Jacqueline Chanda was ebullient. She had survived the first day of school. Ann Kawahara was disappointed and downcast. She'd have to retake a test before she could walk into a classroom.
Their contrasting moods this week reflected the beginning of a new school year. But they are not students; they are teachers--albeit with a twist.
Chanda and Kawahara are two of an expanding group of teachers and teacher hopefuls who--among other things--sold insurance, collected back rent, taught in Africa, went to law school, worked for an attorney or with the handicapped before they decided to become teachers.
Now, almost overnight, they've been hired by the second biggest school district in the country, Los Angeles. And with less than a week of the school year gone, they've already landed in the middle of an educational fire fight--a shoot-out over drafting "unqualified" people to fill the teacher gap in public schools.
It's done in school districts all across the country--including New York City and Texas--where the teacher shortage has become severe. But few places have received as much attention as the Los Angeles Unified School District for hiring college graduates without degrees in education to teach while they earn credentials through emergency programs. This year about 1,200 of the system's 2,500 new teachers don't have regular credentials. That's why the district was singled out and blasted by the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers union, two weeks ago.
The association and other critics see these newcomers to the classrooms as the latest wave in an invasion of threats to the teaching profession, which they claim has already been seriously hurt by lowered prestige, low morale, low pay and war-zone conditions in many schools.
They also charge that widespread use of emergency teachers is a hypocritical response to the vocal demands for increased educational quality from parents and politicians over the last few years.
Defense of Practice
Defenders of the practice argue that it's better to staff more classrooms than to pack more students into already overcrowded classrooms, that it's impossible to improve educational quality until teaching vacancies are filled and that on-the-job training may be as good as an education credential.
Whoever's doing the talking, it's clear that the emergency credential issue is a passionate and explosive mixture of bureaucratic, professional and public interests. Hardly anyone, it seems, has an unvested interest in attacking or defending the practice. But nearly everyone involved has an opinion and is willing to talk--at length.
Ironically, there's little hard information on the impact of emergency teachers on Los Angeles schools. For instance, it's not known how many from previous years have stayed in education or how many simply have used the positions to heal wounded pocketbooks and move on. And no one seems to have definite proof whether these quick-fix teachers are, overall, a help or a harm.
The picture should become clearer about this time next year when the Los Angeles district and the California teacher credentialing commission complete a joint study comparing the performance of credentialed and non-credentialed teachers.
The hiring of non-certified teachers "probably has some adverse impact but we don't know the nature of it," said David Wright, the credentialing commission's coordinator of planning and research.
In addition, The Times will follow six of these new teachers through the school year, reporting at intervals on how they're faring. Besides Chanda, 35, who returned to this country from Zambia where she taught earlier this year, and Kawahara, 25, a 1984 graduate of UCLA who worked with the handicapped at the Special Olympics, they are former insurance underwriter and salesman Howard Barnett, 34, property manager John McVay, 32, and 1983 UC Berkeley graduate Patricia Saragosa, 24, who worked for an attorney. (Both Barnett and McVay said they'll be taking pay cuts as beginning teachers earning a salary of about $19,500.) The sixth, law school graduate Fred Mitchell, 32, began teaching at Miramonte, a year-round elementary school in South-Central Los Angeles earlier this summer.
Fulfillment of a Dream
All six are college graduates with liberal arts degrees, while two, Chanda and Mitchell, have advanced degrees. All hope to make it as elementary school teachers. All completed Joint Venture, a voluntary, unpaid three-week program of job-training offered by the school district. All said they went into teaching because they were dissatisfied with their jobs or careers or wanted more fulfilling work. And they were unanimously optimistic that they will make the skeptics eat their words by surviving and flourishing on the long march to next spring.