After more than a decade of mass layoffs, tight budgets and plunging morale, teaching is making a comeback. Education majors are on the increase. Pay is improving, respect reviving. In some areas, enrollment again is booming and teachers are in short supply--nowhere more than in Santa Ana, Orange County's biggest, most diverse, fastest-growing district. Here are two Santa Ana teachers--a promising rookie and an award-winning veteran. Both see teaching as a unique job--and mission.
Day One had arrived for Diana Orjuela.
She barely slept the night before and awoke at 5 a.m. to again and again go over her teaching plan for later that morning.
At 6:30, she was at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Ana, busily running off lesson materials on the copier, then fussing over her room, No. 31, on the second level of the school.
At 8:15, she took on the 32 third-graders assigned her, guiding the Spanish-speaking children through bilingual lessons in reading, writing, math, spelling and social studies.
Her day didn't end at 2:26 p.m., when the children left. She had more orientations to attend. And that evening, back home in Buena Park, she read more reports and prepared her next lesson plan.
She felt exhausted and, even more, anxious--but elated.
Orjuela, 24, had survived her first solo flight as a full-fledged classroom teacher--a day she will remember for the rest of her life.
"Everything hits you at once," said Orjuela, who has been in the classroom three weeks now at Roosevelt, a year-round school. "Each day seems like the first day. There's so much to learn and remember."
(Most other schools in the county run on the traditional September-to-June schedule and will reopen at varying times between Tuesday and Sept. 11.)
Orjuela's only previous experience in teaching was as a child-care aide in Yorba Linda and Anaheim and as a student teacher while at Cal State Fullerton, where she earned her bachelor's degree last year in child-development studies.
"You keep worrying, what if this (lesson) doesn't work? What if the children run out of something to do? Am I saying and doing the right things?" she said.
"You're also on your own. It's scary because it's not like student teaching--there's no master teacher there to back you up. You're the one who's in control from 8:15 to 2:26."
Veteran teachers tell her these feelings are typical; they went through them, too, on their first jobs.
"The older teachers tell you the same thing: Don't worry so much. Things will fall into place and you will find what works best for you," Orjuela said.
"Finding your own style of teaching doesn't come about overnight. It's all trial and error, especially the first year. You have to keep flexible and open to ideas."
She already has found a feeling of exhilaration about her new job.
"This is what I want to do--to be right here in the classroom, teaching. More than anything else, I love being around children," she said.
Orjuela clearly remembers the day she decided to go into teaching. She had been searching for the right career in her first year or so at Cal State. Her only criterion was that the work be people-oriented. Maybe public relations, she thought.
One semester, as part of a child-development behavior course, she was assigned student teaching of a second-grade class at a Buena Park school.
It was love at first sight.
"It was a wonderful feeling," she said. "I knew this was it. I learned a lot about the children, but I learned even more about myself and what I should be doing with my life."
Some acquaintances thought she was making a mistake. They suggested that education was in the doldrums, its image still blighted by widespread layoffs, budget slashes and lower salaries.
"They would say, 'Oh, anybody can teach--it's no big deal.' Or they would put down teaching as something that wouldn't bring anyone much status or money. No one, they said, was going to get rich as a teacher," Orjuela said.
(The statewide average for beginning teachers is $21,000 a year, according to the California Teachers Assn. In the Santa Ana Unified School District where Orjuela teaches, the starting salary is about $24,000 annually.)
Despite such disparagement, Orjuela's decision to major in education isn't so unusual in the late '80s. The number of students majoring in education statewide has increased sharply in the past few years. The primary reasons are a teacher shortage, heightened by retirements among the thousands of teachers hired in the '50s and '60s, and boomlike enrollment increases being experienced by many districts, including Santa Ana.
To newcomers like Orjuela, however, the crucial reason remains that of a personal mission.
"My idea of success is not so much the money or any other issue like that," she said. "It comes down to what makes me happy. And how I can maybe make a difference in their (students') lives--to help them find the right paths."