The year I taught at Morse Senior High I spent $2000 on school supplies and making copies

Get me out of this grand adventure

High school is a lot like the reality show Survivor. Mismatched people are plunked into a one-way-out lawless arena where they form alliances, learn from each other, and with as much luck as skill, duke it out to the finish.

Only the strong survive.

In San Diego County, students are getting stronger, according to district superintendent Terry Grier. He reports that student dropouts declined from 20.3 percent to 17.3 percent in 2007–’08, well below the state average. District sources quoted in the Union-Tribune attribute that rosy figure to better student programs and/or more sophisticated dropout data analysis.

Numbers on local teachers who drop out are harder to come by. After all, what school district wants to document its iffy working conditions? Nationally, 30 percent of new teachers don’t make it through their first three years of teaching, while 50 percent don’t make it through the first seven years. According to the New Teacher Center at UC Santa Cruz, California loses nearly half a billion dollars a year on the loss of new teachers.

With apologies to the State of California, I’m a teacher dropout. My career lasted 2.33 years, ending just four months into the 2006–’07 school year. It included three high schools, 243 students, nine classes of 10th- and 11th-grade English, and student loans I’ll be paying until I die.

Like the losers on Survivor, I left teaching grateful for one hell of an adventure. Only those of us who’ve worked inside a high school in recent times know what a smackdown our public educational system really is — and the crazy survival skills it exacts from all who enter the classroom.

Ms. Olsen

English teacher Erika Olsen lasted six years. She didn’t quit. She left to give birth to her daughter Katie. Then daughter Alexandra came along, and now Olsen’s not sure when she’ll return to the classroom, only that she will. She had been so valued by her students and teaching peers at San Diego High (where she was one of my mentor teachers, even though she was young enough to be my daughter) that the first three years Olsen was home with babies, her former English department chairperson would call regularly to ask when she was coming back to teach.

After receiving her master’s degree in education at 23, Olsen wrote a thank-you note to her Point Loma middle-school English teacher, Ann Dee Baird. “She was small and loud and fun,” remembers Olsen. “Mrs. Baird called me her ‘future Rhodes Scholar.’ She never criticized me, even when I tried to write a sonnet without any idea of what a sonnet was.”

High school wasn’t so great. It seemed to Olsen that her English teachers there only favored the rich, popular students, while she was just “the O.B. kid.” “I went into teaching believing every high school student deserved to have at least one good English teacher,” says Olsen, “because I didn’t.”

A young and pretty teacher, Olsen was always conscious of her role as an authority figure and role model. She didn’t hand out her email address and was uncomfortable with personal contact outside the classroom. In the classroom, Olsen taught like Ms. Baird. “All my kids knew I was interested in them as people, in who they were and where they were going — and less in the work itself.” Olsen laughs. “Because I was interested, they’d give me the courtesy of reading the literature I pushed at them.”

One afternoon, the summer after Olsen left teaching to have her first baby, the doorbell rang. It was a former ninth-grade student of hers. He stood shyly on her front porch and handed her a copy of his favorite book, Eragon. Inside, he’d inscribed it: “Hey, Mrs. Olsen. Hope you enjoy reading the rest of this book. Happy Birthday.”

He’d first given Olsen the book during the school year because, he told her, it was so much better than what they had to read for class. Olsen always made time to read the books her students recommended. But that semester, because of her pregnancy and the new house she and her husband had just bought and moved into, Olsen didn’t make it through Eragon. She returned the book, apologizing to the student with regret that she hadn’t been able to finish it.

When he stood on her doorstep a few months later with a copy of the book, Olsen was stunned that the student had been able to find her.

His explanation was simple. Olsen had incorporated her new house into lessons, to remind the students that she worked hard at teaching for them but also for herself and her family. The student, who had paid attention, asked his realtor mom if she could help him locate Ms. Olsen by searching through recent home sales, which she did.

For Olsen, this story is more about the explosive force of student will than who she was as a teacher. “With kids today, it’s You better teach me. You better figure out a way to make me work.” Olsen says, “And I did.”

Gian

Ask any teacher why they teach, and somewhere in the answer you’ll hear this:

The kids.

Yeah, well, the kids drove me nuts.

I mean, why did they make everything so hard? Gian, one of my mainstreamed special ed students, had better classroom skills than the rest of them. Gian was never late. He came in, got his materials and homework out, started work on the warm-up, followed all my instructions to the letter. Gian couldn’t read, write, or talk — but he was the perfect tenth-grade student.

I guess it’s not surprising that, with an attitude like that, I didn’t make it. The graduate program I had graced with my presence in order to score a teaching credential had suspected I wouldn’t. They’d tried to cull me early on, threatening expulsion because of insubordination.

