Emergency Teachers Recall Lessons of First Year on the Job : From Experience, Five Rookies Learn That the Profession Is Anything but Elementary
Rookie teacher John McVay blasts anarchy out of his classroom with an English bobby’s whistle.
First-year teacher Fred Mitchell, on the other hand, imposes law and order with a stopwatch.
When his second- and third-grade students act up, Mitchell starts the watch, deducting the length of any disruption from the 15 minutes for games, songs and other activities he allots the class at the end of each day.
These are among the tricks of the trade McVay and Mitchell have learned since they joined about 1,700 others who don’t have formal training, or regular California teaching credentials, as “emergency” teachers in Los Angeles schools last fall, mainly in inner-city classrooms. In all, the Los Angeles Unified School District hired about 2,500 new teachers for the 1985-1986 school year to fill positions created by retirement and increased enrollment.
McVay and Mitchell also are two of five emergency elementary school teachers The Times has followed through the academic year, which ends today at most Los Angeles schools, to record the seesaw experience of breaking into teaching the hard way.
Learned Crowd Control
Nine months ago, as the greenest of the green, it’s a safe bet that neither McVay, Mitchell nor their three colleagues would have tried staving off chaos with a whistle or a stopwatch. But while their time on the job can be measured in mere months, the lessons they’ve compressed into the school year have made them--among other things--wily experts at crowd control.
However difficult the year was, it wasn’t bad enough to make most of them look for other work. Four plan to return to their schools next year, while the fifth, who says “I love teaching,” is moving to the East Coast where her husband will be going to graduate school.
As teachers without full-scale formal training, the five were involuntarily part of a controversy last year. The country’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Assn., charged that the quality of education and the teaching profession were being undermined by teachers who haven’t devoted a large chunk of their college years to education courses.
School districts, particularly in Los Angeles, maintained that a teacher shortage and a growing student population dictated the practice and that a full complement of teachers was more important than quibbling over qualifications. District officials also noted that emergency teachers are required to make yearly progress toward a regular credential and must eventually obtain such a credential to remain in teaching. And, district officials said, programs were being implemented that would provide many prospective teachers with at least some training, plus the assistance of more experienced teachers as they embarked on their jobs.
Doses of Reality
Meanwhile, the five have been practicing their new trade, tempering their early idealism with daily doses of reality. By and large, they believe they have proved the critics wrong and have demonstrated their competence. Now those who are coming back are ready for a little peace and quiet over the summer and a chance to regroup before another year at the blackboard.
In separate interviews, the five talked about how they have changed and what they have learned in the months since they completed a three-week crash-training course and went into the trenches.
Without exception, all five said that classroom discipline has been their biggest and longest-running battle. It is often a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour struggle, they said. But there has been progress, they added.
Patricia Saragosa, 25, a 1983 graduate of UC Berkeley who taught first grade at Euclid Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights, summed up the year this way: “I’m very tired but I’m elated that my students have progressed so much. First grade, it’s just amazing. I mean they couldn’t sit on a chair when school started. I had five or six kids a day falling off chairs. Now they’re so responsible, they’re pencil monitors, they’re chair monitors.”
Saragosa will not be returning next year. She was married earlier this year and will move to Washington with her husband, she said.
McVay, 33, a former property manager who taught fifth graders at Utah Street Elementary in East Los Angeles, claimed just before the Christmas holiday that he had “never met a kid he didn’t like.”
Now, he said, there have been “a couple of occasions that I really had to spend a lot of time looking for something I could like. I had one kid in my class recently that I asked not to be in my class anymore. Now, I can like him . . . “
‘Crammed So Much’
For McVay, the year has flown by. “It’s gone so fast and I’ve crammed so much into it,” he said. “Every Friday I go home and take a big sigh. I’ve gotten through another week. How much more do I have to face? How many more weeks? I count the days . . . It’s still a roller-coaster ride for the most part. I have my real good weeks and my real bad weeks but I’m having more and more of the good and less and less of the bad. Still, I see even more how much further I have to go professionally as a teacher in order to have a really good handle on this situation.”
McVay jokingly compared his job to that of a “lion tamer” and noted that he tries to use his whistle and other techniques sparingly, partly to avoid diminishing returns and partly because he doesn’t like being a tough guy.
But sometimes he was pushed across the line, he added.
“There were times when I would be standing at a desk and somebody would just do something I’d told them not to do 50 times and they said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it one more time.’ I’d be down in front of their face like this,” he said, stooping over a desk, “and I have what I call my evil finger--I never have to touch them--I get right here and I say, ‘You better not do that again mister’ and they look at that finger and they know I mean business. The whole class stops, everything stops. But I don’t really like being in that position.”
Affected by Weather
Mitchell, a former social worker and graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University Law School, observed that weather is often a barometer of children’s behavior--and a warning to teachers.
“Anytime the weather changes, it seems like they just get something in their systems,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know what it is but cloudy days tend to be rough. If yesterday was cloudy and today is real sunny then today is going to be rough too. The only times when it seems to not really have an effect on them is when today’s pretty much like the day before.”
Howard Barnett, a 35-year-old former insurance company employee who has been teaching sixth grade at Stonehurst Avenue Elementary in Sun Valley, said older kids can be a handful too.
“Just trying to keep the students motivated, that’s tough, especially toward the end of the year,” he said. “They’re getting itchy to go to junior high school and you have to work to keep them on track . . . If you don’t feel good one day, you have to gear yourself up because your mood can affect the classroom.”
In the tough neighborhoods where most of them worked, the new teachers found that the dividing line between street smarts and school rules can be twisted like a pretzel. For example, Saragosa learned that what she preached in the classroom had unexpected permutations on the street.
