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