I worked as a scientist before teaching science, and I like data too, but 2000 points/week? Attendance and a weekly quiz or test score, maybe some measure of homework, but beyond that? By the end of the semester, most teachers have some idea about which students work independently, which can learn with a bit of spoon feeding, who struggles, who doesn’t care, etc, and maybe occasionally noting that would be good, but I can’t imagine having to record those sorts of things weekly. I use that information to plan the best way to teach a particular group, and I use it to help students and families figure out how to study. I don’t even know how I would determine that type of thing as more than an overall trend.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      He taught high school.


      So … figure 150 students (6 classes of 30 kids each) five times per week is 750 data points just for attendance.


      If there is any sort of daily homework, then you get another 750 data points per week … or you only do something once per week per student, but if that thing involves ~10 values (physical attractiveness, punctuality, hygiene, aura color, …) then between this and attendance you are at 2,000 per week.


      Not defending this, but pointing out that 2,000/150 isn’t a *huge* number per student per week …

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Or 5 classes of 30 kids each … 🙂

      • I had wondered about that – if he had the standard 5-6 classes of 30 students, then attendance and a few assignments would fill the slots. If he had a block schedule or some other situation with fewer students, then it’s weird. I actually couldn’t figure it out, since if quizzes and attendance covered the 2000 points, then where did he enter the ‘self determination’ types of data? Teaching homeschoolers, I use Engrade, and it would be no problem to keep an administrator up to date on attendance or weekly quiz/test fluctuations. I still don’t know how they’d do those soft skills, though, since that seems like it would take a paragraph instead of a number of points or an yes/no.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          Unless you included ‘self determination’ as part of the score? Like “Every time you raise your hand and ask me a panicked question about the quiz, you lose a point?’