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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.

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Comments

rickeysays Aug. 19, 2009 @ 4 p.m.

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.

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MatthewHenrickson Aug. 19, 2009 @ 5:46 p.m.

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

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ryan444123 Aug. 19, 2009 @ 10:54 p.m.

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.

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sdbargainmama Aug. 20, 2009 @ 12:22 a.m.

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

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TAV1 Aug. 20, 2009 @ 10:19 p.m.

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.

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Braukuche Aug. 21, 2009 @ 7:38 a.m.

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.

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SurfPuppy619 Aug. 21, 2009 @ 1:06 p.m.

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.

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SurfPuppy619 Aug. 21, 2009 @ 1:15 p.m.

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.

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rickeysays Aug. 21, 2009 @ 2:42 p.m.

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".

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SurfPuppy619 Aug. 21, 2009 @ 9:13 p.m.

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.

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Visduh Aug. 22, 2009 @ 1:20 p.m.

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.

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estelag88 Aug. 22, 2009 @ 10:09 p.m.

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.

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11StSurfer Aug. 23, 2009 @ 8:32 a.m.

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.

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Josh Board Aug. 24, 2009 @ 2:29 a.m.

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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