A Middle-Class, Middle-Aged Guy Tries to Teach in the South Bronx – and is Deemed a Failure

I’m reprinting an article by John Owens about his 6 months or so trying to teach in a secondary public school in the South Bronx (NYC). 

The article is sad, but sounds quite true and reminds me very much of what things are like in DC as well.

Here goes:




I don’t think there is a teacher who can’t relate to John  Owens.  I know I can.  But I was given the chance to learn  and grow  Teachers today don’t have a chance if the administrators  takes a dislike to you. Administrators don’t want to see those areas where  children have acquired knowledge and appreciation for life. it’s too bad he was  forced out of the classroom.  I know too many “bad teachers” who were forced out, moved on to other places (including other classrooms and schools)  and are flourishing. You touched a classroom of lives that will always be  grateful to you, Mr. Owens.


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

BY _JOHN OWENS_ (http://www.salon.com/author/john_owens/index.html)


By the time we sang “The Star–Spangled  Banner” in 9th grade English, it was too late to save me. So I didn’t even try  to keep the kids quiet, and joined the class as they burst into  song. Almon, an A-average boy whose parents  had emigrated from theDominican Republicby way ofMilwaukee, was absolutely  sure our national anthem includes the lyric “cheese bursting in  air.” Daria, who came fromHondurasjust a  few years ago and was struggling with English, was gamely singing, trying to  guess what words would be appropriate for a song about her new country.  “Nice!” “Nice! In air!” Sarah, the daughter of Ghanese  immigrants, got every word right and hit every note with church-choir  perfection. And from Rikkie, the highly intelligent, perhaps brilliant, boy,  whose father is serving six years in an upstate prison, to Cristofer, a skinny  kid who fancies himself a Puerto Rican tough (“I didn’t even cry when my  father died”), to A’Don, whose mother doesn’t speak English, to Michael, whose  father doesn’t speak English, toMacon, who only seems to care about  basketball, we sang loud, we sang laughing, we sang whatever words we knew,  and we sang for all we were worth.


Considering that there’s no daily  Pledge of Allegiance inNew York Citypublic schools, and that American flags  are almost as scarce, the class did quite well.


“The dawn’s early light” hadn’t echoed  off the linoleum floor before an administrator and a school aide were in the  doorway ready to quell this “disruption,” as they did with so many of my  classes. But it was this high-spirited,  everybody-participates approach that made the 9th Grade Writing Workshop a joy  for me. And, I believe, for my students. Assign spelling words or read a short  story in class, and it would take all of my wits to keep the texting, talking,  sleeping and wrestling in check.


But make it 80 words on “Would you give up  your cellphone for one year for $500?” and every student — even those who  never did any schoolwork — handed in a paper. When I read these essays to the  class in dramatic, radio-announcer fashion, there was silence punctuated by  hoots of laughter or roars of agreement or disagreement.


It was almost magic. It was really fun.  And I often could squeeze in some spelling, even punctuation. But we weren’t  always quiet. And, according to my personnel file at  the New York City Department of Education, I was “unprofessional,”  “insubordinate” and “culturally insensitive.”


In other words, I was a bad  teacher.


From Michael Bloomberg to Bill Gates to  hedge-fund-enriched charter school backers, the problem with our schools is  bad teachers. With salaries sometimes surpassing $100,000, summers off and  “job for life” tenure, it’s easy to believe that our schools are facing a  bed-bug-caliber infestation of bad teachers.


Amid all of this, I thought I could do  some good. I am a middle-aged white guy from the suburbs, but I’m not lazy.  I’m not crazy. I’m good with kids, and I love literature.


During a three-decade career as a  writer, editor and corporate executive, I traveled to more than 100 countries,  met heads of state, and picked up wisdom that I thought was worth sharing.  When I left publishing, I was senior vice president/group editorial director  at Hachette Filipacchi Media (the bulk of which was recently sold to Hearst  Magazines). Now, I was determined to make an impact directly with kids in the  classroom, and I set out for theSouth Bronx.


