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Young Teachers Walk Thin Line

Times Staff Writer

A Gompers Middle School student asked an administrator recently: “Where’s Mr. Clay?” The administrator scanned a student-filled auditorium in search of the English teacher. He pointed to an eighth-grade boy wearing a baby blue T-shirt and baggy jeans and replied, mistakenly: “Isn’t that him?”

English teacher Brandon Clay is 23 years old. Like many of his students, he wears oversized Roca Wear and Sean John outfits, and listens to rapper 50 Cent.

He’s “like a teenager,” said Jasmine Davis, 13, a student at the South Los Angeles school. “He understands us.”

Clay is part of a growing league of young teachers in America’s schools. They are fun, fashionable and under 30. They have baby faces and are sometimes confused with teenagers on campus.

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But these teachers know they have to straddle being students’ buddies as well as the person who sends them to detention. And teacher training programs are increasingly preparing new instructors on how to handle such issues and keep a proper emotional distance from the teenagers.

Despite his appearance, Clay says he makes sure his students respect those boundaries. “I’m still in the phase where I wear the backward hats,” he said. “I’m from their generation. But I’m also a professional.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District relies heavily on young teachers. Because the district faces chronic shortages of math, science and special education teachers, it frequently recruits instructors fresh out of college from teacher training programs and internships.

The district employs nearly 8,000 certified full-time teachers, counselors and administrators under 30 -- a third of the total pool. And that doesn’t include hundreds of other interns and student teachers.

Over the next 10 years, about 700,000 older teachers will retire, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. They constitute nearly 40% of the country’s teaching force and most were hired in the 1960s and ‘70s, when they were the same age as their new successors.

Already, the number of teachers in their 20s is rising. They made up 14% of teachers in 2001, up from 11% in 1996, according to a National Education Assn. study.

These young teachers say their students often talk freely to them about problems, but it is sometimes hard to be seen as an authority figure.

When 28-year-old Nimat Jones -- a freckle-faced screenplay writer with curly braids -- started working as an English teacher at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles last year, she tried to look older by dressing up.

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It didn’t help. Security guards regularly mistook her for a student, telling her to “get to class.” Teenage boys asked for her phone number. Teenage girls looked up and down at her sleek clothes and treated her like a snobby new girl.

Now, most students and staff know her as the smiling teacher who lets them listen to Nas and Jay Z during creative writing class (she likes those rappers too, along with singers Usher and Kelis). Jones admits: “I’m not much different from them.”

Students still pry about her personal life, asking: “Who is your boyfriend?” and “What did you do this weekend?” Jones often has to remind them she’s a teacher, not a friend.

“When you get too close to them, or develop too close a friendship,” she said, “kids take advantage of that.”

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The flirtatious boys, however, don’t give up.

On a recent afternoon, a teenage boy with puffy hair saw Jones near the bungalows in her black chunky-heel sandals and black leather jacket.

“Hey, Ms. Jones,” the student said, approaching her with his arms open for a hug. “Your hair is beautiful.”

“Thanks,” she said, patting his back lightly and walking away.

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University High School teacher Kyle Moody, 24, said it’s not so much his appearance that students connect with, although he is 5-feet-3 and wears baggy Phat Farm jeans and sneakers to class.

Rather, it’s his similar experiences. Moody’s parents are divorced. His father was killed in a car accident when Moody was 14. As a teenager, he was depressed and suicidal. He lost friends to drugs.

When Moody starts to share these personal stories, his students don’t want him to stop. They in turn tell him about divorced parents, pregnant girlfriends and getting robbed at gunpoint.

“I have to get a balance between how much I can help them individually,” Moody said, “and how much I have to be their teacher.”

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In class, Moody’s name is written in graffiti tag letters by students and posted on the wall. A student gives him a special handshake -- pounding fists with a finger snap.

Student Jude Fernando, 16, said he told Moody about a friend with drug problems; Moody tried to counsel the friend.

