Book of the Month

Back to March 2014 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education, John Owens, Source Books, 2013, $13.99

John Owens worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and made more than 2,000 data entries per week, “barely [finding] time to accurately gather so much data, let alone manually input all of it.” Was this during his years as a high-powered executive in the publishing industry? No, it was after he completed a year of graduate school in order to pursue his passion; he was now a high-school English teacher.

Owens taught in a school run by an administration with big ideas (the principal had an 800-word Vision Statement) but an overarching philosophy that he describes as “never let any situation get to the point where it required the administration’s time.” The reader soon finds that teachers had “virtually no leverage over the kids” because the administration was unwilling to participate in student discipline; the principal insisted that all behavior problems resulted from the teachers’ poor “classroom management.”

The high school students knew the password for the school computers, teachers had to give out “pre-torn pieces of tape” so kids didn’t tape up a weaker fellow student, and students would steal anything except books, paper, pens, and pencils. (A music teacher quit the first week of school when her cell phone and car keys were stolen.)

While admitting that “A teacher can spend so much time, energy, and emotion on the outrageous kids at the expense of the students who are making some academic effort,” Owens suggests some students’ acting out is a result of “gaps in their knowledge” and embarrassment over what they do not know.

Although the author successfully interested his students in English, the lead teacher complained that he was “too enthusiastic.” Owens found that, “My mission of helping kids had been transformed into the role of an accomplice in a crazy and corrupt system bent on achieving statistical results, rather than helping students.” The principal and vice-principal were eventually “yanked from the school” because they manipulated data. “Everyone cheats” is one of the ten things Owens writes that he learned about teaching.

Confessions of a Bad Teacher suggests that education is about passion, leadership, and commitment. The book’s final words are: “Don’t let your schools squander precious time and money on empty promises and quick fixes disguised by fancy words and lofty ideals. Our children and the future of our country don’t need this theater. They need education.”