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Jim Giardina and other veteran teachers told me to calm down or I wouldn’t make it. Make it to five years, they said, and teaching would all “come together.”

I don’t know about that. But I am pretty sure that nobody teaches high school for 33 years who doesn’t love the kids.

Laheqa and Mohamed

I can’t even count the number of different countries of birth represented by the students I taught. There were religious holidays I’d never heard of and first names I never learned to pronounce properly. Some immigrant students had the English skills of a kindergartener, others were at the top of our class. The only Muslims I’ve ever known personally I met while teaching.

A recent UCSD graduate in international studies, and the first of her family to go to college, Laheqa Suljuki has just applied to optometry school. We bumped into each other by accident when Laheqa fit my glasses at LensCrafters. “Is it really you?” Laheqa asked, as we sat face to face. Looking past the womanly hijab she now wears, I recognized the face of the girl I had taught (and worried about when she fasted for Ramadan) seven years ago.

Now we stay in touch by email, sometimes chatting about the same books. We both loved The Kite Runner, a novel about Laheqa’s native Afghanistan, which she never knew because she was so young when her family fled the Soviet occupation. I was honored to help with the application essays she needed for optometry school.

Somalia-born Mohamed Sufi had a harder time with school. He was truant. When he did show up, he worked hard and often stayed late, demanding he be taught on his time, not mine. But like me, Mohamed’s brashness belied his fear of failing.

The summer after he left our tenth-grade class, Mohamed emailed: “Ms. fin, I want to be a writer, if you dont mind if you could still be my tearcher and teach me how to be a writer.” A month later, he changed his tune and lambasted me for having given him a final “D” for my class: “if a student failes, its the teacher’s fult because the teacher didn’t do their job.”

Five years later, Mohamed is in college: “I have changed my mind of being a writer because I love math and I am good at it.” He maintained a 4.0 at Southwestern College and has since transferred to Miramar with plans to finish at SDSU with a major in mechanical engineering. His motto is Don’t work hard, work smart, picked up from one of his college instructors. Mohamed’s success (and the improved English in his emails) makes my heart sing.

Mr. Newton and Ms. Youmans

Ed Newton retired last year after 35 years of teaching political science. Adored and revered by his students, Newton was presented with a new G&S longboard by his last class at La Jolla High School. He has a box of thank-you notes (thank-you notes!), all echoing the same sentiments: “Your class set off a spark in me” or “If, in my life I could ever affect people the way you do, I would consider myself a success.”

About his students Newton says, “It was a privilege to be around them. They enriched my life in ways beyond knowing. I think they sensed that about my feelings for them.”

My students didn’t have to sense my feelings for them. I made things pretty clear. I once jumped on a table and yelled down at them. Another time I tripped a problem student as he left class, sending him sprawling in front of the incoming class, who of course jeered and laughed. Sarcasm was something none of my students had mastered yet; I used mine like a taser.

The first year was my worst. That’s the year I taught tenth-grade English language learners and The Catcher in the Rye to high school juniors, many of whom read at a fourth-grade level. Our classroom was a pre-WWII, rat-infested, lead-painted, asbestos-coated bungalow under the landing flight path at Lindbergh Field. (I was not above telling students that our classroom represented what the school district thought of us, as opposed to, say, the students and teachers at La Jolla High, from which my son had graduated.)

One afternoon, a fellow teacher I didn’t know came to call. Tom Jackson introduced himself, then handed me a book. A gift, he said, that he thought I could use. I figured he’d heard about the table-jumping and student-tripping through campus gossip.

“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m doing better.” (I’d turned myself in and gotten in pretty big trouble.)

“Read it,” Jackson said. I did.

It wasn’t like any book they’d had us read at teacher school. The Courage to Teach assumes that people who go into teaching want to teach and love their subject matter. Therefore, it offers only one recipe for teaching success: living a full, rich life outside of teaching. Sort of like filling yourself up so you have something real and honest to give. (For example: an English teacher needs to read for her own pleasure — not just the juvenile novels and course materials she has to teach. That totally nailed me.) The book’s simple premise is that good teaching has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with the “identity and integrity” of the individual teacher.

This may sound like a no-brainer.

But to the new teacher bombarded with super-teacher classroom tricks, educational buzzwords, constant observation and justification, weeks of governmental student-testing, and the threat (and insult) of carrot-leading-the-donkey merit pay, as if we were salespeople at a used car lot, it was a revelation.

(This spring I followed with interest, via VoiceofSanDiego.com, what was happening at Keiller Leadership Academy, where teachers were trying to sever a partnership with the education department at University of San Diego, saying the university’s involvement, observations, and research in their classes was “interfering with their teaching.” Umm…)

I wish I could say that The Courage to Teach saved my teaching career, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as my grandmother used to say. Teaching with identity and integrity took more courage than I will ever have. But I did pass the book along to another teacher in crisis (who is still teaching), with instructions that she pass it along to the next teacher in need.

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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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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".


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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