All My Children
Samantha Trumbo Campbell was one of hundreds of uncredentialed teachers hired into the LAUSD in recent years. She writes of the difficulties she faced.
Last week of October 1997
My first day as a teacher, I am terrified. I have been hired to teach third grade in a South-Central school of 1,600 students, 85 percent of whom are Latino and 15 percent African-American. I arrive early, my brand-new school-issue lesson-plan book in hand, only to find the kind of chaos that will soon seem normal. Today, it's overwhelming.
I am part of the largest wave of new, mostly inexperienced teachers ever to enter the district. In 1996, Pete Wilson, in what was either a brilliant stroke for education or a disaster of vast proportions, began the state's program to limit classes to 20 students in the early grades, thereby creating an overnight need for 40 percent more K3 teachers and 40 percent more classrooms in those grades. It meant that people like me could be hired, people who'd always wanted to teach but had never gotten credentialed. Now we could, as I did, sign up for the district intern program, through which we would earn our credentials on the job while also attending weekly classes on teaching. I arrive hopeful -- if nervous -- on my first day, believing I have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of kids who've always drawn the short end of the stick.
It's hard to remember that idealism in the face of the reality. Pete Wilson seemed to have run out of ideas when it came to getting those thousands of classrooms built in a hurry -- particularly at schools like mine that are already severely overcrowded and on year-round schedules. And so I will be team-teaching. Half of the children I will someday have in my own classroom are in the room of one teacher, half in the room of another. I'll split my time between the two classrooms, learning to teach, attempting to create a bond with the kids, hoping to make a contribution, all under the watchful eye of Mrs. Roberts* (whose cheerful assessment to me days earlier was "You're walking into a hornets' nest") and Mrs. Moore.
A part of me is relieved that I'm not about to encounter 20 of my own 8-year-old faces. But before I can get too confident, one of my co-teachers warns me that I will be expected to pull my weight. "You're getting paid the same as I am," she tells me seriously. Fair enough. I, of course, want to do my share, but the fact is, I have no prior teaching experience. And the district knew that when it hired me. Sure, I've attended a couple of months of lame Thursday-night classes, but I'm aware enough of the complexity of the job, as well as of my own ignorance, to know I'll prove essentially worthless for the first few weeks.
Later that day
It's not that bad. The kids in these classes are excruciatingly well-behaved and efficiently organized by the teachers in both classes. Mrs. Moore has offered to let me treat the first weeks as a sort of student-teaching assignment. Mrs. Roberts introduced me and set me up with a reading group. The kids are intrigued by my presence. I am soft-spoken and do my best to assist the "real" teachers with their own plans.
Later that week
It's all okay, but by okay I mean tolerable. All right, maybe I mean barely tolerable. Truth be told, I count minutes all day, and I eat lunch in my car. My little oven of a Tercel is the only place I can find to be alone, and I desperately crave a little space away from teachers offering introductions and assistance. There are 80 teachers at my school, in addition to all the office and playground staff, and I'm trying in vain to keep names and faces straight. My assigned mentor teacher is the most well-meaning of the group, but he deluges me with enthusiastic and repetitive pep talks. I am tired of nodding and smiling and trying to fit in, and so I flee to my car at lunch time, idling my engine to keep the A/C on and furtively gulping down a sandwich.
I don't get the school philosophy. The principal, who still has not introduced herself to me, patrols the playground at 7 a.m. and screams at small children caught running. The teachers are formidably strict, in a way that I can't imagine being. Don't ever want to be. Yet they seem to be dealing with so much, with so much ease. I'm trying to follow their lead, but I'm also appalled at how rigidly controlled these kids are, in class and on the yard. I don't want to believe the teacher-student relationship has to be adversarial.
The kids are great. They really are. I try to remember that they're why I came here. I love Lupe's huge eyes and her surreptitious glances at me from the back of Mrs. Roberts' room. Dennis' smile is a killer, and chubby Jasmine giggles at everything. They speak Spanish to each other, and I only pick up words here and there, but my high school vocabulary is slowly coming back.
