For 29 years, Schenectady High School teacher Tim Owens didn’t just sneak lessons about critical reading into the heads of restless teenagers, but he taught teachers, too, often at the same time.
Owens, who will retire in December, took on student teachers again and again throughout his career, teaching so many of them that he was awarded the Ruth E. Everett Award this fall by the New York State English Council. It has only been awarded to three teachers in the state in honor of their extraordinary commitment to teaching the next generation of teachers.
It wasn’t easy — in addition to daily lesson plans for his classes, he spent hours working with his student teachers, refining their teaching style and “playing out the rope” as they earned more and more freedom.
Owens is an unconventional teacher. Every year, he would suddenly tell his student teachers to take over and walk out of the room.
He did it when he thought they were ready, which was often long before they thought themselves ready. What they didn’t know is that he was standing just outside the door, listening as they tried to teach their prepared lesson without the comfort of his presence.
When things went wrong, he never criticized them. They knew what they had messed up, he said, and they could do a far better job of ripping apart their lesson plan.
“I would tell them about my screw-ups,” he said. “I’d say, ‘That was a mediocre screw-up. You’re not even in the top 10.’ ”
It’s not hard for a new teacher’s lesson to go off the rails, he added.
“All it takes is one kid having a bad day and you can fall apart,” he said. “A lot of what teachers need to develop is the confidence to run a classroom. You just have to experience it all.”
Owens doesn’t leave anything to chance. Every student teacher of his has kicked a kid out of class — in an event planned in advance.
“You have to know the arsenal of weapons you have to maintain control,” he said. “In the first month or two of classes, I’d pick a day and say, ‘Today would be a good day to throw a kid out.’ ”
Before class, he would remind the student teacher of the students who had misbehaved repeatedly despite all other efforts to control them.
“Point at him and say, ‘It’s time to go,’ ” Owens would say. “I’m going to be waiting just outside the door.”
The goal, he added, was not particularly to teach that student a lesson.
“You’re not trying to fix the kid you kicked out,” he said. “You’re trying to fix all the other kids. They want to know, ‘Is he the kind of teacher who knows how to put a stop to it?’ ”
The student teacher would fill out most of the disciplinary paperwork in advance. Then, when the student started to act up, the new teacher would utter those words for the first time.
“It was one of the major lessons of the year,” Owens said. “They had to know how to pull the trigger.”
What he carefully did not teach them was his style.
Their own style
Every teacher has his or her own style, he said, and his job was to help the budding teacher discover and enhance theirs.
They generally didn’t have a style anything like his.
“Kids quickly learn Mr. Owens is a smartass,” Owens said. “I sneak up on them and teach them how to read and write and close-read.”
His last student teacher was his near opposite.
“She would say these incredibly earnest things,” he said, describing her shtick as “sincerity.”
“She got better at it as the year went on. We figured that out through trial and error: Go in there and see what happens,” he said.
He mainly worked with student teachers from Union College, which sent him interns who worked all year in the classroom.
Most student teachers do a much shorter classroom stint, but Owens liked the longer time period. He also liked that the college would match students to his personality.
“I would get the square pegs,” he said. “I often worked with people who were not sure they wanted to do this.”
One had a master’s in philosophy but thought he might want to teach high school English. After a year with Owens, he went on to become a professor at SUNY Oneonta.
“But I like to think he’s a great teaching professor,” Owens said.
Another came to him after five years of teaching philosophy at Oberlin College.
“He was just off-the-charts brilliant!” Owens said.
Owens was so taken by a lecture the man gave on 15th and 16th century philosophers for an International Baccalaureate class that he added it to his lesson plans.
“I was just enraptured with it,” he said.
He’s learned a lot from the people he was teaching.
“My career is littered with gifts from interns,” he said. “What they give me is the latest from the research.”
What he gives back, he said, is the experience to tell which parts of the new research are “garbage.”
His last student teacher taught him several computer programs, including one that he used to illustrate data points and another that streamlined the process in which students would submit their paper topics for his approval.
“I used it for four classes of papers last year,” Owens said.
He encourages them from the start to share knowledge.
“When interns came to me, I didn’t start with, ‘You’re the intern, I’m the mentor.’ I’m not God,” he said.
Instead, he told them that they were entering a collaborative profession.
“I always felt the key to good teachers is to have a good mentor,” he said. “I felt I was lucky. I had great mentors.”