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Getting the Best Teachers Into the Worst Schools

If nothing else, Vergara v. California highlighted the disproportionate number of inexperienced and out-of-field teachers in schools overwhelmingly populated by poor and minority students ("State needs a 'grand bargain' on teachers' effectiveness, obstacles," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 21).  There's no need to explain why this situation is bad for students, but there is a need to explain why the situation exists in the first place.

I'll say it quite simply: Teaching in these schools is extraordinarily hard.  That's why "combat pay" has not solved the problem - and never will. Even the most idealistic and dedicated teachers have limits to what they can endure on a daily basis.  I taught for my entire 28-year career in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  When busing began in earnest and the neighborhood around the school changed as a result of Third World immigration, my English classes were filled with students whose backgrounds were entirely different from those I had at the start.

What this meant was that I could take nothing for granted in terms of readiness to learn.  Students often came to class exhausted, hungry and distracted. I rarely saw that before.  As a result, I was forced to practice triage before I could even begin to think about teaching subject matter.  The daily grind began to take its toll.  I had to jettison lesson plans that had been highly successful before and try to design those that would engage students.  Moreover, attempts to help students make up the work they missed because of frequent absences meant I was slowly becoming a private tutor.  

Perhaps my experience helps to explain why even the best teachers tend to avoid teaching in schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students. They chose to become teachers - not to become social workers and surrogate parents. Yes, there will always be a few missionaries among them who are willing to devote their entire being to their job.  They deserve the highest praise.  But they are in the minority and getting smaller all the time.

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