Damn straight I was insubordinate. The UCSD classes where I was being trained to be a public-school teacher were boring and often silly. I’d survived the public-school careers of my own two children, and I knew what kind of students they’d been (insubordinate) and what I’d been like as a high school student’s parent (even worse). I feared the UCSD education instructors weren’t preparing me in any real sense for what I’d find in a San Diego public high school English class.

In the end, I buckled. Kept quiet. Attended class. Did my homework. Made straight A’s. Like Gian, I played the school game.

I got my teaching credential. Monkey see, monkey do. Not surprisingly, my students suffered under me what I had suffered in “teacher school.” Every day they filed into my English class expecting it to be boring and silly. Often, it was.

And, I admit, I probably hadn’t loved my students much more than my education instructors loved me. They hadn’t cared, for instance, that I was a single mom of grown kids, that I’d taught myself to surf head-high waves, or had survived my first husband’s embezzlement of a million dollars, which left me and my kids destitute, or that I had a master’s degree in English or was a published playwright. Never mind that I just might bring something unique and individual to their classes or to a teaching career. Or that my insubordinate questioning came from a burning desire to get teaching right.

The most interesting thing I remember about my UCSD education instructors was that one of them was a world-renowned bagpiper. In comparison, my teacher-in-training cohort was part of the most brilliant and diverse group of people I’ve ever known. In the end we were only bodies to fill with the drill, to be remade in our instructors’ image. Just as I, later in my chain-gang classroom, with its rules and regulations and expectations, was determined to remake students in mine.

One Saturday night, during my second year of teaching, while flipping through TV channels I stumbled onto an interview between a former professor of mine and a San Diego City Schools principal. The two sat there and coolly discussed teachers. How teachers needed to be managed and evaluated, regulated and held accountable. They might as well have said, If it weren’t for us education professors and district administrators, heaven knows what would be happening in your San Diego classrooms!

I fired off an unprofessional email to my former professor, who never replied, and, I’m sure, erased me from his address book. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember my rage. Because in two years of teaching in at-risk high schools, I personally knew hundreds of teachers. They were scholars, drinkers, burnouts, geniuses, whack jobs, angels of mercy, nationally ranked professionals, sports coaches, district toadies, flirts, union reps.

I don’t remember a single teacher who didn’t give teaching everything he or she had to give.

Granted, some had more to give than others. But of the teachers I knew, not one phoned it in.

Not because an administrator was watching, but because the students were.

Mr. Giardina

Jim Giardina is a La Jolla Shores local I’ve known since I started surfing. When I interviewed at Morse Senior High, I dropped his name. I told the new principal how highly Jim thought of her.

“Who?” the new principal said.

“Jim Giardina, um, he teaches history. And government, maybe? He thinks you’re bringing the right kind of, um, change to Morse,” I said.

“Oh, yes, Jim,” the new principal said. I wasn’t convinced she knew who Jim was. And in truth, what Jim had said about her wasn’t that flattering, but he was the only connection I had to the school, so I played it.

I got the job.

Five years later, that principal is long gone. Giardina, on the other hand, is well into his 33rd year of teaching. (One of the most valuable lessons any new teacher can learn is that principals come and go, but the principal’s secretary and the tenured teachers stay. Those are the alliances that matter most.)

Through every new administration and its reform policies, Giardina goes his merry way. His classroom technique is set in stone: high expectations, caustic wit, intolerance for bullshit, and show-stopping intelligence. Ask him why he teaches, and you’ll get a wise-guy answer: “Because I can’t sing or dance.”

When I worked the Morse graduation ceremony at year’s end, seating graduates and their families, the PA system reverberated through Viejas Arena, blasting recorded voices of seniors sending shout-outs to their favorite teachers. Over and over, I heard Giardina’s name.

“Hey, Mr. G! It’s me, Alonzo Becerra! Thanks for kicking my butt! You’re the best! Later!”

Over at RateMyTeacher.com, the site where students grade their teachers anonymously, posting for all the world to see anything they feel like writing (with little or no punctuation or correct spelling), not one student who’s posted on Giardina gives him anything less than a 4.5 out of 5.

The comments run like this: “Everyone fears him in the beginning and loves him by the end…An admirable genius of a teacher…Consider yourself lucky if you have him, and savor every word he says!”

The year I taught at Morse with Giardina, I spent $2000 of my own money on school supplies and making copies. Outside of the eight hours a day in class, I’d work six to eight more on lesson planning and grading. These were 12- to 18-hour days, usually seven days a week.

When friends asked what teaching was like, I got tired of saying, “Hell.” I wanted to be more specific. “Teaching,” I’d say, “is like writing one, two (or even three) new 60-minute stand-up routines every night and performing them the next day in front of five tough audiences.”

