On Mondays, it was Mrs. McGray at the head of the class, ushering in the second-graders. And when Fridays rolled around, it was Mrs. Sears who sent them home, backpacks full of spelling lists and arithmetic papers.
That has been the drill for years at Tarzana's Nestle Avenue Elementary, where Deanna McGray and Joni Sears--with 46 years of experience between them--shared one job in a second-grade class. It was McGray's class on Mondays and Tuesdays; Sears' on Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, they alternated.
For McGray, it was a means of winding down a 30-year teaching career. For Sears, it was a way to serve both her students and her own three children, including one disabled son.
But now both teachers are facing an ultimatum--give up the split week and return to teaching full-time, or leave a school they've come to love.
And, considering the byzantine world of the Los Angeles Unified School District, it is hard to figure out exactly who wins, and why.
McGray and Sears are part of a tiny corps of teachers--just 450 out of the district's 36,000--who work part time, primarily because of medical or family needs. Most work half days, teaching English or math or science every day to the same group of kids.
Sears struck her unorthodox deal with Nestle's former principal, Edward Catlett, eight years ago, after her then-2-year-old was diagnosed with neurological problems so severe that he required more attention than a full-time teaching schedule allowed.
"She was a wonderful teacher and we didn't want to lose her," said Catlett, who retired last fall. "So we paired her with another teacher to give her the time she needed with her sick child. It was good for the students, the parents liked it and it kept two fine teachers on the staff."
But this spring, armed with a new contract that gives more power to administrators to dictate teacher assignments, district officials decreed that split-day schedules not be allowed, because they disrupt the continuity a good instructional program requires.
"I know job sharing can be a good thing for teachers and it's tough to them to give up," says Robert Collins, superintendent of the district's San Fernando Valley region that includes Nestle Elementary. "But the issue is really what's best for kids. And we think it's best to have a single, highly qualified teacher, rather than two teachers who are in and out ... who work out their schedules depending on what's going on in their personal lives."
It's great to hear district officials talking about what's best for kids, when for so long the school system seemed to be run for the benefit of the unions, the bureaucrats, the "fat cats" on the Hill. But it's also hard to understand why this issue has become a line in the sand, landing McGray and Sears smack in the middle of what looks like a power grab.
For years, Los Angeles Unified teachers have had considerable power to choose class assignments by seniority. Those rights were granted during the district's lean years, in exchange for pay cuts teachers were asked to take. Parents and principals sometimes complained that teachers' rights trumped students' needs. Now, the district is taking some of that power back, restoring its administrative clout in what some see as arbitrary ways.
Collins says it's not about politics, but educational philosophy. "We're doing this with the best interests of children in mind," he says. A split-week schedule "isn't fair to the children and it's not fair to the parents, who shouldn't have to figure out, 'Who's teaching my child today?"'
But several parents I spoke with say their children have benefited from Nestle's two-teacher deal. "These are both dedicated, loving teachers, and that room was run like a well-oiled machine," says Judy Sacks, whose two children were taught by the McGray-Sears team. "I don't know a single parent who's complained about the arrangement."
McGray is warm and fuzzy, "kind of grandmotherly," she said. Sears is meticulous and organized, a stickler for detail. "Between the two of them, there was a wonderful balance. And the children got the best of both worlds."
Both teachers will probably be back at Nestle--teaching full-time and separately--next fall. McGray needs one more year until she can retire. Sears' family needs the medical benefits her job provides.
But some parents fear that the burden this places on Sears will drive her to find another job in a more flexible district, closer to her home.
"Part of the beauty of teaching has always been that you can use your education to help children, without giving up your own family," said Sacks, who teaches at the college level and occasionally substitutes at Nestle. "This refusal to bend seems hostile to job-sharing, hostile to teachers, and hostile to women in general." Not to mention stupid, she says.
"Here's a district that has a hard time recruiting qualified teachers. And you have two people who are trained and competent and experienced ... and they're going to risk pushing them out of the classroom."
And that's something that would be in the worst interest of both teachers and kids.