War of Attrition

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Schmookler is convinced that support programs for new teachers would ease the frustration that drives many young teachers from the profession.

If the turnover is hard for the adults in the school, it is devastating for the students. It can take a year or more for young people, especially those living amid poverty and violence, to develop trust and respect for a teacher. Students take it personally when a teacher they have rapport with suddenly leaves.

Willie Hamilton, who taught at McClymonds for seven years before becoming its principal, replaces about one-third of his teachers every year. "When there's that kind of instability, the kids begin to ask themselves, 'Why bond?'" Hamilton says. "As the year goes on, they'll nervously start asking you if you're coming back. If you tell them you're not, they take it very hard, very personally, even if you're leaving to take on another challenge. And they always blame themselves. 'Are we that bad?' they'll ask. 'Do you really not like us?' They're like kids whose parents divorce; they always accept the blame."

When asked what it would take to get more talented young teachers to come to schools like McClymonds and stay awhile, Schmookler says, "More money would help." But he admits that more money by itself wouldn't really fix the problem. What's really needed, he says, is a two-pronged approach: Schools of education need to attract and train bright teacher candidates, then districts need to develop effective evaluation and coaching systems to nurture promising rookies and counsel incompetent ones into other lines of work.

Claude Joffiah believes that collaboration could be the lifeline that saves a teaching career. "We need to come together, share what we're seeing in our classrooms, and see if we can't come up with some new ideas," he says.

A 1996 report by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future reached similar conclusions. The report, "What Matters Most," details successful efforts by states and urban districts to recruit and retain teachers. It describes a program in North Carolina that has awarded $20,000 scholarships to some 4,000 top high school graduates. In exchange, the students agree to teach for four years in the state's public schools. Though the program proved a successful recruiting tool, it did little to support the new teachers once they entered the profession. When state officials saw that many were quitting after a year or two in the classroom, they added a strong mentoring component. Now the novices work under the tutelage of experienced veterans.

As part of an induction program in Cincinnati, rookies receive intensive day-to-day assistance from "expert" teachers. Unlike most mentoring programs, these experts are also responsible for evaluating the newcomers. At the end of the year, they recommend whether the young teacher should continue in the classroom or find something else to do.

The New Haven, Calif., district, a short drive from Oakland, has made recruiting and keeping minority teachers a top priority. The poor urban district, which encompasses Hayward and Union City, has lured away some of Oakland's best new teachers by offering higher salaries and support.

"Teachers are the resource that is going to make or break your schools," says Jim O'Laughlin, New Haven's assistant superintendent. "You can't just drop new people in without systemic support or they simply won't stay. We developed a support program for new teachers and assigned each one a veteran partner teacher. It's helped us achieve a five-year retention rate of 95 percent."

Schmookler believes these kinds of supports would ease the frustration that drives many young teachers from the profession. But it won't, he says, ease their creeping awareness that many students are beyond their reach. "What takes its toll," he says, "is seeing kids quit. Day after day, they'll just do no work. You try everything; you plead, beg, lecture--but nothing works. I don't see how anyone can do this job for 30 years, though a few do."

West Oakland continues to have more than its share of roving teenagers and street hustlers, some of them McClymonds dropouts.

Although clearly frustrated, Schmookler refuses to blame his students--or to take personally the hostility many direct toward him. "When you look at their personal histories, you understand why they act as they do," he says.

And those histories, he explains, have much to do with the surrounding community and its history.

In the early 20th century, West Oakland was an industrial stronghold and the end of the line for the transcontinental railroad. African-Americans considered it a good place to live and work. But the community slid into decline after World War II as cars and trucks rendered the railroads increasingly superfluous. The construction of the Cypress Expressway in the 1950s didn't help matters; it roared through the heart of the city. Later, some of the community's most vibrant blocks were razed to make room for a sprawling postal-distribution facility.

In 1966, radicals Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the militant Black Panther Party and set up headquarters in West Oakland. The Panthers rallied the community, launching a free-meals program for kids, organizing tenants, and preaching the gospel of self-determination. The eventual demise of the Panthers in many ways epitomized the dissolution of West Oakland. In 1988, Newton was murdered during a crack deal under the Cypress Expressway. "A lot of West Oakland parents were in the Black Panther movement," says Schmookler. "But they're obviously no longer doing what they need to be doing. A lot of them got caught up with crack cocaine."

These days, West Oakland is experiencing something of a comeback. The Oakland port is flourishing, and the economic boom in the San Francisco Bay area has brought new industry and housing. Still, West Oakland has more than its share of roving teenagers and street hustlers, some of them McClymonds dropouts. Schmookler and his fellow teachers spot them on the street corners as they drive to and from school.

"Sure, I see them around," Joffiah says. "They tell me their reasons for dropping out of school are economic. Their role models are out on the street chasing big bucks, hustling. That's what the kids think it takes to make it in America."