Little did I know I was entering a  system where all teachers are considered bad until proven otherwise. Also,  from what I saw, each school’s principal has so much leeway that it’s easy for  good management and honest evaluation to be crushed under the weight of Crazy  Boss Syndrome. And, in my experience, the much-vaunted “data” and other  measurements of student progress and teacher efficacy are far more arbitrary  and manipulated than taxpayers and parents have been led to  believe.


If Mayor Bloomberg’s team is determined  to get rid of “bad teachers,” they’ve succeeded on at least one count: They’ve  gotten rid of this bad teacher. Join me on my short and unhappy experience in  theNew York Citypublic schools.


The Job Hunter


“You here interviewing for a teaching  job?” a little guy in his late 40s with a thick Indian accent  whispered.

“Yes,” I said chirpily, sitting up  straight on the vinyl seat in the waiting area. “I’m an English  teacher.”

“Run away!” he said, crouching next to  me. “Really, run away! The principal will give you a U. She gives everybody a  U! I’ve been in the System for 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything like  it!”

Just days before, this science teacher  had been punched in the face by a summer-school student. Nonetheless, his most  important message was about the beating I’d get from the  principal.

Despite what we read in the press about  the “the powerful teachers’ union,” each school’s principal has a great deal  of power in the form of a U — unsatisfactory — rating. To a veteran, tenured  teacher, a U means stalled raises. For a new teacher, a U is death. You’re out  of the System. But as I sat waiting for my interview,  my concern was getting hired.

How bad could it be?

As a veteran of major  corporations, I’ve been through every manner of cruelty and weirdness known to  desk jockeys. I smiled politely. I was staying for my interview at the place  I’ll call Latinate Institute (not its real name; no name here is  real). A fancy name for one of the small  public high schools started by the Bloomberg administration in the past  decade, the 350-student Latinate is housed in a former elementary school.  Founded with the noble mission of helping kids who otherwise wouldn’t go to  college, Latinate boasts a “100% college-acceptance rate.” But as with so much  of the data and claims tossed around in education, this “institute” may not be  all it’s cracked up to be.

I had dropped off my résumé at dozens  of middle schools and high schools in theBronx. Although the Department of  Education has a central database to match schools and teachers, the ultimate  decision is made by each school’s principal. The idea is to let the principal  carefully build a staff that fits the culture, tone and mission of the school.  But from what I could see, as the first day of school nears, teachers are  hired much the same way as day laborers are picked up for landscaping  work.

One sweltering August morning, I was  cold-calling in theBronx. The next day I was getting a short interview and  giving a demonstration of my teaching.

“Imagine you have to run away and go  into hiding. You don’t know how long you’ll be away. Food is taken care of.  And you can bring only what will fit into a backpack. What do you  bring?”

So began my sample lesson on Anne  Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” a staple of eighth-grade English. My  audience was a dozen 11th grade summer-school students, a couple of teachers  and an assistant principal.

“I’d take my cellphone,” said one boy,  tapping the pocket where his BlackBerry peeked out.

“Good,” I told him. “But you’re going  into hiding. If you use your phone they’ll track you.”

“I’d bring a flashlight and a rope,”  said another.

“I’d bring Pringles.”

“Food is taken care of,” I reminded  him.

“I’d still bring  Pringles.”

“I’d bring my eye makeup.”

The students stuck with me as I brought  forth Nazis, the Holocaust and WWII. Several had no idea what I was talking  about. But they enjoyed evading direct answers and making fun of my bald spot.  It was school as usual until I told them that the Frank family couldn’t flush  the toilet during the day. And the lesson really hit home when I  wouldn’t let any of them leave the room to pee.

“But I’ve got to pee,” said  one.

“Me, too,” said another.

“Well, hold it,” I said sternly. “You  can’t leave. Just like Anne Frank couldn’t leave.”

