Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Confessions of a "Bad Teacher:" I Loved Teaching like a Crack Addict Loves Crack.

I thought I was a good teacher. 
(I also thought the Bengals would win.)

My name is John and I have a problem. For thirty-three years I was a bad teacher. And I thought was good

Denial. That’s all it was.

Then, Sunday, I stumbled across an excellent article by Dr. Michael Flanagan and his words gave me strength. You see he’s a bad teacher too.

Dr. Flanagan had to battle through the same agonizing process I must now endure, although he does admit there were sometimes “free bagels and donuts involved.” And I am a complete sucker for donuts.

(I’m sorry. When I salivate I digress.)

For nineteen years he taught, successfully, or so he thought. Oh, sure, he heard school reformers say that the big problems in education boiled down to bad teachers at the front of too many rooms. Still, he refused to face the truth. Like me, he kept pretending he was good. He’d get awards for excellence…and he’d believe those awards meant something too.

As for me, I’d be grading papers at 11:30 on a Wednesday night and I’d tell myself, “John, you’re doing a good job.” I had an addiction you see. 

Grading papers was a crutch, like a bottle of booze to a drunk.

I’d go to work on Monday and students would tell me they loved my class, and I’d delude myself and think they were telling the truth. I would arrive at school early and let kids come in for extra work and I’d skip lunch to help and stay late too. I was hooked. 

I thought I was good.

Sure. There were times I wondered. I’d pick up the New York Times and read what the latest school reformers had to say. These reformers didn’t have the same problem I did because they always avoided trying to teach. But I wouldn’t listen, not even when Brent Staples said schools did a terrible job of screening and evaluating teachers, so that they hired “any warm body that comes along.” I heard what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told an audience at M.I.T., that the big problem in schools was too many teachers were plain dumb and still I refused to face the demons.

I’d go right back to my phone. I’d call Vicki’s parents and say, “I love having your daughter in class.” Too late now, I see that call was a cry for help. I loved teaching like a crack addict loves crack.

Again and again, reformers tried to show me how wrong I was. Michelle Rhee bashed teachers every time she opened her mouth. Campbell Brown hinted that teachers were sexual deviants, protected by powerful unions. Arne Duncan, Steven Brill and Joel I. Klein all agreed that tenure and unions must go. Yet, I kept going back into my classroom day after day. I had to have that fix. I had to keep helping kids.

I know one step toward recovery is admitting a problem and trying to make amends to anyone you hurt. So let me say I’m sorry. I apologize for spending most of my adult life working with 5,000 kids.

I’m sorry, Steven Brill, that I called your book, Class Warfare: The Fight to Save America’s Schools, a steaming pile of dung. I should have known you were fighting harder than I did—just not in an actual classroom—or with actual kids. I should have known that you and Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America but never taught, were going to fix the lives of children with bold words.

I’m sorry for so much. 

I’m sorry for doubting politicians when they passed No Child Left Behind more than a decade ago. Now I see that lawmakers in Washington knew exactly what they’re doing all along. I’m sorry I said that law was flawed from the start. 

I’m also sorry that No Child Left Behind is totally dead.

I’m sorry I don’t believe Common Core will work. I’m an addict, as I’ve said. I’m sorriest of all because I doubted politicians in 2010 when they said they supported Common Core and doubted them again in 2014 when they said, never mind, we’re not for Common Core after all. In fact,
Governor Jindal I apologize particularly to you.

I’m sorry I didn’t face my problem when it might have meant something to all the wonderful young people I taught. I’m sorry for saying the standardized tests I saw during my long career were weak. I’m sorry I thought the social studies portion of the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT), implemented in 2004, and the last standardized test I saw before retiring, was a farce. I was wrong to think you couldn’t prove anything with a single fifty-question test if it covered three years of material (grades 6, 7 and 8).

I’m not just sorry. I’m sad. I’m sad the State of Ohio spent millions designing that social studies sub test as part of the OAT—and then dumped it in 2009—and will soon dump the whole sorry OAT and have to start from scratch again. Common Core is coming you know, or maybe it’s not. I’m sorry I said when I heard this kind of news that lawmakers in Columbus had absolutely no clue.

I’m sorry I once brought in fourteen veterans (from five wars) to talk to 700 Loveland Middle School kids. I realize now—too late!—that nothing they said could help any of those teens when it came to a standardized test. Especially now, since all those old tests are kaput. 

Today I understand it wasn’t just me. I hung out with other junkies who thought they were good. We had an outstanding band director at Loveland Middle School who thought it mattered if he turned teens into musicians. We had great art teachers who imagined that if they taught kids to sketch beautifully they were passing on something of value. We had a great drama teacher, who for some reason felt drama was worthwhile, and a French teacher who expected kids to speak French with skill, and we had fine coaches, who were all in denial too. Those coaches thought that teaching young men and women to work hard, to strive to improve, to win with character, might help them in life.

Poor souls—trying to help kids who were bullied—counseling pregnant teens about choices they’d have to make—wondering how to help a boy who lived with an abusive father at home. Who were my colleagues trying to kid?

Now I know we were all addicts, kidding ourselves, and I look back on my career and theirs and think, “How sad!”

