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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.

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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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