The assistant principal’s face told me  I had the job.

“I assume you know your subject  matter,” said the assistant principal, a chubby man in his early 60s. “At our  school, classroom management is very, very important. And you did well with  that.”

If the students I had just met were any  indication of what was ahead, I was eager for it. Latino, African-American and  African immigrant kids, they didn’t seem hostile to learning, just bored. And  I, like every new teacher, thought all I needed was energy, good ideas and  lessons that showed how life and literature were related. I signed on for  $46,545 for the 10-month school year.


Class Is in  Session


“What the fuck, mister?” the young  woman snarled. “What you doing scoping me down there?”

“Put the phone away, Natasha,” I said  coldly.

Natasha had stuffed her cellphone  between the legs of her school-uniform pants. She maintained I was checking  out her crotch.

“Put the phone away, Natasha.  Now.”

“You a pervert, Mister.”

Big laugh from the class.

Tall and looking much older than any  10th grader I had ever seen, Natasha possessed a well-practiced look of anger  and disgust. She was among a quartet of girls who were taking 10th grade  English for the second, sometimes third, time. And it looked like there was a  good chance they’d have another go-round.

I had given the girls detention and  reported their activities to the dean.

I called whatever parents I could find.  But it was as though many parents were in the Witness Protection Program, at  least when hearing from teachers. Other times, the parents cared a great deal,  though they didn’t know what to do.

Mr. Rashid, a short, wiry African  immigrant, visited me at school in work clothes covered in dust. His daughter  was part of the four-girl wrecking crew. All he could say was, “I know. But I  just don’t know what to do.” I didn’t know what to do, either.

“You need to rearrange the seats,” said  my mentor, the English Department lead teacher. “You have to give them  assigned seats.”

The next day, I lined everyone up, and  one by one pointed the students to their new seats. Within seconds, the class  broke into a Moroccan souk of negotiation, refusal, counter-offers and  vociferous outrage. All of which coincided with a visit from Ms. P, the  founding principal. Not merely “principal,” but “founding principal.” And  always “Ms. P.” A large, round woman in her late 30s,  Ms. P kept her hair pulled back tightly. Her eyebrows were long, thin and very  expressive, moving up and down like a caffeinated drawbridge. Ms. P’s large  mouth, set between grapefruit-size cheeks, was in a constant frown. At least,  that’s all I ever saw. “What was that you were trying to do?”  she asked the next day in her office, not waiting for my answer. “Assign the  children seats?”

My effort at classroom management was  dismissed for what it was — a total failure. I told her about detention,  dean’s referrals and my conversation with Mr. Rashid. She waved her  hand. “You need to have lunch with the  girls,” she said. “You need to show them that you care about  them.”

I realized I was living a  nightmare.


Great Expectations


My introduction to Ms. P, founding  principal, had come at a three-day new-teacher orientation held at the school  immediately after I was hired. That half of the staff had turned over  at this tiny school should have been introduction enough. The new-staff  meetings segued into a weekend “retreat” at a hotel in a leafyNew Jersey  suburb. WhileNew York Citytaxpayers picked up the tab for ourGardenState  rooms and restaurant meals, Ms. P made sure we earned every bite and thread  count with a merciless parade of presentations, discussions and team-building  exercises. Discipline and classroom management  would be taken care of by how we talked.

“Frame everything in a positive way,”  we were told. “Don’t say ‘don’t.'” If a student is running in the hall,  don’t say, “Don’t run.” Say, “Please walk.”

Plus, individual teachers must handle  all discipline problems in the classroom. Whether it required “conferencing  with parents,” or lunching with the perpetrators, it was up to the teacher to  keep all of the students quiet and on-task at all times.

“I have worked in theSouth Bronxfor  24 and half years,” said a scholarly English teacher whose last months in the  System were spent at Latinate. “I have never seen anyplace like this. There is  nothing we can do with students who don’t want to learn.”

