New teachers like Wendy Lee used to be dropped without preparation into Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms. Talk about sink or swim.
But this school year, the district is offering a life jacket to those newcomers who have not completed the education courses normally required to teach. Now, all so-called emergency credential teachers must complete 40 hours of classroom readiness at the district's new Teacher Training Academy.
The emphasis is on adequate planning and on how to maintain order without alienating frisky children. That preparation is valuable, said Lee, 40, who is to take over a fourth-grade classroom next week at the Bonita Street Elementary in Carson.
"It's just overwhelming to have these children's futures there in your hands--and there's just no way to be perfect. Especially on the first day," she said.
Like many other emergency credential teachers, Lee is switching careers, in her case from jobs working in group homes with emotionally disturbed young people. Experts say that emergency credential teachers bring energy to the classroom, but they tend to leave the profession at a much higher rate than their fully trained colleagues.
District officials say that about 20% of emergency credential teachers leave within two years of starting work and about 50% leave within five years. The turnover rate for credentialed teachers is 4% over five years, including retirements.
"I think in the past we've put teachers in situations they're not ready for. It's like making them perform surgery," said Helen Jordan, one of the instructors at the new academy, which began in June at the United Teachers-Los Angeles headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard and is now training the last group for the fall semester.
Teachers with emergency permits have bachelor's degrees with course work in key subject areas and have passed a basic skills exam, but have not finished the required postgraduate studies and training. To continue teaching, they must take at least six units a year of that postgraduate course work and finish within five years.
The academy is not a substitute for such university-level courses, but participants describe it as a good start.
Anthony Silva--a 25-year-old graduate of Cal State Northridge who has worked as a teacher's aide--said he feels more prepared to teach first-graders than he did before the training academy. Still, he finds the challenge daunting. "It's overwhelming to realize the responsibility we have to the children and how much we have to know on top of what we learned in college," he said.
Demand for fully credentialed teachers exceeds supply. So, more than half of the 4,300 teachers hired by the Los Angeles district in the past two years lacked full credentials, said Michael Acosta, a district employment administrator. For the 1998-99 school year, the Los Angeles district has hired 1,243 teachers on the emergency plan, including 816 for elementary schools.
A 1997 national report said new teachers leaving the field frequently became disenchanted with student behavior and couldn't control their classes.
To address the problem, the academy has been structured around the notion of class management--the ability to plan and strategize, to be firm yet flexible with the children. This means building mutual respect and teacher authority--without yelling or the threat of being sent to the principal.
Weaker teachers struggle to get the attention of their young charges and tend to use punishment too often, said Joyce Lakin, a 25-year veteran teacher and academy instructor.
To drive home the need for preparation, a construction-paper placard on a wall at the academy warns: "Fail to Plan . . . Plan to Fail."
Lisa Nakata, 27, has worked as a teacher's aide in Thousand Oaks, but when she steps into Queen Anne Place Elementary in South Central on Sept. 8, it will be her first steps as a teacher. With the academy's help, Nakata hopes they won't be ungainly ones.
"If you get lost, and don't take control of the class the first week, things will start to fall apart," said Nakata, 27.
Wendy Lee, meanwhile, has extra incentive and pressure to succeed as a teacher.
"I have a daughter, and her heroes have been teachers," she said.