The way society's most affluent citizens view poor kids like these perturbs Schmookler. Their attitude, he says, is: "'If only these people just worked a little harder, stopped doing drugs, drinking, and hanging out, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps.' To me, this way of thinking is a joke.... I'm not going to blame the victim for being the victim. My kids didn't decide to get born in West Oakland."

Living here colors the views of Schmookler's students on almost everything. White people, with whom they have next to no contact, are instinctively mistrusted. During the summer of 1997, Schmookler ran a McClymonds school-to-work internship program. He would drive from one work site to the next to see how his students were faring. One day, a few students working for the highway department told him that they were "black prisoners" and that their white employers were racist. It turned out that someone at a job site had put this idea in their heads. Schmookler reproached them, explaining that it wasn't going to do them a bit of good to charge the department with racism. He told them that they had better concentrate on doing a good job. But it didn't sink in. The students were prone to believe almost anything bad regarding whites.

Schmookler understands this attitude and says his students can hardly be blamed for seeing their world in the context of a white conspiracy. "Just reverse the situation," he says. "If you lived in West Oakland and everyone was white and poor, and everyone black lived in the hills and drove nice cars, wouldn't you think something was wrong?"

Schmookler is amazed at how many of his students, even those with the most dismal academic records, think they are going on to big things after high school. When he asks them what they intend to do, many tell him they want to go to college. Their GPAs are 1.0, 1.5, maybe 2.0, but still they're planning to go to the University of California. When he explains that they won't get in, they get defensive and ask why he's being so negative. "I'm not telling you that, the college is telling you that," he explains.

Though he came back to McClymonds this fall, Schmookler remains undecided about his long-term future there.

Many refuse to believe. They have an infinite capacity for deceiving themselves, he says. "My students may not care much about citizenship, but they believe in the American dream and the pursuit of happiness," Schmookler says. "For them, the American dream isn't about going off to vote but to make money. My kids very much want to make money. Do they know how to do it? No."

Even so, he sees the energy and native intelligence in many of his students, and he wonders what would happen if he could tap into those qualities. As it is, he is trying to teach them how to read a textbook, write a paragraph, and behave in class. With each passing school year, they sink further behind. And yet there are times when they perform capably--even admirably--in class.

In his second-period history class one day last spring, Schmookler returned tests from the day before, dispensing praise and admonishment. After the students examined their grades, Schmookler launched into a review of the test. "How did Social Darwinism fit into Manifest Destiny?" he asked.

"If you're white and think everyone else is inferior to you, it's pretty easy to think it's your destiny to expand everywhere," said one girl, who had been thrilled to get a 75 on her test. "That's how they could justify taking over Hawaii."

Schmookler wanted to know how Theodore Roosevelt justified sending troops to the Dominican Republic. "By extending the Monroe Doctrine," a boy named Jamal explained. As the discussion continued, Jamal offered his thoughts on a number of subjects. When the conversation turned to cultural bias, he gave an example: "Like when ghetto kids are asked suburban questions on the SAT." Jamal was clearly smart. Earlier in the year, Schmookler had thought Jamal might be college material, so he checked the boy's academic record. His GPA was exactly 0.

When I first met Ben Schmookler in the summer of 1997, moving on was the furthest thing from his mind. He was committed to teaching at McClymonds for the long haul. A year later, however, his resolve had worn thin. He was thinking about becoming a dean, perhaps at another school. "I don't like doing the same thing year after year," he said at the close of the 1997-98 school year. "It's just not my nature."

While that may be true, there was no denying that the last two months of the school year had taken a toll on him. First, one of his mentors, Principal Hamilton, had to leave his job for medical reasons. With Hamilton's departure, McClymonds High again teetered on the brink of chaos.

Then, in late spring, Schmookler was attacked by a student. He had confronted a group of youngsters smoking marijuana on campus, and one of them came at him throwing punches. The attack itself was no big deal, Schmookler says; he had the student by 150 pounds and easily subdued him. What bothered him were his feelings that the student wasn't properly disciplined.

When I talked to Schmookler in late June, he sounded down. His future at McClymonds was uncertain. Only half of his 120 students had made it through the class with a passing grade. "There will always be a few teachers who will stay no matter what," he told me. "But the rest will go; they won't tolerate it. They're going to ask themselves, 'What the hell am I doing here?'"

I asked him what it would take to turn McClymonds around and make it an appealing place to work. "A strong principal like Mr. Hamilton," he answered. "A dedicated central administration that can get teachers everything they need. A consistent discipline plan. Is all of that going to happen? Right now, it doesn't look good."

Though he came back to McClymonds this fall, Schmookler remains undecided about his long-term future there.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 32-37

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as War of Attrition
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