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Elementary School 'Emergency' Teachers--A Report From the Trenches : Initial Optimism About Program Has Been Tempered by Experience

December 08, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Imagine a world where disease rips through the population like lightning, the natives' teeth regularly fall out and the simplest concepts--such as adding two and two--are baffling.

Imagine, also, that you are suddenly put in charge of this world. You are directed to make the mysteries clear, to impose order on the residents' tendency toward anarchy and to spend six hours a day on your feet, walking and talking. Or shouting. For good measure, imagine that you devote a night or two a week to role reversal, during which you watch somebody else do what you did all day.

Welcome to the elementary schools of Los Angeles. And to the sometimes startling reality faced by new "emergency" teachers who have spent the past couple of months in the front lines of education. It's a place where chicken pox may run riot, baby teeth may rattle on the floor and adult ways of thinking and speaking are often the worst way to make a point.

Follow-Up Talks

These are among the impressions that emerged in follow-up interviews with five new teachers--none of whom have a regular California education credential--about their experiences since September, when The Times reported on the beginning of their journey to the classroom.

Then the five, as well as one who failed to pass a required test, were in various stages of completing a crash three-week training program designed to meet the shortfall in teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. This year the district hired about 2,500 new teachers. Of those, about 1,200 did not have credentials.

At the same time, the five were inadvertent participants in a controversy. Education groups such as the National Education Assn., the country's biggest teacher union, were charging that hiring uncertified teachers was a dangerous practice, one that undermined the quality of education.

In September, the new teachers declared their commitment to teaching as a career, saying that education promised rewards that had eluded them in other jobs and/or that teaching had been a longtime consideration. All said they believed they could succeed as teachers and prove the critics wrong.

More of a Challenge

Today the optimism has been tempered by experience. While all plan to continue teaching, they have had enough days in the classroom to realize that teaching is even harder than they thought it would be. Sometimes the work is complicated by culture shock, both the clash between child and adult realms and between different cultures at the hard-to-staff inner-city or lower-income schools where they have been assigned. The five will be interviewed a final time next spring, to see if they indeed will continue teaching the next school year.

"The challenge is more than I expected," said John McVay, a 32-year-old former property manager who is teaching fifth-graders in East Los Angeles at Utah Street Elementary School. "I've had to change the way I think. Working in the adult world, I tended to think more in the abstract. I could explain something once and generally most adults would understand what I meant. At this level, everything has to be much more concrete . . . A simple thing like using a ruler is a big step. I have to explain what the measurements are, what a ruler's for, how it works, what you do with it. It's not something where I can say, 'This is a ruler, now measure out eight inches.' "

The distance between his middle-class background and that of his students is often stellar, said McVay, who grew up in Newport Beach. "I had a lot of advantages that these kids never had," he said. "Now I'm beginning to see what happens when you don't have those kind of advantages, what it takes to get somebody to a point where they can make progress academically."

One way or another, the other new teachers say they've experienced the same difficulties.

Beans to Teach Arithmetic

Patricia Saragosa, who teaches at Euclid Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights and has been through bouts of chicken pox and episodic spates of loose teeth with her first-graders, has found that everyday items can help in teaching arithmetic.

"We are famous because we use beans (to teach arithmetic)," joked Saragosa, 24, a 1983 graduate of UC Berkeley. "Because they can count beans at home. Everybody has beans, they can subtract beans at home. It's true. Hey, I've got my bag (of beans) under the desk. We use a lot of things like this. We use broken arrows to represent subtraction. We use an arrow crashing into a house--it's going to bang down on those people--to represent addition--guests are coming for dinner, you know."

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