These killer routines (properly balanced with student participation and teacher instruction) had to keep students awake; motivate them to learn one of the hundreds of grade-level skills mandated by the State of California; implement a variety of different learning styles; and be adaptable to every disability represented in the class. Oh, and, um, impress the principal if she walked in.

And every night you start again.

Serious homework for the rest of your life. (One veteran English teacher I knew awoke at 3:00 a.m. every Saturday — every Saturday — to grade papers. She’s been doing that for more than 20 years.)

That year, my second, just weeks after school started, I got desperate enough to pray. I prayed hard. When I woke up the following week to the 2003 wildfires and schools were closed for a week, I felt personally responsible. But I lesson-planned and graded the whole week and was able to catch up enough to make it through the semester.

Jim Giardina and other veteran teachers told me to calm down or I wouldn’t make it. Make it to five years, they said, and teaching would all “come together.”

I don’t know about that. But I am pretty sure that nobody teaches high school for 33 years who doesn’t love the kids.

Laheqa and Mohamed

I can’t even count the number of different countries of birth represented by the students I taught. There were religious holidays I’d never heard of and first names I never learned to pronounce properly. Some immigrant students had the English skills of a kindergartener, others were at the top of our class. The only Muslims I’ve ever known personally I met while teaching.

A recent UCSD graduate in international studies, and the first of her family to go to college, Laheqa Suljuki has just applied to optometry school. We bumped into each other by accident when Laheqa fit my glasses at LensCrafters. “Is it really you?” Laheqa asked, as we sat face to face. Looking past the womanly hijab she now wears, I recognized the face of the girl I had taught (and worried about when she fasted for Ramadan) seven years ago.

Now we stay in touch by email, sometimes chatting about the same books. We both loved The Kite Runner, a novel about Laheqa’s native Afghanistan, which she never knew because she was so young when her family fled the Soviet occupation. I was honored to help with the application essays she needed for optometry school.

Somalia-born Mohamed Sufi had a harder time with school. He was truant. When he did show up, he worked hard and often stayed late, demanding he be taught on his time, not mine. But like me, Mohamed’s brashness belied his fear of failing.

The summer after he left our tenth-grade class, Mohamed emailed: “Ms. fin, I want to be a writer, if you dont mind if you could still be my tearcher and teach me how to be a writer.” A month later, he changed his tune and lambasted me for having given him a final “D” for my class: “if a student failes, its the teacher’s fult because the teacher didn’t do their job.”

Five years later, Mohamed is in college: “I have changed my mind of being a writer because I love math and I am good at it.” He maintained a 4.0 at Southwestern College and has since transferred to Miramar with plans to finish at SDSU with a major in mechanical engineering. His motto is Don’t work hard, work smart, picked up from one of his college instructors. Mohamed’s success (and the improved English in his emails) makes my heart sing.

Mr. Newton and Ms. Youmans

Ed Newton retired last year after 35 years of teaching political science. Adored and revered by his students, Newton was presented with a new G&S longboard by his last class at La Jolla High School. He has a box of thank-you notes (thank-you notes!), all echoing the same sentiments: “Your class set off a spark in me” or “If, in my life I could ever affect people the way you do, I would consider myself a success.”

About his students Newton says, “It was a privilege to be around them. They enriched my life in ways beyond knowing. I think they sensed that about my feelings for them.”

My students didn’t have to sense my feelings for them. I made things pretty clear. I once jumped on a table and yelled down at them. Another time I tripped a problem student as he left class, sending him sprawling in front of the incoming class, who of course jeered and laughed. Sarcasm was something none of my students had mastered yet; I used mine like a taser.

The first year was my worst. That’s the year I taught tenth-grade English language learners and The Catcher in the Rye to high school juniors, many of whom read at a fourth-grade level. Our classroom was a pre-WWII, rat-infested, lead-painted, asbestos-coated bungalow under the landing flight path at Lindbergh Field. (I was not above telling students that our classroom represented what the school district thought of us, as opposed to, say, the students and teachers at La Jolla High, from which my son had graduated.)

One afternoon, a fellow teacher I didn’t know came to call. Tom Jackson introduced himself, then handed me a book. A gift, he said, that he thought I could use. I figured he’d heard about the table-jumping and student-tripping through campus gossip.

“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m doing better.” (I’d turned myself in and gotten in pretty big trouble.)

“Read it,” Jackson said. I did.

It wasn’t like any book they’d had us read at teacher school. The Courage to Teach assumes that people who go into teaching want to teach and love their subject matter. Therefore, it offers only one recipe for teaching success: living a full, rich life outside of teaching. Sort of like filling yourself up so you have something real and honest to give. (For example: an English teacher needs to read for her own pleasure — not just the juvenile novels and course materials she has to teach. That totally nailed me.) The book’s simple premise is that good teaching has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with the “identity and integrity” of the individual teacher.

