While Phineas & Ferb are at it…

What I tend to call “the silly season” is upon us, now that summer school has ended for me, and I actually get to settle into an unfamiliar pattern of trying to figure what the hell I plan on doing with myself, and, more importantly, my preschooler.  The wife, as a 12-month employee, is working.  Either way, my days promise to be busy, but nevertheless, thoughts never stray too far from what lies on the other end of the summer months.

Summer school this year has nonetheless caused me to have to periodically check my district e-mail.  Along with the summer school traffic regarding required lesson planning and test results, comes a usual e-mail from my boss, asking if any of us wants to take on a student teacher.  It wasn’t always thus;  I can recall my first few years as a teacher, when only a select few got student teachers.  At the time, in addition to student teachers from CSULB, Pepperdine, among others, were also able to get placements in our school.  As a Pepperdine graduate, eventually I was deemed worthy, and I was lucky to have 4 student teachers from their Orange County campus in my classroom.  After my last student teacher 4 years ago, Pepperdine somehow stopped using my school for a student teaching location, and, in retrospect, I was somehow happy.  (1)  I had become good friends with my final protege but (2) becoming friends with my student teachers after they left made their struggles to find jobs quite painful.

The job market for teachers right now is not the best, and it hasn’t been for a while.  As I type this, I am awaiting the fate of one young teacher with whom I’ve become acquainted, whose job prospects are completely dependent upon another teacher friend who was student teaching at my school around the same time my own protege was finding her way in my classroom.  Honestly, becoming close to and working with young teachers was a lot like rooting for players on some perverse form of the TV Show Survivor.  On the other hand, these are education’s future, and in a couple of cases, I strongly feel that these teachers have the potential to be far better a teacher than I can ever hope to be.  I worry for the profession if these folks are lost to the classroom because of a political climate where education is seen as some form of luxury and drain upon state budgeting.

What I am sharing out now is something that I wrote 3 years ago, as piece for the UCI Writing Project.  I’ve removed names of the people involved, as I am close to all of them still, but the rest of the piece is intact.  Perhaps it’s cheating to use something I’ve written previously, but the mere fact that I got that e-mail about student teachers this fall, coupled with the hand-wringing I’m doing waiting to hear if a friend will get her job back, has me in the same frame of mind now, as I was then…

The key into the closet door, and then it’s unlocked…“Um Huuuhhh…”

Since she was a 4th grader in my classroom years ago, I have come to recognize J.’s standard acknowledgement to herself that “it’s a good thing I’m here to help you”.  It is.  An August day in my classroom, which is, and it’s all too typical for me, a mess.   I am determined to make this the summer I clean it out, and having enlisted J.’s help—again—we’re about to start when I hear a knock on my classroom door.  

Glancing out the window, I see L.’s self-effacing smile on the other side.  I motion to her to come in while trying to keep a Darth Maul action figure out of box of graduated cylinders.  Introducing J. to her, I find it odd that she’d just drop in, until I learn the real reason…    “Hi, I just wanted to come by…[our principal] hired me on for the 3rd grade job.”

I know the back story, beyond the obvious need our school had for another 3rd grade teacher thanks to over-enrollment.  With class-size reduction still in place in our district, we had a slot for another teacher.  L., having spent her first year out of the credentialing program as a substitute teacher, has managed to snag the open spot—an open spot originally meant for someone else.  My school however, embodies the law of unintended consequences, and L. becomes the beneficiary, exemplifying the maxim that you make your own luck.  Branch Rickey once described luck as being the residue of design; for L., at least for this past school year, it has been.   Now though, the school year is over, and her full-time contract was only temporary.  L. is now looking for another job.

To paraphrase Graham Greene’s observation about suffering, anxiety need not be increased by numbers, because one person can contain all the anxiousness the world can feel.   Each and every year over 20,000 new teachers typically graduate with credentials in a state where over 300,000 currently work as teachers in the classroom.  But on Ed-Join, only 555 elementary and middle school classroom jobs (including substitutes) are listed as open.  Of those, there are only 182 job openings locally in Orange and Los Angeles counties.   Still, anxiety doesn’t increase by these numbers, because in L., I see all of the anxiousness.

Hi!  Hope summer is treating you well.
Question for you

Her message is detailed.  Reading it, I see that I need to talk to this girl but I can’t right now, especially not in a text message.  I switch phone screens under the table to get a message back out.

REPLY:  can i call u this afternoon?

Some time later, L. and I talk on the phone as I head out to the parking structure.  I have a list of errands to run, (and don’t forget Kate’s in daycare, [the wife] reminds me) but nevertheless, I know talking to someone right now is important and I have to find the time to speak to her.  A phone call doesn’t feel right for this conversation so I call my wife to rearrange  my afternoon before I call L. back.  L. is fine with meeting at a Starbucks.  We agree on a time and head our respective ways.
As I drive up the 405, I have never deluded myself into thinking that what I have to say could be that insightful for anything, but in this young teacher’s nascent career, I have stumbled into a sort of accidental mentorship, trying to gently guide her through a nearly barren job market for teachers.  I don’t mind the responsibility necessarily, and I am somewhat honored that someone other than my 5th graders feel that I have something meaningful to say, but L. has also become a friend.  That fact makes it worse, because I have no easy answers for her, and as a friend, I also might be charged with disclosing painful truths.  One of my 5th graders might muse over how “jacked up” these circumstances were.  “Yup” I mutter to that imaginary kid.  L.’s past year at Burbank impressed not just me, but others on my staff.  She was eager, enthusiastic, but also possessed of a quiet determination.  She comes early when the sun is rising and stays late after it’s gone down, often beyond reason.  L. even managed to find the time to help others with their adjunct duties, such as my work as the Yearbook adviser,  and she and I bonded because she knew that my legal issues with the baby’s adoption had nearly put me hopelessly behind.   But that was last year.  The 3rd graders whose presence had brought L. to Burbank were now headed to 4th grade, and L. is not being considered for one of the 2 open 4th grade spots.  Admittedly, unlike any number of new teachers, L.’s somewhat lucky.  Her circumstances will see her return to my school in the Fall, as she has accepted an open 50% slot working with another of my close friends, R., in second grade, with the option of subbing on her non-working days.  A 50% slot is not full-time she and I agree, and while we both talk about ways of find some way to make it work to her advantage, such as a return to school to get her Master’s degree, finding a full-time gig begins to dominate our conversations.