Clearly, Natasha and co. didn’t want to  learn. Soon, Ms. P transferred me from 10th grade to 8th grade  English.


Eight Misbehaving


While smaller, the 8th graders were no  more easily wrangled. One of the biggest, meanest and most outrageous of the  permanent 8th graders was 16-year-old Africah. She was the Natasha Quartet in  one kid. Early on, in the middle of my lesson, Africah got up and opened a  locker.

“Please close the locker and sit down,  Africah,” I said.

She ignored me.

I repeated myself.

She continued to rummage through the  locker. I could feel the eyes of the class going from her to me. Her to  me.

“Please close the locker and sit down,”  I said walking toward her.

She turned and snarled. “Back it up,  Mister. Back it up.” She wanted a fight.

The eyes of the class were going back  and forth like a tennis match. I couldn’t back down. But I couldn’t fight,  either.

“Back it up?” I said. “Who did that  song? ‘You’se a big fine woman, when you back that thang up. Call me Big Daddy  when you back that thang up.'”

Huge laugh.

Africah and the kids started rapping  Juvenile’s 1999 hit:

Girl you workin with some ass  yeah,

you bad yeah

Make a player spend his cash yeah  …

A minute later, Africah was in her  seat, yelling at the other kids to “Shut up! He’s trying to  teach.”

From then on, every time she said,  “Shut up! He’s trying to teach!” I told the class, “That’s why I love this  woman.”

Our relationship, however, was cut  short a few weeks later when Africah left the school. It was never clear where  she went.

With the remaining half-dozen hardcore  kids, nothing made them put their phones down and do something resembling  schoolwork. I assigned seats, reassigned seats and re-reassigned seats. But  with these uncontrollable older kids in the class, it was tough to control the  others. And sometimes, the parents were an even bigger problem.

“Please sign the original and keep the  copy,” the assistant principal said one afternoon, handing me a manila folder.  Inside was a letter from Ms. P to me.

It concerned parent-teacher night. I  had stressed to the parents who showed up how important it is for the students  to behave, to be quiet and focus on their work. I told them how I had observed  a class in a wealthy school district, and how the kids just came in, sat down  and got to work.

“They don’t waste time on discipline,  so those students get much more instructional time,” I told the parents.  “Those kids aren’t smarter. I think the kids here are smarter. But our kids  waste teaching time. Please, stress to your children how important it is to  behave in class.”


Dear Mr. Owens:

We are giving you this letter to file  for your failure to show cultural sensitivity … One parent, in particular,  complained about your insensitive remarks comparing students from our school  with those of Chappaqua with what she perceived as a racial subtext, i.e. that  our students — predominantly African American and Hispanic — do not do as  well academically as the predominantly Caucasian students in the suburbs. The  parent felt offended and disturbed by your remarks ….


It didn’t matter that I never mentioned  race or Chappaqua (a place I’ve never been); I was officially a bad  teacher.

“Controlled chaos is not acceptable,”  the assistant principal told me. “You have to control the class with the force  of your personality.”

Ah, yes! “The force of my  personality.”

The next day, I told my 8th graders  that unless they quieted down, I would hold them after school. It didn’t work.  Tried again. And again. Finally, as the school day ended, I stood by the  door.

“No one is leaving.” I said. “You’re  all staying after school for 10 minutes.”

But eight and a half minutes into this  after-school faceoff, Ms. P pushed her way in.

“What is going on here?!” she shouted,  her mouth agape and her long thin eyebrows arched so high that they resembled  treacherous ski slopes.

The kids erupted again with a full  dramatic account. I had overstepped “the force of my personality.” And with  Ms. P’s forced entry into the room, I looked pretty damn foolish.

Ms. P concluded that I shouldn’t be  left alone with children, and reported the incident to the police and the  Department of Education as “corporal punishment.” Typically, that involves  hitting or physically abusing a kid.