But I do feel better today. I’m getting this off my chest and see I’m not alone. I can finally admit I was a “bad teacher” all along. 

I imagined that learning could be enhanced in ten thousand ways. And I was wrong. If it can’t be tested, can’t be reduced to A, B, C or D, it’s not learning at all. I have looked in a mirror at long last and have seen reflected an image I cannot like. Still, I can hope my colleagues and millions of public school teachers will get the help they need. As Dr. Flanagan has shown it’s never too late. We can all be “good teachers” if we choose.

The politicians with all the bold plans—those zealous reformers with their millions of words—they’ll show us the way.

They’ll show us all how to teach.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.

The back cover provides a sense of what my book is about.


  1. I retired in 2005 after 30 years in the classroom as a teacher, and I was never subjected to the use of flawed standardized bubble tests designed to fail teachers and students. During my years in the classrom, the results of tests in California were used to help, by department and teacher, guide us to discover where we could strengthen the curriculum and where we were already strong.

    In today's climate, that is no longer important. Today, these tests are only being used to identify failing teachers and students and then punish them in some way---close public schools, fire teachers and make students who are not great test takers feel like total failures responsible for getting teachers fired and schools closed. There is no support to improve curriculum in the climate of corporate education reform in the U.S.

    I taught for those thirty years in schools where 70% - 80% of the students were on free and/or reduced breakfast and lunch and the white student population was 8% or less. In today's education climate, no matter what I had achieved during my thirty years as a teacher would not safe me from being labeled a failure when the only measurement of my teaching ability is based on a flawed bubble test designed to deliberately fail large number of teachers by creating an artificial failure ratio. For instance, 70% of students like in New York last year or 25% of teachers annually.

    This is what the corporate reformers are doing with their secretive testing agenda. They wait for the test results to come back, and then figure out where to put that artificial cut score that will create a specific number of failed students and teachers.

    1. Amen, The Teacher. I'd love to see Wendy Kopp actually try to do what you and I did.

  2. confessions of a bad teacher is a great book available from amazon.

  3. Yes Mr. Vial you sucked. Can't remember any that sucked as bad! Making us learn all that useless information about the branches of government and judicial system and how our country was founded. Nice job I haven't had to use any of that information. But The Dangers of Pencil Fighting that's a whole different story...

    1. Very funny. You could have gotten a pencil stuck in your nose.

    2. You did not mention one of the worst crimes perpetuated by those teacher/addicts at Loveland Middle School. They made teacher/addicts out of their students too. Unfortunately, I grew up in Loveland before No Child Left Behind or Common Core. The English Department taught me that words are magic. Stan McCoy taught me to stand up for what I know to be true and protect my rights as a citizen. Marge Henderson taught my heart to sing. All useless skills since they cannot be measured on a test. And now I have been a teacher /addict for 28 years.

  4. this is just wonderful!!! and that you were inspired by flanagan makes me so happy! thanks for this.... from a BAT.... :)

  5. On Facebook, a former student, now teaching responded:

    Thanks John Viall for adding some tongue in cheek to the awful month of standardized testing we're facing. Amanda, as a SS teacher you'll appreciate this.

    And thank you Bruce Maegly and Jennifer Chast and all the other wonderful teachers I had who cared (and continue to care) more about the students and their education than about these stupid tests.

  6. Dot Chast added this on Facebook: IT is TIME FOR THE TEACHERS TO BE ALLOWED TO TEACH. Her granddaughter-in-law, Jennifer, is an excellent teacher at Loveland High School. Also, Jennifer was a star student of mine a few years back.

  7. Linda Swink, a talented writer, I know responded: I know this guy. His passion for teaching, and his ability to engage students must have been awesome. I know because even now, after retiring, he is still teaching. I've learned a great deal from him as a writer.

    (I feel stupid, though. I actually tried to help students learn how to write--and that wasn't actually in the SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS. I know. I know. I was wrong.)

  8. Loren Baldwin, now a captain in the U. S. Army replied via Facebook, too: Oh Mr. Viall, that one time you wrote me a poor S.T.A.R. report scarred me permanently! I now have a hard time believing in myself because you said I wasn't putting forth enough effort... or something like that. A good teacher would never do such a thing! /sarcasm

  9. Heather Michelle Conn: Your class was the only time in my life I can remember that I enjoyed learning history ... Well done sir. Oh & standardized tests = lame

  10. Andrea Hutzel Mitchel: Mr. Viall, you have so much company. I am the selfish teacher who ditched the whole system. Now I teach in a highly selective school with a phenomenally low student/teacher ratio. The pay stinks though.

  11. Carol King: Very glad our 2 kids had the benefit of many "bad teachers" while students in Loveland. Certain they are now drawing from those educators' influences as both reach out to students in their classrooms today.

    (Wait! There were good teachers???? Someone notify Secretary Duncan!)

  12. Bruce Maegly (that band director I alluded to): Guilty as charged, John Viall - although it's nice to stand with such good company!