This may sound like a no-brainer.

But to the new teacher bombarded with super-teacher classroom tricks, educational buzzwords, constant observation and justification, weeks of governmental student-testing, and the threat (and insult) of carrot-leading-the-donkey merit pay, as if we were salespeople at a used car lot, it was a revelation.

(This spring I followed with interest, via VoiceofSanDiego.com, what was happening at Keiller Leadership Academy, where teachers were trying to sever a partnership with the education department at University of San Diego, saying the university’s involvement, observations, and research in their classes was “interfering with their teaching.” Umm…)

I wish I could say that The Courage to Teach saved my teaching career, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as my grandmother used to say. Teaching with identity and integrity took more courage than I will ever have. But I did pass the book along to another teacher in crisis (who is still teaching), with instructions that she pass it along to the next teacher in need.

It took a hell of a lot of courage for math teacher Tom Jackson to walk into a stranger’s classroom and hand her a fistful of advice.

Just as it took courage for Ronette Youmans, a white chick from San Diego, to start her teaching career at one of the most dangerous high schools in East Los Angeles. Twenty-five years later, she’s a specialist in language development and teaches support classes for English learners at San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas. A calm, twinkly-eyed woman, Youmans knows her students and their families well. She visits their homes and attends family celebrations and often teaches successions of siblings and cousins. Kids come to her struggling with English and failing their math and science classes; years later, Youmans gets thank-you’s from college. She also has watched as promising students vanish after graduation without a trace because they are illegal.

I ask Youmans what keeps her teaching. “That’s an easy one!” she says. “It’s just never boring. If it’s not ‘No Child Left Behind’ you have to rise to, it’s the growing use of oxycontin among students. There’s always a challenge. And then, when that special student comes along — well, you just feel connected to all humanity.”

Youmans laughs.

“And teaching part-time helps.”

Matt and Garry

Twice, former students have emailed burning questions to me years after leaving my class.

Garry Hutabarat emailed: “What was the title of that book we read in the last few weeks of the ’03–’04 year that was written by a Filipino author? I want to read it again, but I forgot the name and author.”

American Son, I wrote back. An L.A. Times Book of the Year, and a text I’d gone out on a limb to ask the school librarian to order, it’s a gritty, bitterly sad novel about gang violence, and probably too advanced (and grim) for tenth-graders. We’d read it together in class, in groups, in the last weeks of the school year. Even the poorest readers were desperate to follow the story. When we didn’t finish the book in time, students begged to take it home.

Garry lives in Denver and works at Walmart. In my class, he was our grammar and spelling whiz, talents of which he’s still proud, especially on Facebook, where he rues the fact that “internet slang has overtaken it all.”

Matt Henrickson had been a student in my most difficult class. It was 11th-grade English in the toxic bungalow, where class size depended on the day’s truancy but hovered near 40. I almost couldn’t blame the 6’7” basketball player who one day physically threatened me in front of the class. (The principals refused to remove the dangerous student until the union rep intervened on my behalf.) Despite class conditions, Matt was a good student and prolific poet.

Today Matt still writes poetry. He’s also a writer, online marketer, and father of a beautiful son. His internet empire spans everything from freebies (itsallfreeonline.com) to fantasy football (fantastyfootballnstuff.com). Three years after leaving the toxic bungalow, Matt emailed me, “I was wondering if you remember the author I liked so much…the Mexican guy who had been in and out of prison?”

New Mexico poet and memoirist Jimmy Santiago Baca is now featured on Matt’s blog, words ofapoet.com.

Mr. Kajitani

To see teacher courage in action, go to YouTube and look up “Rappin’ Mathematician” Alex Kajitani.

Kajitani is a math teacher at Mission Middle School, Escondido. He is also California Teacher of the Year (2009) and one of the four finalists for National Teacher of the Year (2009) feted by President Obama at the White House this spring.

How good is Kajitani? Let’s just say that after watching Kajitani’s math/

music video, “The Number Line Dance,” for the first time in this English major’s life, I understand negative numbers. Thanks to his snappy rap lyrics — along with the award-winning camera work and editing of the Mission Middle School Video Club and the exuberant performances of Kajitani’s eighth-grade math students, who lip-synch, dance, and star in the video — I finally got a concrete explanation for something I’d always believed was an abstraction.

Instead of spending money

I went to my new job

And washed five cars

For my new boss, Bob.

Five cars at two dollars

I was positive ten.

Yeah, the Number Line Dance,

I was at it again.

Negative to the left,

Positive to the right

It’s the Number Line Dance,

And I could dance all night.