“It’s like talking to another kid,” said Jude. “We need more teachers like him.”

In a culture with so much emphasis on youth, teacher training officials and campus principals want to make sure new educators keep both that personal touch and their authority.

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Mary H. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles school district intern program, said young teachers are reminded that students have their own social circles -- and staff should not be part of them.

She said teachers in the program are advised to avoid talking, joking or dressing like students.

Monroe High School Principal Gregory J. Vallone said he prefers hiring veteran teachers instead of 21-year-old rookies, although he appreciates the energy young teachers bring to their classrooms.

He said he does not worry much that young teachers, often idealistic and eager to please administrators, might cross the line into romances with students. In fact, he said past cases of inappropriate relationships that he can recall involved middle-aged teachers.

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Still, he once scolded a young female teacher for wearing a shirt that revealed her mid-section, telling her “if kids can’t dress like that, you can’t dress like that.” He reminds young teachers to never be alone with a student. He tells them not to give them rides home. Instead, he tells teachers to let students borrow their cellphones to find a ride.

Clay, from Gompers Middle School, said he may dress stylishly and casually, but students know he’s in charge. He doesn’t hang out with them outside of school, he said, adding: “I don’t let them think for one minute that I am a student.”

Clay took over his classes midyear, after a teacher quit. He earned a reputation for being strict. He barely smiled.

He knows most of his students’ tricks, because he was a “rabble-rouser” and “class clown” at their age.

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Student Rayshawn Thomas, 14, said Clay is no-nonsense, but he also knows how to engage them.

“He assigned us an essay on rap once,” she said. “Old teachers might give us assignments like to write about how a car works, or something boring like that. But Mr. Clay gives us stuff we want to talk about.”

Clay attended public schools in Inglewood. He was raised by his grandmother, and grew up in a rough neighborhood, like the one in which his students live. “I would rather work for these kids any day of the week,” he said. “They are who I am.”

The “rocker” students at Roosevelt High School gather in groups in teacher Erica Huerta’s classroom during lunch to hang out, talk and watch videos. Huerta, 27, teaches Chicano studies, as well as Aztec dance after school. She dresses like so-called rockers, she said, in Dickie pants and dark colors. She talks to her students about social protest and civil rights, as well as music by Slipknot and Rage Against the Machine.

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“The school is so overcrowded that students go through the day without any communication with an adult,” she said. “Being able to connect with a teacher who has a lot in common” with students may keep them coming to school.

Griffith Middle School teacher Alex Avilla, 28, uses his connection with the media culture to reach youth. He started a group on campus in which students produce and star in short films.

There’s one about Cesar Chavez, one about a ghostly mother, and another about a teacher who turns into a superhero. “It makes school more fun,” he said, “and if we can make school more fun, kids get more engaged.”

Avilla wears a black T-shirt and baggy blue cargo pants that hang over his black boots. His cellphone peeks out of his left pocket. He keeps his Palm Pilot in a carrying case attached to his hip. He says “it’s all good” and “that’s messed up” when trying to get his point across.

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“The day I’m not relating to my students anymore,” he said, “is the day I need to retire.”

At the other end of a teaching career is Kit Paull, 64, retired recently after 40 years, most of them spent at Sylmar High School in the San Fernando Valley.

She became a teacher at 22. In the decade that followed, she had fun with her students. They connected over the Beatles and Bob Dylan music. They talked about the Vietnam War, the draft and revolution. She helped them decorate floats for homecoming parades.

“I was much more chummy with kids. I talked openly with them,” she said. “There still wasn’t that huge age gap. I didn’t start to distance myself until I got a little older.”

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That was when she started focusing less on “trying to be their friend” and more on the curriculum and teaching. Paull said she became preoccupied with “what are these kids learning?,” rather than “how are they feeling today?”

She looks back on the later years of her career with a twinge of regret.

“I think kids, to some extent, want to feel that you’re their friend,” she said. “They want to be understood.”


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