I'm taking groups of 10 in reading groups from each class, as I bounce up and down the long hallway between rooms 24 and 32 every hour or so at scheduled times. I don't like this transient setup, but it's the best we could come up with. The kids read stories as I struggle to explain vocabulary; we do phonics-workbook pages. My approach is haphazard, because I don't know how to approach literacy skills systematically. The kids seem to have a good time, and I let them get too loud and talk over each other; I hope my embarrassment doesn't show when the other teachers sternly shush the group. I want my students to love me; I know it's wrong, but I can't help it. Already I'm getting drawings and little love notes at the end of the day. I save them to read at night when I'm feeling my most deflated and alone.
Early November 1997
Mrs. Roberts terrifies me as well as her students. When their voices mingle and coalesce to a murmur, she picks up a book and slams it down on her desk. A lapse of attention earns a "minute" on the board, time that is repaid at the end of the day while all 30 students fold their hands and sit perfectly still before they are dismissed. I'm impressed as well as horrified by the unflagging control she has over class conduct, and I whisper to her during minutes one day that I can't believe they actually sit so quietly. "Oh, they know I mean business," she says. A break in the silence causes minutes to begin again, with an increase in time. "One day we got up to 11," she tells me.
She doesn't smile. If a student ventures to answer a question and comes up short, she is apt to berate, "How long have you been in this classroom?" She makes asides to me during the day about students' deficiencies. When I ask her about Miguel, a big bruiser of an 8-year-old with what look like cigarette burns on his arms, she tells me he's a good kid, but "dumb as a rock." When Jorge, a feisty new student whose baggy clothes and cholo haircut led her to assume on the very first day that his parents are gangbangers, cries after a fierce scolding, she turns to me: "I think we've got him now. A lot of times, you just have to break them."
Like the students, I nod and smile a lot to Mrs. Roberts -- even as I rage inside. I put on my best obsequious mask, knowing she resents my presence. I'm just trying to do my job, but I feel like a traitor, in collusion with the educational fascism that seems to prevail everywhere I look.
Second week of November 1997
I don't belong here. At recess, 30 to 60 kids "walk the square"; that is, they walk in line around the yellow borders of four-square courts, around and around, hands behind their backs until the bell rings, the theory being that students can be punished yet still benefit from some physical exercise. I can't shake the prison image, enhanced by the sullenly looming gray buildings in the background and the vast expanse of blacktop that is our yard.
The whole lunch-time ritual is an exercise in regimentation. Classes line up straight. Then, called one at a time, they filter into the cafeteria, picking up trays and milk along the way (in our school, all students qualify for and receive free lunch). They are to stay in line as they file to the lunch tables and benches, and then, without talking, consume the packaged burritos or bologna sandwiches they're issued. A man walks up and down the aisles with a microphone reiterating the no-talking rule countless times. Patrolling aides make sure the only reason mouths are moving is to chew. The kids then march out to line up yet again for recess. I'm incredulous when I first witness this scene of hundreds of kids herded around, yelled at and forced into silence during their one good break from the long school day.
Mrs. Moore is a more benevolent despot than Mrs. Roberts. She gives the kids raspberry cookies on Fridays and lets them talk quietly among themselves occasionally. But her teaching is so dull. Visual stimulation in the classroom is limited to half a dozen travel posters relating to Asia, and a few unimaginative bulletin boards; there are no learning centers, no teacher-made materials, nothing you'd want to look at on the walls. Four computers idle in the background, but never seem integrated into the instructional day. She tells me that she thinks too much stuff in the classroom proves more distracting than stimulating, that the students' lives are so cluttered with television images and disorder at home that she prefers to keep things simple at school. "There is nothing innovative about the way I teach," she tells me. "But my test scores go up every year." She shows me how she meets the teaching objectives in the LAUSD's "Course of Study" handbook: "I look for the concepts they need to know, and then I type up a list that they can study." Sure enough, her "unit" on the solar system consists mainly of a list of facts kids are expected to memorize and then regurgitate for a test.