I remind myself that this process isn’t about me, and never has been.  My involvement is strictly as a spectator, and perhaps for that reason, it becomes so frustrating—I have no control over what will transpire.  I don’t know.  And it is in this “not knowing” and not being able to think of just the right thing to say to L. that my own anxiety grounds itself.  Worse, this is the third consecutive summer, following the struggles of young teachers as if I was following my fantasy baseball teams.  Two years ago, it was J., my student teacher that year, who finally, in mid-August, snared a job in Gardena teaching a 4/5 combo.  Last year seemed worse, because there were more people involved and because one of them was C., another of my student teachers—probably my best.  It was A., a former real-world co-worker in another life, and now the mother of one of my 5th graders.  And, it was yet another J., a former student teacher of my close friend and colleague, K.

Each of these women emerged from the cauldron relatively unscathed.  A., who had been a student-teacher in Lennox, got hired at the school where she trained and where they already held her in high regard.  C. had it worse, although partly through her own mechanizations.  Deluding herself into thinking that she could teach RSP, I got a call from her one evening.  She is in tears over discovering that she might be changing diapers on 12-year-olds if she wants to fulfill her dream of teaching in Downey, where she grew up,  because the only jobs they’re offering are for teaching the profoundly mentally delayed.  C. had made the rude discovery that this was not the journey she necessarily embarked upon.  Luckily for C., whose personal character mixes up the energy of a hyper teddy bear with the fierce loyalty of a mother grizzly, this specific chapter of her story will also end well.  My wife…is now a principal in [a local district], and seeing much of herself as a young teacher in C., and needing to hire several new staff members, my wife chooses her as one of her first hires.  But she’s not finished.  Late in the summer, when my own principal dragged his feet over whether or not to extend a job offer (for an open 3rd grade slot) to J. #2, Amber then arranged for an interview for a position at another elementary school in her district.  I am not surprised when J. #2 is hired.   She is good at what she does and I had warned my principal that he risked losing her on several occasions, then reiterated this warning to other staff members at my school who hoped that J. would take over the open 3rd grade position.  Because my principal either could not make up his mind or, in his words, had his hands tied by the district, J., who at this point, needed to look out for herself, cuts bait at my school, and heads to Whittier to accept a 1st grade job there.  Loyalty, in J.’s situation, can’t be reciprocated if it’s not backed up by actions.    Ironically, the open spot intended for J. falls into L.’s lap.  

The public never sees these stories about teachers, if they ever consider teachers at all, beyond the political demonization of teacher unions.   No, how the public still views schools is as Jonathan Kozol observed they did years ago:  they think that schools merely need the “savior”, the teacher as hero, be it Jaime Escalante, Joe Clark, Glenn Holland, or, most recently, Erin Gruwell.   They make it seem so easy, because the public demands it, all accompanied by the hip-hop soundtrack that makes money, but money that will never see the school systems that need it most, the ones that can’t find a job for people like L.  For any of the stories about teacher shortages, along with the need to cover so many impending retirements over the next several years, they undoubtedly assume that it won’t be that hard finding a job as a classroom teacher.   Older teachers don’t necessary retire “on time” and staffing needs can often get easily covered by creating combo classes or other sorts of  administrative subterfuge that makes it seem like jobs are open, when, in fact, they are not.  L.’s situation is likely not destined for Hollywood, but it doesn’t mean she hasn’t earned props.   Several of us on my staff have personally gone to our principal to vouch for her, and later on, when I get home, I will dash off another e-mail about her to my principal, opening up a message from the previous week.

>>> 06/23/08 1:22 PM >>>
greetings!  because j. is leaving us, we have an opening in fourth grade. the first step of the process to fill this position is to find out if anyone currently on staff would like to move to fourth grade.  if you would like to be considered for a move to fourth grade, let me know!
[my reply]
It wasn’t too long ago that I would have jumped at the chance to return to fourth grade. That having been said, you just hired someone for 2nd grade 50% slot who would make a fine 4th grade teacher, L.  If, in fact, there will eventually be another opening for the extra 4th grade slot, she would be buttressed by 2 veteran 4th grade teachers, an ideal situation for a newer staff member. – Hector

But that will be tonight.  I finally exit the 605 now and head down South Street, past the Cerritos Mall towards the Starbucks.  Finding a spot relatively close, I glance to my passenger’s side and see a familiar gray Corolla also pulling in.  As I walk up to the entrance, L. greets me with her usual quick smile.  I envy her ability to keep her perspective in the circumstances she finds herself.  Heading up to the counter, she starts to clue me in.  When we order drinks, I am quick to pull my wallet out to cover the order.

It is the least I can do.

As it turned out, L. wound up getting the fourth grade position, albeit after the school year had started.  She has tenure now, and is safe, at least for the time being.  And I wound up e-mailing my current principal that I would pass on taking a student teacher.  It’s getting too hard. 


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