A War Of Attrition

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The problem at McClymonds is that the school culture is characterized by dysfunction and failure.

Schmookler came back to the West Coast for his teacher training, doing a 5th year at California State University- Hayward. Eager to work in the inner city, he had no problem finding a job. He was just the kind of teacher urban districts like Oakland were looking for. Not only was he young, smart, and black, but he also understood the cultural and psychological landscape of the inner city and its young people. Although he himself had not grown up in poverty and isolation, he knew many who had, first as a student at Berkeley High and then as a hall monitor there after graduating. He had been a natural at that job, able to defuse tense situations with a cagey humor backed by a toughness he called upon only as a last resort.

But he quickly learned at McClymonds that his youth and street smarts could only carry him so far. Teacher heroes popularized in the movies and on TV--the Jaime Escalantes and LouAnne Johnsons--are not going to ride in and save the day. The crucial factor, Schmookler came to see, was not a handful of charismatic teachers but the entire school culture, the collective enterprise. "The school is more important than the individual teacher," he says. "If you think the teacher is more important, you're going to have a real problem when that teacher moves on. Besides, the impact of any one teacher is limited to the students who are actually taking his or her classes."

The problem at McClymonds, of course, is that the school culture is characterized by dysfunction and failure. This past March, six months into the school year, the names of two dozen students Schmookler had never seen still appeared on his daily computerized printouts. One morning, a pregnant girl arrived out of the blue during a history lesson. She said her counselor had assigned her to Schmookler's room because she was no longer able to take gym. "That's fine," the teacher told her, "but you'll have to be here on time every day if you're going to stay." The girl seemed dismayed. "Let me go talk with the counselor," she said and disappeared out the door, never to be seen again.

For its part, the Oakland central office never gets around to filling all the teacher vacancies at McClymonds, even in the core subjects. When qualified teachers aren't available, and they often aren't, long-term substitutes--many of them not inclined to do much teaching--fill in the gaps for months at a time. "The district sends out fliers advertising openings and calls that recruiting," Schmookler complains. "They don't understand that you've got to go out to find good people. You've got to go to the colleges and teacher-preparation programs where the best candidates are."

And then there are the certified teachers, the so-called permanent staff members. On this subject, Schmookler speaks cautiously--he is, after all, a vice president of the local teachers' union--but he sticks his neck out nonetheless. Some of his colleagues, he says, are outstanding teachers. But others, he concedes, don't belong in the profession. One teacher, he says, is late every morning, so late as to miss entire classes. Others manage to get to school on time but do little teaching once they arrive. Some read the newspaper while their classes are in session.

"Teachers can be some of the most mean-spirited people I've ever seen," Schmookler says. "They simply won't accept criticism from their peers. I spend a lot of time in my union position getting due process for teachers who don't really deserve it. How did they ever become teachers? That's what I want to know."

Young teachers, in particular, come and go at a furious rate. Veterans tend to keep their distance from the rookies.

Good and bad alike, most teachers at McClymonds are on short terms of duty. Young teachers, in particular, come and go at a furious rate. Veterans tend to keep their distance from the rookies. "It's the Vietnam mentality," Schmookler says. " 'Don't talk to me; I don't want to get to know you because I'm not sure how long you'll be around.' The older teachers don't think the younger ones will stay, so they close themselves off in the classroom all day with the kids while the younger ones flounder in a sink-or-swim situation."

The constant turnover contributes to a crushingly low morale that undermines almost any sense of collegiality among the faculty. Claude Joffiah, who is a dean and math teacher at the high school, says the "family" metaphor
that characterizes some faculties rings hollow at McClymonds. "Isolation inevitably occurs at the school, and this isolation leads to a breakdown of communications," the 44-year-old teacher says. "So you end up doing your own thing, not bothering with anybody else. You arrive each morning with the energy to accomplish something and then discover a certain kind of unwarranted tension. Over time, you begin to wonder if you're remaining steadfast to a vision or making a fool of yourself. Just what, you ask yourself, am I doing here? If you really do feel that way, you need to think about moving on."

If the high rate of teacher 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, laments the fact that he must replace 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 I ask Schmookler what it would take to get more talented young teachers to come to schools like McClymonds and stay awhile, he says, "More money would help." But after mulling over the question a moment, 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, and then districts need to develop effective evaluation and coaching systems to nurture promising novices and counsel incompetent ones into other lines of work.

"The problem is that the district doesn't have a real teacher-evaluation system in place," Schmookler says. "So promising teachers get little help honing the craft, and bad teachers, once hired, stick around forever."

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 and America's Future reached similar conclusions. 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 college 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 next to nothing 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.

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

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 school 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 "stolen" 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 New Haven assistant superintendent Jim O'Laughlin. "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 is convinced that these kinds of resources and 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 simply 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." Here Schmookler pauses for a moment, and then he adds, "Maybe if I could keep track of them all day, I would succeed more. I'd reach a few more, but not all."

Although clearly frustrated with his students' rotten attitudes, Schmookler refuses to blame them--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, Schmookler 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, even calling it "the Athens of the American West." Many black men worked as Pullman porters--a relatively well-paid, esteemed job. Jazz and blues took root, and the city exuded the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance. On Sunday mornings, families would leave their frilly Victorians--many of them now boarded up or demolished--and stroll to church.

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