Friday, July 26, 2013

Confessions of a BAD Teacher

When I was a young child I played with Barbies and stuffed animals, but the majority of the time they were seated in front of my large metal teacher desk that was located in my bedroom. Yes, I had a teacher desk in my bedroom! If I remember correctly it looked something like this.
NOT my actual desk, but it reminds me
of the one I had.
I always wanted to be a teacher. My mother's parents were teachers, both of my parents were in education (my mom as a teacher, my dad as a librarian), it just seemed natural for me to follow in their foot steps. I remember seeing the frustration on my mother's face after a long day at school. I remember hearing the stories (you can never repeat any of this, was a constant refrain during the BASS (B!tch about School Stuff) meetings. I was never told I could not be a teacher, but I was encouraged to search other avenues of professions.

Like all educators, I did not go into the profession for the money! Teaching is a calling, especially for those of us who go to college straight out of high school to work on a teaching degree (for me Bachelors in Interdisciplinary Studies). I don't remember ever considering another profession. When I graduated from high school my plan was to double major in Education and Library Science. However, at the time, the two did not overlap. If I was going to do a double major, I would be required to take the courses for both degrees and it would take me twice as long to graduate. My father was completely against this, since he was footing the bill. So, I settled on a teaching degree, followed years later by a Master's degree in Reading which was very beneficial in obtaining my current position as a librarian for 750+ four-year-olds!

Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking
Truth from the Front Lines of American
Public Education
by John Owens
When I saw the cover of this book and read the title I was intrigued. I thought, who in their right mind would admit to being a bad teacher, and why would you right a book about it. Then I started reading the book! I have to say, Mr. Owens, hits the nail on the head in this depiction of public education. Now, his experience, albeit for only one year, took place in New York City. I live over 1500 miles away in Texas, but it seems to me the education system is similar. I'm not going to say I have been in the same situations as Mr. Owens because, in all honesty I have not. He taught high school. I have worked in an elementary and pre-school. The similarities come when references are made to our passion for teaching and the unrealistic expectations placed on teachers.

Mr. Owens compares his first days of teaching as being an apprentice clown and being expected to be an expert in juggling a variety of dangerous objects in the air. Now to that I can relate on my level (working with very young children) and anxiety level (loosing a child on the first day of school)!

I remember my first day of teaching. There was a young child, at the time I did not know if this child was a boy or a girl (I will refer to this child as Gabriel in order to maintain anonymity). The child had beautiful long flowing blonde hair, french braided down his/ her back. About twenty minutes after Gabriel's mom left my classroom door, he / she ran out the door faster than a cheetah. Now, I couldn't leave the other twenty children unattended (I didn't have an aide in my classroom, it was just me and twenty bright eyed children, most of them as new to school as I.) I quickly motioned to the teacher next door and asked her to stayed in the doorway between our classes and watch both sets of students while I attempted to run and look for my escapee. As I was racing down the hall I ran into one of the vice principals, we'll call him Mr. Smith. He was very calm and quickly assisted me in locating my little runner. Come to find out Gabriel, who was quick to tell the other children he is a BOY (but not until after he ran away), had run into the men's restroom and hid behind the door. Welcome to the classroom Mrs. Betts!

The comparison between public schools and charter schools Mr. Owens make is very close to what I, and my education friends have talked about for years. It would be ideal if we could hand pick the students we allow into our schools and classrooms. However, this is not how public schools work. Charter schools are not held to the same state rules and regulations as the public schools from which a number of parents flock away from each year. Instead of placing all of the pressure on the classroom teachers, charter schools seem to have a firm control on the parents and students. Requiring parents to be involved in their child's education.

For the past three years I have volunteered my time each Thursday evening in order to have the library at my school open for parents and their children to check out books. During the last school year, not only was the library open, but each week there was a special activity or event in which the families could participate. Now, I do not write this in order to blow my own horn, but simply to make a point. Was I required to do this? No. I did it because I believed, and still do, I felt it was important to provide this service to my students and their families, especially since the public library within walking distance of our school was closed three years ago. 