In his first year of teaching, “out of desperation,” Kajitani started rapping about math as a way to reach students at one of the lowest-performing schools in one of the most impoverished areas of San Diego County. Nine years later, what made Kajitani a finalist for National Teacher of the Year is that, against all odds, his students learn. They test above district averages in math. Many become involved in the technical production of the math-rap videos. Kajitani’s goal is not just that his students leave his class full of more math, but with strong lifetime skills such as self-discipline and personal responsibility.

On the last day of school, Kajitani always tells students they’ve got homework. “What!” they shriek. “You can’t give homework on the last day!” The final assignment is to come back and tell him how they’re doing.

And they do. Kajitani gets at least one email or visit a week from former students.

“What’s funny is that they rarely bring up the math that we spent the year learning. They always want to know if I’m still rappin’ or if I still tell my funny ‘nacho cheese’ joke,’ ” Kajitani says. “I realize that perhaps not every one of my students will go to college, but they will one day be a neighbor, a coworker, and a friend — and that’s why we’re really teaching.”

Courtney

Last year, four years after I’d left teaching, I got an email from a former tenth-grade student, Courtney Griffin-Oliver. She had to Google me to find my email address, Courtney writes, and she doesn’t think I’ll remember her. Then this:

“Thank you for making us read A Raisin in the Sun. That is still one of my favorite books, even today. I’m in my second year of college at UC Merced. I’m a Cognitive Sciences major.”

Cognitive sciences major. UC Merced.

Wow.

For some reason — coming so many years later? — this hit me hard. The students I’d taught had stayed eerily frozen in time, stuck in those same classrooms, waiting for me to deliver the perfect lesson that would send them off to better lives, more opportunities, every success. My brief foray into teaching had left only memories sodden with regret and failure.

Until Courtney.

A Raisin in the Sun! Her favorite! It had been my favorite too that year. I cried in front of the class at the part where Walter rises to the occasion and acts like a man for the first time in his life, saving himself and his family. Completely overcome, I managed only to choke out, “It’s just so beautiful.” The class went dead quiet, made reverent by a teacher’s tears over Lorraine Hansberry’s dialogue.

Yes, of course, I remembered Courtney. An avid reader, she was a fan of a novel I’d bought for our classroom library. I don’t remember the title, but it had an African-American woman detective. When I replied, Courtney emailed back, apologizing for never having returned the novel. She still had it.

That made me even happier.

This young woman popped my narcissistic obsession with having failed as a teacher. But it wasn’t the kind things she said about me. It was she. Her identity and integrity.

I was just a trailing blip in the supersonic jet stream of Ms. Courtney Griffin-Oliver. How beautiful that was. To finally get it, that every student’s life and all its possibilities, good and bad, are beyond the imagination of any teacher, no matter how well intentioned.

I had only to give what I could.

One of Courtney’s fondest memories of our class was how I’d made the kids sit in assigned seats. It really taught her about diversity, she said, since she was forced to interact “with people of different backgrounds [ethnicity, gender, religion] and personalities.” I had changed the students’ seats at the beginning of each grading period. “When we were just getting comfortable with a deskmate, we were given a new partner,” Courtney wrote. “I remember making friends with students whom I would not have known otherwise. (One of those desk partners is still my very best friend to this day.)”

Assigned seats! The thing my students grumbled about most and something I’d done to subjugate them.

Who knew?

When Courtney had me as a teacher, long after my table-jumping and student-tripping days, I still had no life outside the classroom, but at least it ran fairly smoothly. I was an able practitioner of the “Workshop Method,” the district’s literacy cure-all of 2002–’04. I self-monitored, faithfully analyzing data from state testing so I knew which students had improved in my class and which hadn’t. (Ah, that misguided notion that knowledge can be measured like milk in a cup. Remember how Courtney learned from assigned seats?) I garnered excellent reviews: “Ms. Finlayson is a valued and respected member of Morse High School who has the potential to be an exemplary teacher.”

But one day, when I caught one of my more capable, ambitious students cheating for the second time, I was not exemplary. I kneeled by his desk, stared him down, and quietly called him a “little motherfucker” in front of the whole class.

Yep.

I did.

Once again, I ended up in the principal’s office. I called the boy’s parents and apologized. I apologized to the class: “Never, ever let a teacher talk that way to you. Thank you, whoever turned me in. I was totally out of line. I’m sorry.”

After class, the boy I’d cursed came up to thank me. Thank me. He said that my anger proved to him that I really cared. “Ms. Fin, you could have lost your job for me,” he said. “I’ll do better, I promise.”

And he did.

That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in teacher school.

Donna, Reyna, Joe, Dulce, and Maritza

While Erika Olsen had none, I had had two influential English teachers at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas. Margarite Troutman was tall and arty, with thick wedges of smoky black eyeliner. She introduced us to creative writing and contemporary novels featuring anguished young heroes. She even let us use sentence fragments in our writing, if we put an asterisk at the end so she’d know that we knew it was not a complete sentence.