There is little, if anything, I want to emulate when I get my own room, and little to do here except what I'm told.
Third week of November 1997
During reading groups today, Mrs. Moore sat down with Gloria, a small ponytailed girl, and an open text. The child flipped her hair and wiggled as she looked at the words, then smiled back up at the teacher. She looked back down and attempted a few words in Spanish before the teacher stopped her. In an intentionally loud voice, she addressed the child. "You can't read," she said. "I'd like to know why you're smiling, because this is very serious." Mrs. Moore raised her voice so that the entire class couldn't help but hear. "This little girl can't read," she announced. "We're not going to recess until this child reads to me." Gloria began to cry silently. "I'm glad you're crying," she continued, "because this is something to cry about. You can't read." The class was quiet. A few minutes passed. Finally Mrs. Moore got up and sighed. "I'm sorry," she said to the class. "I'm sorry, Gloria, for embarrassing you that way. But it is so important that you take this seriously. You all have to learn to read."
Last week of November 1997
Mrs. Roberts tells me that there are three people on whose good side I should position myself: the custodian, an affable fellow I'm more comfortable around than pretty much anybody else; the office manager, a severe woman who sits as far away as possible from the approachable office desk; and Ricki.
Ricki is in charge of the inventory and dispersal of all classroom supplies: pencils, scissors, construction paper and the like. She's clearly an important friend to have, but she scares the bejesus out of me. She seems to stare right through you. She mutters to herself and sighs a lot, resentful of the constant burden of meeting the needs of the ungrateful. I've seen her gregarious side, though, how she banters back and forth with her friends on the staff, whom she rewards with unbroken crayons and lamination. Mrs. Roberts insists I just need to know how to play office politics, and suggests that I bring Ricki chocolate.
I try to picture myself walking into "The Cage," as the supply room is ominously known, and saying, "Here, Ricki. I thought you might want a snack. May I have some glue?" Still, I've got to do something. She seems to hate me. The other day I was on a search for colored paper and approached Ricki and an aide friend of hers while they were engaged in conversation in the Cage. I stood back and waited uncomfortably for a couple of minutes, hoping to be acknowledged. When I thought I'd found an opening, I quickly asked if I could borrow the paper-closet key. Ricki looked at me for a moment before turning toward the locked door. "Some people are so rude," she said to her friend.
I felt like I'd been slapped. I've tried so hard to be polite, and she hates me anyway. Still, why should I have to kiss Ricki's ass just to get goddamn construction paper for my students? Eventually I succumb, buying a couple of really good chocolate truffles. She is mercifully absent when I take them to her, so I leave them with a note. The next day she stops me in the hall and thanks me. Things are easier now, although it still seems simpler to buy my own supplies when I find them cheap at Sav-On.
Every day I check out the bungalows that have been squatting out on the yard since October. Mrs. Roberts and I update each other on what we've heard about when they'll be ready. She wants me (and the 10 kids who go with me) out of her room. I get a little panicky thinking about running a class by myself. I'm not ready. Thank God the bungalows aren't either.
The district intern program is the bane of my existence. Highly touted by LAUSD as a tuition-free college-level colloquium designed to credential new teachers through an intensive two-year training program conducted while its students take the helm of a public-school classroom, D.I. has done me at least as much harm as it has good.
I dread Thursdays. I leave the house at 6:45 a.m. and don't get home till 8:30 at night. I've missed almost an entire season of Friends. And for what? Tonight I was late, as usual, and tried to sign in sneakily, entering 4 instead of 4:15. They threaten us with one makeup class for every three tardies, but it's easy to fudge the time. Turns out I didn't miss a thing, as I walk in on everybody sitting around chatting and waiting for class to begin. A journal topic is on the board: "What did I learn from creating a thematic unit?" and some people dutifully jot down a few words in their journals. I stopped writing in the journal months ago because the topics are so boring, and you're expected to have other people read it. I write what I know they want to read. In response to today's prompt about thematic units, I formulate a few mindless sentences, concluding with, "I think I learned a lot about how to go about the process, and it will come easier next time."