Like Mr. Owens, I wanted my students to get excited about learning and books. I can't say I was surprised to read that the author's lead teacher told him not to get the students excited. It seems that so much of the fun of learning has been removed from our schools, along with any kind of recognition for excellence. I say this because of my son's experiences in school. On my campus, thankfully for my four- and five-year old students, we still have fun while learning. We learn about to be a good audience member by listening to story tellers or children's musicians who visit our school. We learn how to control our bodies through a variety of obstacles in the spring when we have the annual Bunny Trail. We even learn how to cheer for our friends and fellow students when we recognize them for coming to school every day during a six weeks grading period. However when our students move on to elementary school, middle, and high school, these events, activities, and celebrations are few and far between, if they exist at all. 

Too much emphasis is placed on the standardized tests. Across the country school districts are not looking at the students, but the data (daily and six weeks grades, as well as standardized test scores) received, generally at the end of the year. Is it any wonder test scores are manipulated and scandals reported across the country? Careers are held in the balance by students. Children. Children who come from all kinds of families. 

When it comes to actually teaching, I love how Mr. Owens compares engaging lessons to the power of a video game. Yes, students can get lost in the excitement and challenge of video games and wouldn't it be fabulous if we had the same power as educators? 
Today, teachers must be able to pull very student into every topic with the power of a video game and get them to not only absorb but also to process, analyse, and synthesize the information at the highest level. And do it every day, every time, regardless of the students' learning abilities or the resources available to them. The general expectation is that poverty, learning disabilities, medical- emotional issues, and behavior problems shouldn't stand in the way of student achievement.[Loc 945]
An experienced teacher can develop engaging lessons over the years and have a treasure chest of tried and true lessons from which to pick each year. But don't think this makes teaching easier. Yes, these lessons can be pulled, but then they have to be tweaked in order to make them fit with the current curriculum (it seems to be constantly changing) and the students being taught. What worked two years ago will not necessarily work for the students who will be walking into the classroom this year. Corinne Driscoll, a twenty-two year veteran teacher in the Syracuse City School District, makes a wonderful observation.
...our leaders think of children as parts on an assembly line. If we plug in A and tighten screw B, all will be well, and every child will be a carbon copy of the other- on the same date all children of the same will get the same score on the same test. Education is not a product; it's a process. Children are not identical machine parts, but complex human beings coming to school with a whole variety of baggage, both good and bad.
This book is NOT about a bad teacher. It is about a teacher who was caught in a broken system (Latinate Institute). A broken system with a commanding officer (Ms. P) who was more driven by the outward appearance of success (outdated school information) than the actual success of the students. When reading about his experiences, and those of other contributing teachers, the dedication to the school and students is evident. In general teachers want only the best for their students. We don't go into the profession for the money. There are a great number of other career paths that are a lot less stressful and a great deal more lucrative, but not as rewarding in the sense of achievement. The feeling you have when you see the light come in on that one child's eyes as "they get it" for the first time is like none other. You truly feel like you have won. Now, tell me, how can the CEO of any top  business relate? Okay, maybe they are going to make in one day what a classroom teacher makes in an entire year (or sadly maybe two years), but will they have the satisfaction and helping a child learn a skill that will be used for the rest of their life? Remember, that CEO got to be in that position because great teachers helped them along the way to be successful!

Although the title of the book is a little off-putting, it is a fabulous read. It made me think about my twenty year career in education. I am thankful I have never been in the same position as Mr. Owens, traveling from classroom to classroom with a cart of materials or working for a difficult commanding officer. My experiences are very different in a number of ways, but very similar in others. I think all educators will be able to relate to this book and see they too could be labeled as a "bad" teacher simply because what they see as the best for their students may seem inappropriate by the "powers that be". This makes me think of a saying I read on a bumper sticker (or somewhere else), "Those who can, teach. Those who can't make the rules for teachers!"

*To comply with new guidelines introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, Sourcebooks, Inc. has provided a complimentary electronic copy of this book through

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