Wilma Ruth Waller was short and homely and wore a topknot of matted hair shaped like a cow pie. For her, we wrote an essay a week, but the real work began when the papers came back. For every sentence with an error, you had to write a new, corrected sentence. Under the corrected sentence, you had to write out the rule(s) you’d broken. Worst of all, after school you had to hang out at Miss Waller’s desk, subject to her bad breath and sharp tongue, waiting in line for your ultra-legible, neatly pencil-written corrections to be approved. One step wrong, and you started all over.

By year’s end, I had a notebook full of prized writing. But on the last day, Miss Waller collected our notebooks, blithely telling us that she always burned student work so that we couldn’t sell our essays to the class coming after us.

When I had my first success as a playwright, I tried, to no avail, to find Mrs. Troutman and thank her. I settled for Miss Waller. I sent her a carefully written and much proofread note of gratitude tucked inside a copy of my first published play. She promptly wrote back that she certainly hoped she’d played no part whatsoever in the filth I’d written and that she’d happily burned my play and all the “obscene language” in it.

Even as a teacher, school always felt as if I was still standing at Miss Waller’s desk. Nothing I did seemed enough. At the end of my first year, I looked back at my survival with wonder. At least three new English teachers had dropped out during the 2003–’04 school year at San Diego High. I never would have made it without the support of Amanda Wheeler and Courtney Pearson, new teachers who taught with gusto and confidence and who loved the kids. But of us three, only I was invited to apply for one of the few job openings in the next year.

On a hot summer afternoon, the other applicants and I competed against each other, performing a “Demonstration Lesson” for a panel of teachers. When my turn came, I pretended to be a teacher teaching a lesson to students, while teachers I pretended not to know, but who had been in and out of my classroom all year observing me teach real lessons to real students, graded my performance.

One chance to get it right. No credit for the past year in the toxic bungalow. As much as I wanted to stay at San Diego High, I didn’t wait for the verdict and took a job at Morse the next day. They say a new teacher’s survival improves greatly if you can stay at one school and build a support system.

But maybe more important is that by staying at a school, former students know where to find you. They can drift back by. Say hi. And remind you that the only reason you survive at this job is all the lives and stories that touch yours. In 33 years at Morse, I figure Jim Giardina has taught somewhere around 6000 students.

I am tickled by every chance encounter with a former student. Bryan Beltran outside Pacific Skate Shop. Jorge working security at the Target on Sports Arena Blvd. Hattie serving at the Original Pancake House. Coral surfing at La Jolla Shores.

I confess I’ve looked up a few students on Facebook and MySpace and am deeply moved by how grown up they are.

I treasure every email.

Today Donna Arceo is a nurse. A year out of my class she emailed: “Everything that you have taught me last year is still with me. It has helped me be at the top of my English class!”

Reyna Moreno is at UC Santa Cruz. She checks in periodically to make sure I’m still surfing.

Joseph Butler is the composer/musician DJ Ohsnap. He’s been homeless twice, attended classes at City and Southwestern, and is currently learning to play the piano. Joe writes me, “I’m the type that comes like BOOM to the gay community leaving everybody shocked and dazzled.”

I’ve lost track of Dulce Chavira and Maritza Gutierrez. They witnessed me standing up on that table, those two friends. Together they had emailed me the summer after leaving our class: “We will miss you very much. You were always that teacher who would always have a honest smile on her face every morning.”

The teacher with the honest smile.

Every morning.

How did I forget that part?

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Comments

Thanks for publishing this Reader. Very enjoyable read.

Alex thanks for making the point that teachers teach for their love of the subject matter, and their love of the kids. The analogy about merit pay and used car salesmen was right on.

Thank you so much for including me in this article. You were someone who really developed my interest in poetry (I had progressed from 10th grade) and really got me into it. You weren't just a regular teacher, you sought out my personal interest, who I was and TAUGHT me that way, not just as another student.

As a first year teacher you got some tough shots, but as a teacher your methods were beyond what I had. You weren't a teacher with a tenure that took it for granted and got through the day. You weren't happy UNLESS you reached someone and made a difference, and that is what school is lacking, and was when I was in high school. 90% of my teachers didn't offer the time you did.

Congratulations on a brilliant cover story and thank you so much for influencing my life and of course, including me in this story!

Matthew Henrickson http://www.wordsofapoet.com :P

I agree with Matt, the one thing I RARELY see as a current high school student is a teacher who is willing to reach out above and beyond. Many teachers only work hard until tenure, and then do not give a crap about kids. To them, its just a place to pick up a paycheck and health insurance. We need to get rid of tenure, or the teachers who abuse it.