  13. Kevin Mann: I can't wait to show this to my wife as this is her 16th year teaching. She would appreciate this! I've said it before and I'll say it again, teachers like you, Bruce Maegly, Ed Lenney, Terry McCoy, Debbie Pomeroy, and many many others made the Middle School a fun place to be. It's tough on kids at that age and all of you were amazing. You pushed us to what we thought were our limits and beyond.

    Some of my greatest life lessons were learned in your class (like reading a chainsaw manual). All kids need "bad teachers" like you!

  14. Sarah Negovetich: Thanks, Mr. V. All these years I've been waiting for you to apologize for teaching me about personal responsibility and showing me how important word choice is when we communicate.

    In fact, it's probably completely your fault that I have a job I love and am now a published author. Now that you've voiced your apology, I can officially forgive you for being such an amazing teacher and person.

    (I apologize TWICE to you, Sarah. I feel real, real bad. Ha, ha.)

    Wait, what's the book?

  15. Suzanne Lundy--who "deluded" herself like me: And I'm still glad I was a teacher!

    Somehow, she was chosen "Teacher of the Year" twice for her building, once at the elementary level in Loveland, once at the middle school.

  16. Molly Jacob: I'm quite certain that I'm a crack addicted, bad teacher... and I LOVE it... no rehab for me.

    (Molly teaches fourth grade for the East Clinton Schools.)

  17. Bill Cullen: Nice Job sir. You we're my favorite teacher because of your ability to see through my bull shit and actually get me to enjoy and do the school work. Thanks! By the way it wasn't just my generation that you touched Jennifer Cullen Russell

  18. Shawna Talley (a former student who now teaches) sounded the kind of note I hear from more and more educators still in the classroom:

    John you are the best of the best! You were an inspiration to me along with several other great Loveland teachers. Because of ur influence, it guided me to want to become a teacher. Now after 12yrs... We'll I'll just say I don't recommend this profession to anyone. Thank u for being awesome!

    (Thanks, Shawna. Hang in there. The tide is turning, I believe.)

  19. Another worrisome comment, this one from former star writer in my class, Megan Moore:

    You know my story Mr. Viall...and you didn't even know how much you taught me. Middle school was the core of my survival. I have lots of friends that have turned away from teaching due to rules and regulations, and they only want to have the freedom and the will to teach as you did. Today's teachers were inspired by great teachers like you. It maybe controlled now, but they all have the fire you have, to teach and to reach beyond their required curriculum. People who are inspired to be where they are, inspire others to be there too.

  20. Wait a minute! Could it be, I wasn't so terrible after all? Could it be the teachers I admired weren't sucking up the place at all? Was Nancy McCoy good? I thought she was? Sally Reigler, too? Hilary Pecsok, the French teacher? Diane Sullivan who taught art? Cheri King, so concerned with helping children learn math? Steve Ball and Jeff Sharpless, two of the best I ever saw?

    I could name plenty of other "bad teachers" and hardly dent the list at all. Take Bob Wagner, at LHS. Never met the man at all. But dozens of kids came back to see me and said he was excellent at what he did.

    I guess he needs to join the therapy group I'm starting, too. I'm going to call it Teachers Anonymous, and we will follow the 12 Step Program and face up to our "failures" at last.

    Danyelle Salcedo: Well Mr.Viall I am glad you taught the way you did because you made history fun and exciting! I always thought you were the best teacher ever and still do!! I wish my children could have a teacher that cared as much as you did for your students!! I am so glad I had the opportunity to be in your class!!You were the only teacher that I knew that put their home phone number up so students could call you if they had a problem!! So thank you for being a bad teacher lol

  21. Danielle Dorgan Williams: I am so sad my son will never get to take a Mr Viall history class.

    (Actually, according to the school reformers, your son will have been saved!)

  22. Kimberly Miller-Cisneros: Mr. Viall you were one of my favorite teachers! I can still remember to this day sitting in history class! You made educational and fun! I am so glad I had you for a teacher job well done!!!

    (Sorry, this is only making my confession harder to make.)

  23. And another former student and current teacher, Karen Streng Tiffany checks in: Mr. Viall, I am so glad you are able to see the error of your ways! We all know you were not a good teacher -- you are a great teacher, an amazing teacher, an inspiring teacher, but definitely not just a good teacher. Thank you. May I continue to aspire to be the bad teacher that you were.

    (I will invite her to join the therapy group, too. Step One: Admitting you were terrible because you cared about kids.)

  24. Apparently, many of my old students are in denial, too--and appear to believe they learned in my class, or in the classes of other "bad" teachers.

    This from Michelle Katherine (last name withheld to protect the innocent?): You taught me more than I could have ever imagined. You never gave up on me and to this day I thank God I had you as teacher!


    THAT RAT! (I'm joking; I also tried to teach my students not to dehumanize those whom they did not like, or who were different).

  26. Teaching is a best profession in the world and every teacher should teach students honestly.
    Nice Post on Nice Blog
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    1. Thanks, Tania, you must love teaching the same way I did. I hope the school reformers don't ruin it for people like you.

  27. Teaching is the world best profession and every student need a good and honest teacher. so every teacher should teach student honestly and wisely. and yeah very nice post JOHN J. VIALL. i really enjoyed your post. thanks for this. keep on writing like that!