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Career Teachers Have Become a Smaller Subset

With burnout rampant, staying till retirement, as Lonnie Wagman has, is relatively uncommon.

May 14, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

On the day Lonnie Wagman told her second-grade class that she was retiring after 34 years as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, she asked the pupils to paint a portrait of her and to write down what they thought retirement means.

Most of her students at Arminta Elementary School portrayed the pixieish Wagman -- reasonably accurately -- with a round face topped by a swath of dark brown hair. They drew her a big smile, which they accented with bright red lips.

Retirement means "that you're too old to work," wrote Justin Angeles, 7.

It's "when you go to a certain age and you are tired of doing your job," added Giselle Dominguez, also 7.

Not exactly -- at least in Wagman's case. She decided to retire after her husband took a job in Las Vegas. She realized that the retirement package she will receive would not get any better with more years of service.

"My heart will still be" in the classroom, Wagman said. "But the reality is, with so many years that you put in, it pays to retire."

At a time when teacher burnout is commonplace in the nation's public schools, teachers such as Wagman, who make it to retirement after years of service, are relatively uncommon.

A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, which examined teacher retention rates from 1987 to 2000, found that nearly 50% of new teachers leave after five years -- most complaining of poor working conditions, training and pay.

In Los Angeles Unified, 29% of teachers hired in 1996-97 had left the district by May 2002.

Wagman is one of 729 teachers in L.A. Unified retiring this year, many of them after nearly three decades in the classroom.

Wagman estimates that she has taught more than 1,000 students since she started 34 years ago at Encino Elementary School, when she went by the name Lonnie Bernstein and sported a bouffant hairdo.

She spent five years at 75th Street School in South Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And for the last 21 years, a brightly decorated classroom at Arminta Elementary in North Hollywood has been her home.

Much has changed over the years. She says there's more accountability now, more supervision of teachers' performance in class. And her pupils at Arminta these days come from far more varied ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Wagman keeps a scrapbook of her earliest years as a teacher, when her students dressed almost exclusively in polyester. Now, they wear T-shirts that Wagman designed, with the Arminta school logo on the chest.

Students today are more savvy, Wagman said, a change she credits at least partly to their access to so many television channels in their homes.

"They just know more about the world today.... In a way, that's very exciting, because you can talk to them about things that are happening, and they have a little bit of background."

But mostly she has been struck by how the youngsters themselves -- the personalities and the antics -- have remained the same. "The kids," she said, "have always been wonderful."

Wagman had wanted to be a teacher since she was 5 years old, and she says her career did not disappoint her. "It was always challenging, and gave me a chance to be creative," she said.

Her only regret is that she has lost touch with so many of her former students. Most, she said, never spoke with her again after leaving her classroom. "I wish I had kept up with or found a way to know what all those kids are doing," she said.

But there are a few stories to which she knows the endings: Pamela Skaist, "this adorable girl" who was one of Wagman's first students, is now Pamela Skaist-Levy, the multimillionaire co-founder of the fashion company Juicy Couture. Robert Eshman, a bright student in her class the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, is editor of the Jewish Journal.

On her second-to-last day, Wagman planned special activities: a morning sharing memories of the school year -- a chance for students to show off what they had learned -- and then a potluck lunch, featuring the native cuisines of her pupils.

As the aromas of Central and South American, as well as African, food wafted through the room, Wagman chatted with parents in English and Spanish.

Wagman, who won't divulge her age, is less than 5 feet tall. Yet even while she was perched on a child-size chair, there was no question who was in charge.

When a particularly rambunctious student threatened to interrupt a reading of "A Pizza the Size of the Sun," a collection of slightly nonsensical poems, she handled the situation coolly.

"On your derriere," she whispered, practicing a French word she had taught the children. The child sat back down. Wagman never lost her reading pace.

Pausing before another poem, she asked if the pupils could remember the word for a collection of poetry. She hinted: "An anth

"An anthology!" the class yelled.

Parents praised Wagman's patience and enthusiasm.

"What I see in her is that she is always giving them information on the outside world: news, politics, baseball," said Norma Shiferaw, 29, whose 7-year-old son, Melaku, is in Wagman's class.

Melaku has learned self-confidence and has been encouraged to dream big, Shiferaw said. Melaku said he plans to be a paleontologist, a writer and a Dodger -- although maybe not in that order.

Arminta Principal Marcia Cholodenko said Wagman has been known throughout her career as a teacher who directly touches children's lives.

"She treats all of these kids as if they were related to her," Cholodenko said. "She thinks half of the class is absolutely brilliant."

Wagman has no concrete plans for Las Vegas, she said.

She might sign up as a substitute teacher. Her students have said she'll have a chance to gamble and to lunch with friends.

But, she added in a conspiratorial whisper, "What I'm really thinking of is working at Nordstrom."

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