Praise to the teachers who deal with hard conditions, I feel for you. I live in a suburb of Detroit, MI and even in the suburbs kids are bad. I was bullied relentlessly, until a teacher intervened. Sure, they helped, but I had to go to court and force the Principal of the school to testify for a court ordered personal protection order. This SHOULD NOT happen! Teachers and students should feel safe, but hopefully things will improve.

I worked in different capacities in the public schools for years, I can relate to much of what I read here. I think we all know of a few teachers that so profoundly touched our lives; how great it would be to find them and let them know how so.

~Stacey Ross www.SanDiegoBargainMama.com

Wow, what honest writing! I am also a teacher and would have been so tempted to paint a prettier picture of my worst moments.
Ms. Finlayson's willingness to level with us - as well as her clear, excellent prose - makes this a really powerful read. Don't you want to hear the rest of her stories? I do.

I've been teaching for 14 years now, currently at a continuation school in North County, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what it is like to teach in today's classroom. This story was pretty accurate and I think does a good job in relaying how tough it is to teach today's students. Kids today are just a reflection of the broader society, and today's society is so screwed up that it is almost an untenable situation in the schools yet teachers are expected to compensate for years of parental and societal neglect. Witness some of the comments here, as though teachers should be expected now to not only teach effectively but also parent other people's kids. Some teachers do, and in my experience to the detriment of their own family life and sanity. That might explain the high teacher drop out rate and the interestingly high number of kids we get at continuation who's parents are teachers. I think we as teachers do a damn good job given the situation; kids from broken homes, kids from households where the parents have low to no educational skills, transient populations, etc etc etc, issues teachers 30 years ago when US society was much more stable, did not, by and large, have to deal with. So, for all the "educational experts" out there, go sit in a classroom for a week and show us all how it is done instead of sitting in your offices with other adults musing on the "correct" way to teach.

The problem with the teaching profession (I am a licensed teacher) is that the public unions run it, not the gov or the parents.

The administration is usually choked full of political hacks who would have a hard time being hired at Wal-Mart, and when you have idiots at the top then they invariably hire other idiots to teach. Which brings me to the classroom teacher.

The classroom teacher IMHO, falls into three levels, just as the private sector does, but with vastly different %'s at those levels.

In the private sector you usually have 10%, 15%, maybe 20% of employees doing excellent, outstanding jobs, then another 70-80% in the middle doing average jobs and then 5% failing. The failing % is low because they fire these people.

In the teaching environment you have a much high % of outstanding and excellent teachers, at least 30% or higher, while there are very few teachers who fall into the average range, maybe 15%-20%, and then the number who are just awful swells at the bottom level, at least 25%-30%. The reason is you have very dedicated employees, hard driven teachers at the top who view this as a calling, not a job, and you cannot fire a teacher for incompetence at the bottom (unless the district wants to spend $500K to $1 million to document the case and TRY to fire the bad teacher).

Add on the fact that to become a teacher today causes major a would be teacher brain damage. 30 years ago you could get a “lifetime” credential with just one year of credential classes-one semester in teacher education courses and another student teaching. 20 years ago you could get a 5-year credential with just one year of credential classes. Today it takes 2 years of teacher education classes, PLUS numerous follow up classes, plus in excess of $30K to pay for it all-AFTER the BA is earned.

Ask ANY teacher who have been through these credentialing classes if they are a value-even close to being useful in becoming a teacher, they will virtually ALL tell you the same thing-waste of time and money. You don’t learn to ride a bike in a classroom, and you don’t learn how to become an effective teacher in a teacher education course either. Class control and respect is a far bigger part of being a teacher than developing a lesson plan, and there is only one place you learn that on the job, the sooner, the better.

You could do a thorough, state of the art, teacher education credentialing classes in an 8 week time span, with another 8 weeks of student teaching and be better prepared than the garbage they teach in these 2+ years, tens of thousands of dollars, credentialing programs teacher wannabes currently go through.

Anyway-just my thoughts-some of you may not agree, but that’s how I see it.

So, for all the "educational experts" out there, go sit in a classroom for a week and show us all how it is done instead of sitting in your offices with other adults musing on the "correct" way to teach.

By Braukuche

You hit the nail on the head there.

. .

I am also a teacher and would have been so tempted to paint a prettier picture of my worst moments.

By TAV1

The worst moments/times I EVER encountered in teaching(by far) was NEVER with a student/s, but dealing with sub IQ adminsitrators-some who were so lacking in common sense it was amazing they could dress themselves and tie their shoes laces in the morning.

Surf I agree with your take on teacher ed. Most of it is driven by people who couldn't hack it in the classroom and looked for a way out, and now spend their time justifying their jobs by heaping requirements on working teachers.

However I disagree on your take about "failing" teachers. Your numbers are way too high. Most bad teachers find their way out of the profession fairly quickly. The job is just too hard if you're not one of those who views it as a calling. In my view most teachers are either great or good. Very few are "failing".