Once the instructor finally arrives, we're issued a 20-page selection from one of the state "Frameworks" curricular texts and divided into groups for another dreaded "jigsaw." Everyone groans, but we do as we're told, each group reading a five-page segment, then creating a poster highlighting the important points in the text.
It's like this most weeks. I come faithfully, but rarely learn anything I can practically apply in the classroom. Meanwhile, I lose precious preparation time.
I have my bungalow. Or I will tomorrow. Not one of the new ones, which are still missing some crucial structural details, but one that has sat inexplicably empty these past six weeks. Usually, every possible vacant space on campus is occupied the instant a teacher goes off-track. Since our school has three tracks with three different school-year schedules, one-third of the teachers are "roving" -- meaning they must move into a new room every two months. Roving is a horrific process if a teacher has bothered to set up a room that's interesting to students. Everything has to be packed up and moved to the next room, with practically no turnover time. Generally, one track has its last day and the new one comes in bright and early the next morning. So not only are all teachers scrambling during the last week to gather, organize and store mountains of stuff inside one measly roving cabinet (or two permanent cabinets for the luckier nonrovers), but no teacher has any advance time to set up a classroom before kids come back from vacation.
Nor will I have time to set up my room. We are just two weeks away from a seven-week vacation, but the assistant principal wants me to move in right away. When I suggest to Mrs. Roberts that perhaps we could wait until after our break to relocate, she firmly tells me that we must take this step immediately. Overnight I must both set up a classroom and figure out how to start my own class. My months of preparation don't feel like they count for very much.
Last week of February 1998
I panic, but I do okay. The first day we sing the old Girl Scout song "Make New Friends." We try to sing it as a three-part round, but this proves easier said than done. It seems the class will forgive me anything, though. I think they're fascinated by this upheaval. I plan and plan and plan, yet little goes according to plan.
Last week of April 1998
It is post-break, and I have my new, beautiful bungalow. The virgin white boards, an immaculate floor, the shining faucets in the sink, the golden cabinets of my very own. I have an overhead projector! I have wonderful, clean prefab walls upon which I can push-pin and staple to my heart's content. And my desk, the crowning glory -- I am ecstatic to have drawers to fill, a surface where I can keep all my papers filed, my lesson plans available. I go out and buy in-trays and pencil receptacles and a variety of desk organizers. I feel legitimized, and my gleeful anticipation nearly outweighs the queasiness I feel when I think about my 20 children in here, all day, every day, with me as their only guide.
Early May 1998
It's like starting over again, all the worries and doubts and hours spent planning, the anxiety of taking on a new set of responsibilities, except that I know my kids by now and we're all fairly attached to one another. I really did get great students -- the top 10 achievers and most English-proficient from two classrooms. I watch Mrs. Cutter across the way trying in vain to corral her belligerent second-graders and cringe at the knowledge that I'll surely inherit a number of them in just a few weeks. My kids all respect me, and even though I fall far short of Mrs. Roberts' standard of classroom organization, they are never uncontrollable. I'm a little daunted by the finer points of reading and math instruction, since I've seen what a thorough and systematic job it takes to get concepts to stick, but I'm even having some fun with that at times. I try out new classroom personas, becoming a bit more theatrical, and it's a thrill to see the students interested, engaged and staring up at me. Once, in a particularly sentimental moment, my eyes well up as I watch them happily working in groups, applying what I've just taught them.
I alternate between bouts of elation and despair; the high points when I see them learning and feel we've established mutual respect, the lows when all I can see is how I'm not good enough at teaching English-language skills, and that a couple students struggle through each day. I'm hopelessly disorganized despite all my new space and materials. Every day is an experiment; sometimes an activity falls flat, but sometimes I tap into something. We are growing radish seedlings, and every morning they rush in to check the plants' progress. José runs up to me one day: "Ms. Campbell, look how tall my plants grew! I think it's because I put all the seeds in right and I water it every day." The earnest enthusiasm of 8-year-olds makes it all seem worthwhile.