“An incident that remains in my mind is that I have a very bright student who’s potentially gifted who I’ve never had any problems with--never hitting anybody or punching anybody--and all of a sudden he’s in with the vice principal and they’re chewing him out for fighting,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, the world is falling, my student is in there, what could have happened?’ I went racing in there like a mother hen . . . My student said, ‘Well, you know, teacher, Oscar was getting beat up so I hit the other guy back.’ His mother comes to me because she was shocked too and she says, ‘What happens when my kid is walking to Zody’s and some woman is getting mugged? What are you going to tell him then?’
“So it’s like the school is a community unto itself,” Saragosa continued. “And as much as we try to teach the kids to be responsible, we live here in the school by a different set of rules. We wish those were the rules on the outside of the school but they’re not. And I found it really hard to try and explain that to Carlos, who’s very intelligent and says, ‘Well, teacher, you always tell us to help people when we can . . .’ ”
Jacqueline Chanda, a 36-year-old who taught in Africa before returning to Los Angeles last year, said she prefers to keep her disciplinary problems in the second-floor room where she teaches fourth grade at Miramonte Elementary School.
“I don’t like sending them to the (principal’s) office,” she said. “They’re overwhelmed down there and usually all that happens is the student is down there for a half an hour and then they send him back up here.”
The Serious Cases
Instead, Chanda said that in difficult cases she has students who are misbehaving stand with their hands on top of their heads.
For less serious infractions of decorum Chanda said she makes students do something they really hate, “which is usually reading a book.”
As positive reinforcement, Chanda said she dispenses “Good Citizen of the Week Awards” entitling the winners to gold stars by their names on a blue cardboard chart. She also said she hands out treats such as candy, games and puzzles, a technique also used by McVay.
“It’s like bribing the kids,” she said, “but it saves my sanity and I like it.”
Yet despite the seemingly eternal and sometimes overwhelming issue of discipline, all five teachers said they made progress over the year. All made comments that echoed Chanda’s assessment: “The relationship between me and my class has become a lot nicer.”
Beyond keeping the kids within the limits of propriety, the teachers voiced a common concern about their students’ lives at home. And the fact that they can do little or nothing about problems in the family or on the streets is often frustrating, they said.
‘The Hardest Thing’
“We can’t solve the problems at home,” Saragosa said. “I love to talk about the issues of poverty and stuff but you can’t. You’re here to teach your students. You are here to see if anything affects them at home that impairs them from learning at school. We have to deal a lot with child abuse. Not only somebody having a handprint on his face or looking a little bruised but just the general daily neglect--children not being clean, children saying ‘I didn’t eat dinner last night, I’m hungry.’ That’s hard, really, really hard. It’s a very small minority but that’s the hardest thing to deal with.”
McVay remembers one girl, silent and withdrawn, who “the social workers picked up one day and I never saw or heard from her anymore. I know she was taken to a foster home. . . . It was a sad situation.”
The teachers themselves have had their own crosses to bear, largely in meeting credential requirements. Typically, emergency credential teachers have to acquire 30 units of education-related college courses and they must have full credentials within five years of starting to teach.
Barnett seems to have kept the toughest schedule. “Four days out of the week, I’m at school and get home at 10, 10:30,” he said. “You have to use a lot of good time management. You have to set a schedule and adhere to the schedule pretty strictly in order to get accomplished what you want to accomplish.”
On the whole, the Los Angeles district says its emergency credential teachers have worked out fairly well. The district gives its best marks to emergency teachers, such as the five followed by The Times, who completed the three-week crash course before entering their own classrooms.
Robert De Vries, the district’s director of staff development, said that some emergency teachers go into classrooms without benefit of any training but he added that the district is trying to whittle that number down.
Last year the district hired about 2,500 teachers, including 1,700 without credentials, to fill out its needs for 27,000 classroom instructors. Of the emergency staff, about 500 went through the three-week program known as Joint Venture, De Vries said. Next year, he said, the district hopes to train 700 to 800 in the Joint Venture program while hiring about the same number of credentialed and uncredentialed teachers as this year. They will be paid the same salary, starting at about $20,000 a year.
Of the 1,700 emergency teachers who signed on last year, De Vries estimated that 80% will stay on.
The Right Choice
To greater or lesser degrees, the five followed by a reporter said they believe they made the right decision to take up teaching. It offered rewards and satisfactions that they hadn’t found in other jobs. Most said, however, that if they were given a chance to do it differently they’d rather have teaching credentials. And they said that the first year in the classroom is a combined rite-of-passage and endurance contest they wouldn’t be eager to repeat.
Chanda, who said she is frustrated by the requirements for certification and problems with getting credits for her foreign degrees and teaching experience, commented, “Probably, yes, I’d do it over again.”
Mitchell said that he has been surprised by “how much of a time and energy commitment teaching is.” He added, “There’s no way I could have ever conceived of it without doing it. No, I wouldn’t go through it again. I’d never want to have another first year.”
Both Chanda and Mitchell, it should be noted, are teaching at a year-round school and won’t get a break for another month or two.
Despite the frustrations of the year, McVay was happy to discover that one of his preconceptions was proved wrong.
“I had this picture of teaching as being sort of isolated in the classroom,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case. I’ve had people streaming through here--people from the regional office, the principal, the vice principal, review teams, the professor from my directed teaching course.”
McVay believes he has developed a kind of momentum that will keep him going.
“I think at this point I’ve made such a commitment in time and effort to what I’m doing I’m going to succeed regardless of what happens,” he said. “Even if I find two years later that I hate it, I’m going to make it work because if this doesn’t work I’m not going to feel good about myself . . . I’m really looking forward to next year. I can see so much that I can do better and I’ll have a fresh start.”