In the schools I taught at, Sweetwater, there was a very high % of awful teachers, and very few in the middle/average range.

Most were really good or really bad.

We had many teachers that should have been fired, but it was too costly and toop long. So they usually just shipped the bad teachers off to other schools=pass the buck-kick the can down the road mentality.

Administration there was the worst. Started at the top and worked it's way down. Ed Brand was running SW back then, he left and went to San Marcos, where they promtly fired him for trying to bring in his cronyism hires.

That was the best and most rewarding job I ever had.

While this story didn't closely parallel my own as a high school teacher, a few of the comments were eerily close to my own experiences. If there was one thing I resented it was administrators who hadn't taught in years or decades coming into my room and then telling me how wrong my approach was. That was even more galling when they admitted freely that they knew nothing about the subjects I taught, i.e. "hard" sciences.

I tend to agree with SurfPuppy619's characterization of the teacher preparation programs as they now operate in California. But so often, those who teach the teachers and those who evaluate them really don't like kids, hence they fled the classroom.

The "system" laments the fact that fewer than half of those earning credentials are still teaching after five years. Not just a few actually decide not to pursue the career as they complete the credentialing program! If folks who undertake the career are to succeed, they need the full support both of the administrators (not just criticism) and their colleagues. Peer support and encouragement are key. My first teaching position had me assigned to a teacher who was supposed to mentor me. Very shortly into the year, she took a dislike to me, or something, for reason(s) I could never determine, and quit talking to me. How's that for mentoring? Later I learned that she had done the same thing to other teachers she was supposed to help. Why did the school keep assigning her to do a task that she found distasteful? I can only assume that neither the principal nor the department head really knew or cared. But it made a huge difference to me.

There are some wonderful folks in those high schools, some who do a good job, and some who are burned out. The burn out seems to have little to do with the number of years spent in the job. Some burn out in three years, while some are going strong and doing the best work of their lives at 33 years.

Is it getting harder to be a public school teacher? Oh, yes! The sort of kid from a home where a call home from the teacher resulted in some real consequences is not typical any more. He/she is the exception. And affluence has little to do with student attitudes. One of the Poway high schools has the raunchiest behavior I've ever experienced, and it is or was recently, the most affluent in that district.

One parallel with my experience was starting into teaching at an age when my kids were grown or nearly grown. I had one teacher friend who told me that he didn't advise anyone past the age of 25 to try to break in. His reason: the work was just "too different" from almost anything else. If you had a career dealing with adults, retraining to deal with teenagers was just not likely to work or work well. I only wish I'd met him before I earned my credential.

My name is Estela and I was in your 10th grade english class at Morse. It was refreshing to have a teacher that wore her heart on her sleave.I remember you always let us know EXACTLY how you felt. Your actions encouraged me to stand up and say what I really felt.

-Thank You.

I've been teaching English in Southeast San Diego for seven years: five at an alternative high school and two years at Lincoln. Finlayson's piece is the kind of article about teaching I would've liked to write had I the insight, talent, and (most of all) time to do it. Bravo, Alex! Her comments about the importance of peer and administrator support were accurate. As for Finlayson's "worst moments"--I've been there, sister. Her new-teacher experiences are, unfortunately, typical: inferior facilities, overcrowded classes, and stress. I appreciate both the courage it took to write about them and the self-restraint needed not to sensationalize. It was clean and honest prose. One caveat, though: the stats on new teacher attrition are probably misleading because it's most graduates' first job out of college, and seldom do people stick with their first job out of college. That said, I can't think of a more traumatic entree into the adult working world than first-year teaching. Not only does one have to teach the kids and manage the myriad demands of content and curriculum, but learn to work in a lumbering district culture that rewards inefficiency over creativity. It takes getting used to. A good principal and a good "venting buddy" close at hand can make all the difference. Had I not come to teaching from an even more bizarre, high-pressure field (advertising and marketing) I don't think I would've had the perspective to make it through my first five years.

I thought this article was a great read. But a few things strike me as odd.

One, why even care about finding out what the basketball player that threatened you is doing? He should've been expelled, and possibly done some jail time. Who really cares that he writes poetry now. I bet he's still threatening people when he gets angry, instead of calmly talking the situation out.

Second, why would a teacher get so angry and (jumping on the desk I can forgive), but to call someone cheating on a test the f-word. Why in the world, would a teacher take that personally? It baffles me. A teacher holds all the cards. He/she can calmly say "Well...this is the second time I've caught you cheating. So, you're going to get an F on this test, and probably an F in my class. Unless every day, you turn in some extra credit. And if I see you doing tests without your head even looking to the side. Even if you drop a pencil, you are not to pick it up."

Instead, this teacher has to curse.

This is definitely someone that wasn't equipped to be dealing with kids.

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