They’re young, most of them, and love teaching. They’re also hurt, many of them, and mad. They are the hundreds of teachers in San Diego County who have been laid off. This spring over 1400 received pink slips in the San Diego Unified School District; over 500 received them in the Vista Unified School District; others received them in Oceanside Unified, Ramona Unified, and other districts.
Halfway through the following interviews, on April 30, the San Diego Unified School District rehired all the teachers that had been given notice, but that seemed to make little difference in the depth of feelings expressed — the frustration, the anger, and the passion for our children.
Tommy Flanagan teaches at MacDowell Elementary in Clairemont, a school for sixth graders only. He moved to California during his senior year in high school. His dad worked for Chrysler, which opened a design center in Carlsbad in 1983. Flanagan went to Mesa College for a year and a half and then transferred to UC Santa Cruz. After managing record stores and working for a recording company, he went back to school at the age of 26.
Why did you become a teacher? “This is my calling. It took me until I was 30 years old to finally figure out what I was supposed to do in life. I’m 36 now; I’ll be 37 in July. I absolutely believe this is my calling. I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a history degree. They’re a dime a dozen, history degrees. And I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ I started working for this private tutoring center in Del Mar, and I just clicked with the kids there, and I loved it so much. Within a week I was enrolled in a credential program and blew through that program and got a job teaching. I come from a family of teachers as well, so I have certain insights about what things are like in other districts and other states.”
How long have you been teaching? “This is my fourth year.” Have you managed to pay off your college loans? “No. I’ve got 58 more payments to make. I’ve still got five more years to pay. My Perkins loan was paid off from working at MacDowell, because Bill Clinton had a program where if you worked in a low-income school, you would get a certain percentage of your loan knocked off each year.”
When you were preparing to teach, what were your dreams? And did you experience any disappointment with what you thought teaching might be? “Well, I have to say yes and no to that. I knew certain things I would be getting into, just having talked to my mom and sisters and aunts that are in the teaching profession, hearing about certain harassments people go through outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, I love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever done. I’m inspired by my kids every day. I was disappointed to see very low language levels and very low expectations in the schools. I don’t know if that was just with city schools. I have high expectations of students. What disappoints me sometimes is that many of the students I teach have never even considered the possibility of going to college, let alone what college they might go to. That’s one of my first questions, the first day of school. I ask them all to write down, ‘What college or university would you like to go to?’ And I’ve got kids who have never even considered going to college before. That makes me sad. So I’m trying to inspire them. I teach very underprivileged, disadvantaged kids that are several years behind with reading and math, mostly second-language learners. Very good kids in bad situations.
“I’m trying to, number one, break a certain macho cycle. I don’t let my boys push the girls around. I know we’re supposed to be respectful of cultures and things, but I’m not teaching my girls to be servants to men. Especially with the number of students I have where the dad is just not around, I want my girls to know they need to be able to take care of themselves without relying on a man. As well as getting to my boys the message, ‘You know what? It’s not okay to call her a bitch or to slap her.’ ”
So your calling is about more than teaching certain subjects? “Oh, yes; in particular, I teach mostly Hispanic students, and typically Hispanic voting rates in the general elections are very low. As teachers, we swear a written oath to uphold the Constitution, and it sounds corny, but that’s something I take very, very seriously. And I want to inculcate democracy into their hearts and minds and train them to be good citizens. Part of that is making them socially aware of what’s going on in our city and in our country and in our world and letting them know that they do have power with their vote. We’ve talked about boycotts too and the power they might have there. So I’m trying to, in my own little way, trying to get more Latino students to grow up to become more registered voters and to participate in the democratic process.”
What do you enjoy most? What makes a great day for you? “The light that goes on in their eyes when you’ve been trying to teach a particular concept — let’s say in math — and they’ve not been getting it, not been getting it, and are frustrated, and all of a sudden, the light goes on and it all falls into place for them. That, and the smiles and hugs I get from them. I’ve saved every little picture, every little note, that every student has given me.” You’re with them a lot of hours. “Let’s just say, on Father’s Day when we make cards, I get more cards than they make for their fathers. I’ve got some very good fathers, but the fact is, I’ve got some kids who don’t know who their father is — or they are in prison. I want to let the kids know the difference in sentencing laws between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. ‘Look, the crack is going into your neighborhood, and if you do this, you’re going to get a lot stiffer jail penalty than somebody else.’ Things like that they might not necessarily hear in life.”