Ask a teacher why he or she chose that profession and 99.9 percent of the time the response will be, "I want to make a difference." But idealism will only get you so far, so to compensate for a relatively low-pay, high-stress job, teaching is held up as a noble profession by everyone who knows they themselves would crumble under the pressure that comes from trying to keep kids and their parents happy while navigating the maze of public education bureaucracy.
Earlier this month, 1,487 San Diego City Schools teachers received pink slips. Since seniority plays a role in who stays and who goes, sadly, pink-slip recipients include many of those young idealists-first- and second-year teachers-as well as a large percentage of ninth-grade English teachers. The latter is somewhat of a head-scratcher, since the district's Blueprint for Student Success education-reform program is literacy based. District administrators' explanation for trimming down the humanities staff is that they're necessarily doing away with the small English classes implemented by the Blueprint.
Forty percent of California's overall budget goes toward public education and a massive deficit such as the state is facing now virtually cripples school districts. San Diego City Schools has insisted that it's trying to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, but with a $150 million shortfall expected for the 2003-2004 fiscal year, trimming teaching staff-teacher salaries comprise half of the district's overall annual expenditures-was inevitable. District officials say they're hoping a considerable number of teachers will opt for early-retirement packages, and therefore not all of the people that received pink slips March 15 will get official layoff notices in May.
To prepare for the worst, the district last week held three two-hour-long information sessions for pink-slip recipients. Topics included how to file for unemployment, how to handle debtors and creditors post-layoff and how to register with the district to become a substitute teacher this coming fall (laid off teachers were promised they'd be given priority).
Tuesday's session, held in Lincoln High School's expansive auditorium, could easily have passed for one of those really large college classes-that's how young a majority of the attendees looked. Present were all teachers facing a potential layoff with a last name beginning with M through Z (A through L was the day before).
Shortly after 4 p.m., the auditorium was nearly three-quarters full. It was clear most attendees came seeking answers, and as it became increasingly evident that district staff weren't there to provide them, more and more attendees filed out. By 5:30, the auditorium was barely one-third full.
The main objective of the session, it seemed, was to put a pleasant spin on the fact that when you're trained for a specific vocation, without retraining there's not going to be a whole lot of job options, especially in a market where demand is expected to double supply. Attendees were encouraged to focus on "re-training" and "re-tooling" their job skills, or perhaps to get a "skill upgrade." If you improve your skills, they were told, perhaps next time you'll be one of the last ones to go instead of one of the first.
Few of the career options suggested to the audience seemed appealing: life insurance sales; middle management at Qualcomm, Sprint or Verizon (former teachers make excellent middle managers, they were told); claims adjustor; technical writer.
Cordell Thomas from the San Diego Workforce Partnership tossed out a promising new field: bioinformatics, a cross between computer science and biology. "Do we have any biology teachers in the room?" he asked. No hands went up. "What about computer science?" Same response. "What do you teach?" he asked.
"English" was the response that rang out the loudest. (Anyone who majored in English knows teaching is assumed to be the default career option.)
A pleasant representative from New York Life insurance did his best to jazz up his line of work, but he clearly knew that for most of the attendees it was probably a bitter pill to swallow.
"Most if you ended up in teaching not because all the positions in insurance were filled," he joked. But, he said, life insurance sales people live with "the satisfaction of knowing what we do make a significant difference in people's lives. It's a wonderful career," he added. "But people don't wake up and say, "I know what I want to do with my life-I want to be a life insurance agent.'"
At the end of his pitch, he offered what remained of the audience an informative brochure on employment opportunities with New York Life. Raise your hand if you'd like one, he said. Initially, only five or six hands went up, but within minutes, a good majority of teachers signaled that they wanted a brochure. Perhaps it was group mentality-if it looks good to one person, must be worth checking out. Or, perhaps, when you're convinced the job market holds little else for you, anything's an option.