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San Diego Teachers: What Makes Them Stay?

Teachers share stories at a Teach for America San Diego pizza party, April 11...

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: Teachers share stories at a Teach for America San Diego pizza party, April 11, 2017.

This week we've been looking at California's teacher shortage and its potential solutions. The state projects it will need more than 20,000 new teachers annually, but its universities have been graduating about half that.

Part of the problem is poor retention. As many as 40 percent of new teachers move on within their first five years. Many of those who leave say it is because of low pay, stress and poor leadership.

So we asked teachers: What person or thing made you stay in the classroom?

Danny Blas, nine-year veteran teacher

"My first five years of teaching experience at Lincoln High School's Center for Social Justice, where my colleagues and our school's philosophy made clear to me being an effective educator is about establishing relationships — with students, with colleagues and with the community. When I learned this, I realized that being a teacher is about lifting a community and not about a number associated with a test score. This concept on educating and lifting a community is one on which I could make a career, thus, I choose to remain in the classroom."

Carlos Turner Cortez, president of San Diego Continuing Education

Video by Megan Burks

As many as 40 percent of new teachers move on within their first five years. So we wanted to know: What keeps San Diego teachers in the classroom?

"This young man was in the eighth grade for the third time and was waiting on his 16th birthday so he could drop out of school. And he told me this the first day of school. Within the first week of school he had jumped on the desk — all 300 pounds of him, 6-foot-2, I mean, he looked like a man with facial hair and body hair — and dropped his trousers and did what he called the Kenny Williams shuffle. And he made my life a living hell every day, in and out for about two months.

"I was a social studies teacher and it was an age of invention assignment — U.S. history — and students were expected to create an invention and bring in an advertisement to make a presentation for the class for a new invention that they thought would enhance society contemporarily. And this young man came in with a bottle of Tylenol that he had relabeled, and on the front of it he wrote 'Noassatall pills.' And he brought two female models and he had them face the chalkboard that was hanging off the wall at the front of the classroom and pointed to one who was a very skinny girl and said, 'Before,' then pointed to another girl to his right and said, 'After. For girls who have no ass at all.'

"It was highly inappropriate for an eighth-grade setting, but this is the first time this young man had done anything in my class, had shown any interest in doing work. And at the end of the day a colleague of mine recommended that I call this young man's mother to admonish him for the inappropriate nature of the content of this classroom presentation. And I didn't follow that recommendation. I called because I had known this young man had two siblings — one was in prison and one was dead — and a mother who was notorious for walking around the neighborhood in her Mumu and rollers at 3 o'clock in the afternoon talking to herself. This young man had a very difficult life. So the message that I left that afternoon was to thank him, to acknowledge to his mother — it was a voice message because she didn't answer, probably 30 seconds — to thank him for doing his work that day.

"The next day I got to school — I always arrived early — and this huge man is sitting in front of my classroom, who never arrived to school on time, asked if he could speak with me and followed me into the classroom and he started to cry. And he said that his entire educational development, no one had ever said anything nice to his mother about him, no one ever acknowledged anything that he did. And from that day forward this kid became a leader in my class. And he did every single assignment to the best of his ability. And I'm happy to report that he graduated from eighth grade and four years later I got a postcard from him telling me that he graduated from high school.

"This kid was headed to jail or he was headed to death, and one 30-second phone call message changed this kid's life forever. And I don't mean to take credit as though I'm some kind of superhuman. I had no idea when I was leaving that message the impact it would have. And I often regret the missed messages — the instances where I could and should have reached out and offered some positive reinforcement — and the difference it could have had in the trajectory of the lives of the students I served. But it was so inspiring to me as a young educator to realize the real impact, the real difference, that we can make in children's lives."

Adriana Jaime, special education teacher

"I'm still young and on my fourth year of teaching, and I've contemplated leaving the profession more than a couple of times before. I strongly believe that charter schools are hurting our profession. There is so much pressure to be innovative and creative, but plan and be creative after 3:00 p.m. when you're supposed to be having dinner with your family. Yes, many charter schools are great but many of the same great charter schools abuse teachers so much and that's why they become revolving doors for teachers. Great and innovative teaching can happen in all classrooms, but you have to invest in education to get great education. It's hard to be creative and innovative when your administration just tells you "make it work" without giving us anything to work with. Even Michelangelo had help when creating the Sistine Chapel. Now the president wants to spend more money on weapons and less in education making it even harder for us teachers to stay passionate about doing the noble job that is teaching."

Julie Kolb, nine-year veteran teacher

"This is a second career for me, so the decision to leave teaching would need to be made extremely carefully. I believe in the value of the student-teacher relationship and I see how students grow when a teacher interacts with them, prompts them to use what they know to make new connections, and shows them they care. That said, it is sometimes demoralizing to think how little people in both the private sector and in government understand education."

David Lopez, director of Teach for America San Diego

Video by Megan Burks

"To be able to see, for example, two of my students, Carla and Angie, who had been trying to read for a little while at the beginning of the year and had a real interest in being able to start to decode and start blending words together. I remember I was working with this little flip chart that you can put different letters up, and we'd been trying for a long time, like, probably weeks of trying the blending. And then I had this one moment where I put the words for mother in Spanish, "M-A-M-A," and Carla specifically blended the words together. And it was a really transformative moment, because I feel like that only happens once in someone's life, when they read something for the first time. And I felt so privileged to be there for that experience. So I think for me it was a very challenging experience but it was also an incredible rewarding experience.

Judy Mantle, dean of Sanford College of Education at National University

Video by Megan Burks

"I knew from the time I was 12 years old when I declared to my dad that I was going to be a teacher when I grew up. And I never really veered off that pathway. It truly was what I wanted to do. And I think I'm one of the fortunate ones who really has had so many inspiring teachers. I know that that's probably very unusual, because we have some we talk with who say, 'I couldn't tell you one,' or, 'I could tell you one but not more than two.' I had many inspiring teachers and they were like angels who just really helped me along the way to become knowledgeable, connected to resources and connected to the next best person who was going to help take me a step forward."

Jennifer Roberts, Point Loma High School teacher and 21-year veteran

"I heard it said recently that teachers don't leave schools, they leave principals. I can say that is true of the two times I chose to change my school site. In early 2000 I was pregnant and planning to leave the classroom and become a stay at home mom. When I miscarried I realized I was actually quite unhappy where I was working. Since I could no longer use the baby as an excuse to leave, I decided to change schools. I was much happier at my new school. When I became pregnant again, my new principal made it possible for me to come back to work part time. She is the reason I'm still teaching today."

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