First week of June 1998
I estimate that I've spent close to $1,000 out of pocket this year on materials for my students and the classroom. My school gave me $300 to order supplies I needed, but that went instantly. Teacher stuff doesn't come cheap. I've managed to scrounge some materials, and Mrs. Roberts generously donates some of the things I need, but anything I want beyond the most basic resources, I must pay for myself. I buy art supplies, markers, posters, games, math manipulatives, stickers, prizes, books, crayons (every student is allotted two boxes of eight crayons each per year; by the time I break down and chuck out $30 for a new class set, their old ones are broken nubs). When I'm stuck for lessons, I go straight out and buy a book.
But it all makes me wonder. What other profession requires employees to regularly shell out their own cash just so they can do their jobs right?
The end of the year is rapidly approaching, and I wish we had more time. We've spent a month studying the rain forest, and the students really got into it. As one of our culminating projects we created a "Save the Rain Forest" classified-ads paper of which I am quite proud -- and which addressed, to my delight, a variety of skills related to language arts, social science, art and mathematics. They even had to figure out fractions of a page!
These moments of fulfillment are priceless. They're what we're always told teaching is ultimately about. To actually see the children's accomplishments, whether on their papers or their faces, is enough to keep my hope alive that someday I'll know what I'm doing, someday I'll live up to those impossible expectations of what a teacher should be.
Last day of school 1998
We had a party today, and a little ceremony during which I presented certificates recognizing each student for a special talent or ability. A few days earlier, we'd attended the school's official awards ceremony, which pained me, because I saw how disappointed many of my qualified students were to return to class empty-handed; I could only choose two students for scholarship and two for citizenship, even though more of them deserved recognition. I wanted each of them to feel they had contributed something to our class. My 10-year-old sister designed awards far more beautiful than the school's standard issue, and I made up categories -- "for making us laugh," "for being an excellent friend," "for loving to read." I would have been overwhelmed with sentimentality if I hadn't kept thinking about how much cleaning and packing and preparing I have to do after the final bell rings at 12:55.
Today, our last, is a Monday, and the new school year begins on Wednesday. I'll have 20 new kids in just 48 hours; at least I get to keep my classroom for another two months. I don't want to let these guys go, and a lot of them want to keep me as well. "Can't you teach fourth grade, Ms. Campbell?" they've been asking for the past couple of weeks. I know I've been too much of a pushover this year, but in part it's because these kids did not require a strict disciplinary plan. I am so sorry to lose them; I am so afraid of who'll be sitting at these desks come Wednesday morning.
I hug each of them as they walk out the door.
I taught third grade for two more years after that first one, each with its own challenges. I experimented continually with different methods of classroom management, discipline and authority, trying to find a style that was both effective and fit my nature. It made me re-examine my attitudes about the teaching strategies I'd had such contempt for as a novice teacher. With experience, I gained real respect for my first-year co-teachers. Mrs. Roberts' methods, while I'll never make them my own, began to make more sense. She had found a way to teach that worked for her, as all teachers must. Her authoritarian style demanded student achievement, and I was impressed by her students' quality academic work. Even Mrs. Moore's inexcusable attack on a child's reading skills seemed, if not right, at least understandable. I'd experienced my own bouts of overwhelming frustration, had to struggle with biting back words to a self-satisfied, playful or defiant underachiever. My own style evolved as my confidence increased and I dealt with a variety of challenging children.
But despite my growing awareness and ability, I was getting tired. Gradually but steadily I lost my resolve. I was frustrated that I could never do enough, that neither the school system nor the parents seemed able to provide the resources desperately needed by so many of my kids. A great many weren't getting the extra attention and instruction that they required, and, in many cases, there was precious little I could do about it.
So I resigned. I intend this to be a one-year leave and hope to return to the classroom next year; I believe now it is where I belong. I miss the kids; I miss the feeling, however rare and fleeting, that I am both bringing something to other lives and learning more about myself. In no other context have I tried so hard -- or had my efforts count for so much.LA
*The names of teachers and students in this story have been changed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.