But Ms. P said she couldn’t think of  another way to characterize me standing by the door for 10 minutes while the  kids yelled at me. There was a disciplinary hearing, but as my representative  from the United Federation of Teachers pointed out, “losing it” is not a  clinical term. So Ms. P settled for putting a letter in my file full of words  such as “dangerous,” “unsafe,” “alarmed,” “barricaded” and  “insubordinate.”


Special Ed


What I didn’t know at the time was that  I had taken precisely the wrong tack with those 8th graders.

“Oh, you can’t hold them all for  detention,” a special-education teacher told me later. “Teachers have been  punishing those kids as a group for years, and they hate it. It works with the  other 8th grade class, but not them.”

Another thing I didn’t know about these  8th graders was that so many of them were special-education students. They  might have attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia or other learning or behavior  issues. At least seven of the kids in that class had special-needs  classification. Several more should have had that classification, but they  either had slipped through the cracks or their parents were afraid of the  stigma.

In theory, this classification can be a  blessing. The kid receives personalized attention from specially trained  teachers and the help needed to catch up to — perhaps even surpass — his or  her contemporaries. InNew York City, a class with classified students must  have a special-ed teacher present. Although nearly half the kids in one of my  8th grade classes had serious learning or behavior problems, it wasn’t until  December that a special-ed teacher was assigned to help me with them. And  then, she couldn’t make it to class two-thirds of the time.

Siah, a big, smiling, lovable bear of  an 8th grader, desperately needed special attention. He talked, rapped and  even wrestled in class.

“I don’t know what to do,” his mother  moaned, every time I called. I didn’t, either.


Attack of the Killer  Paperwork


As the months passed, file folders were  filled, documenting my failure to become a less-bad teacher. In addition, I was overwhelmed by the  paperwork and data. Not marking papers — but completing endless reports,  memos and spreadsheets. My corporate career had been data-intensive, but  nothing like a school system based on covering your ass.

I wasn’t meeting “expectations.” I’d  get a U, for sure; maybe even get arrested if Ms. P kept pushing my “corporal  punishment.” So when I got a chance to return to publishing in mid-February, I  went.




I hadn’t told the kids I was leaving.  But on my last day they knew. In my first-period 9th grade writing class,  Edgar, a Dominican kid who loves baseball, high-top fade haircuts and fancy  sunglasses (“Edgar! You’re out of uniform!”), brought in a bakery cake with  “Thank you, Mr. Owens” inscribed in icing. There were construction-paper cards  that made fun of my efforts to learn the kids’ slang (“We O.D. dumb tight  gonna miss you”), thanked me for helping them (“I learned a lot about writing  with more feeling and emotions”), and asked me to stay (“Please, Mr. Owens,  don’t go! You gonna make me cry!”). The girls hugged me. The boys shook my  hand. Cristofer, the tough guy whose father had died, thanked me for teaching  him to tie his tie. But Rikkie, whose father was serving six years upstate,  still hadn’t figured out how to do it, despite his obvious  intelligence.

“Please, tie it for me just one more  time,” he said. As I knotted the fabric, my emotions knotted,  too.

Good teacher? Bad teacher? I suppose  it’s how you measure it. As far as I know, there is only one scrap of positive  data in my personnel file at the DOE, a memo from the assistant principal  commending me for passing enough students to put Latinate’s pass rate in the  Department of Education’s “safe harbor.”

As far as I know, he and Ms. P return  in September.


John Owens  is an editor and writer who survived his detour/U-turn into teaching, though  he misses the kids. More: _John Owens_



Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Bad teacher?
    Did you get breast implants out of it??

    Otherwise, a really great piece here.
    I’ve see the same in myself and others over the years.


  2. “A Middle-Class, Middle-Aged Guy Tries to Teach in the South Bronx – and is Deemed a Failure
    GFBrandenburg’s Blog” was a very good read and also I really ended up being very satisfied to locate the blog post. Thanks for your effort,Lyn


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