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Playing the Odds


Stacy Dreyfus is one of thousands of new teachers who come to this booming city each year. But too many of them go bust.



THE FIRST DAYS

At 7 a.m. on a cloudless May morning, as the sun glints off the Egyptian pyramid on the Las Vegas Strip nine miles away, Dreyfus gathers her kindergartners on the blacktop playground for the 135th day of school. It promises to go a lot better than the first, the 50th, or even the 100th.

John will not run away on the playground. If he gets antsy, Dreyfus knows what to do—simply gather the others, line them up, and walk into the building. He’ll follow. Nobody will embarrass her in line, poking and yelling as they walk by more experienced teachers. (And Adam will not crack his head open—but if he did, she definitely could handle it. After all, it would be the third time this year.)

“Who is going to be my estimating king or queen today?” Dreyfus asks as her kids get settled criss-cross on the classroom carpet. “If your name has five letters, please stand up!”

“If your name begins with an I, please keep standing. If the second letter begins with the same letter as strawberry, please keep standing. Sss, sss, strawberry!”

“All right, Isela!”

Dreyfus has wanted to be a teacher forever. Back in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, her hometown of 63,000, her mother has taught first grade for nearly 30 years. But small-town teaching jobs are scarce. After Dreyfus, now 27, graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in early childhood education and then traveled some, she headed here. Where else could she and her boyfriend (a professional juggler) both advance their careers?

It is not what she expected.

“It’s much harder than I thought it was going to be. You don’t know if you’re doing it right, and you don’t want to fail the kids,” she says. “There were days when I was just like, I’m done. I have no control. They’re running my life.”

With little real preparation (and a soft heart), classroom management quickly became Dreyfus’ weakness. She isn’t alone—less than half of new teachers said they were “very” prepared to maintain order in the classroom, according to the most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. It isn’t much experienced in student teaching assignments or covered well in orientations. And while Dreyfus’ professors may have taught her about Piaget, they never role-played what to do when a kid hides under his desk and cries, “I don’t want a whupping!”

“I could write a lesson plan, sure, but I couldn’t get them to the bathroom. I had two little boys pee their pants,” Dreyfus recalls.

Often the only advice any new teacher gets is the old saw: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” (Actually, Dreyfus and her friends did get another piece of wisdom from a retired colleague on making it through the first year: “Find your favorite cocktail and drink it every night.”) And while administrators try to be helpful, their idea of help isn’t always the same as a teacher’s. Every week, new teachers must submit their lesson plans for detailed review. Nine times last year, Dreyfus endured observations and evaluations. (Every time her door opened, she shrank a little.)

But Dreyfus’ classroom skills improved greatly over the course of the year, thanks largely to practical advice (“Stacy, he’s playing you!”) from her more experienced colleagues. This morning, when a lesson in geometric shapes devolves into a jostling match over crayons, Dreyfus moves quickly. “You’re being rude and disrespectful!” she sternly tells her chattering kindergartners. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know!” snaps Elijahjuan.

“It means we’re making you sad,” Dulce whispers.

“I’ll wait. I’ll wait,” Dreyfus says, as their attention slowly turns to her. “Boys and girls, as long as this takes us, we may not go to recess.” (But, of course, they do. She’s still a softie at heart—and in desperate need of a midday break, too.)

A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS

Unlike many first-year teachers, Dreyfus has a formal mentor—the aptly named Grace Angel, who also is the school’s grade-level chair for kindergarten. During those first few weeks last August, when Dreyfus just couldn’t get home before dark and a day’s worth of lesson plans took a whopping eight hours to write, Angel stayed and helped. They talk about behavior plans and theories of learning, but also the basics: how to hand in a lunch card, line up for a fire drill, or host a parent night. (Although many of her parents speak no English, they’ve still managed to let Dreyfus know that she’s too thin with gifts of baked chicken.)

“Find your style,” Angel counseled her.

Dreyfus also has support from all the other kindergarten teachers, who have become a close-knit team (they gather for monthly dinners, no less). Vicki Courtney still remembers her first year—27 years ago—when she inadvertently stole the veteran music teacher’s classroom. Even back then, there was a shortage of classroom space in Clark County. It didn’t make her feel welcome. And she knows that’s important.

“Without them, honestly, I probably would have quit,” Dreyfus says.

“There needs to be time for reflection,” Angel says. "Teaching should be reflective.”

 

Based on their models, Dreyfus set up the best part of her day—the hour when her kindergartners rotate independently between centers. The housekeeping wing is pure play—Maya ties a baby to her chest with a long scarf, while Luis grabs a uniformed jacket. At another table, Frida carefully writes an illustrated story. (It begins dramatically: “First they dig a hole.”) And, at another, the kids turn yellow Play-Doh into cones and cubes.

Still, this isn’t what mentoring should be. Ideally, Angel would have received formal training. She would get compensated for her good deeds, and she also would have a lighter teaching schedule so that she could actually visit Dreyfus’ classroom, model lessons, and meet more frequently. “There needs to be time for reflection,” Angel says. “Teaching should be reflective.”

Too often, mentor relationships represent nothing more than monthly coffee and reheated platitudes—“Hang in there, kid,” says Segun Eubanks, director of NEA Teacher Quality. And most induction programs aren’t much better. Just about 1 percent of new teachers get comprehensive induction, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The problem is money—doing it right costs about $4,000 per teacher. (But the alternative is worse. The revolving door of recruitment and replacement costs up to $2.6 billion annually, the Alliance says.)

Money is a problem for teachers, too. In Clark County, new teachers earn about $30,000 a year—less than the national average, which was $31,704 in 2004, and well below the $40,000 minimum NEA believes every teacher should make. With Vegas’ stratospheric housing prices, Dreyfus has no hope of buying a house here. Ever. (The day she needs three bedrooms, she says, is the day she moves back to Wisconsin.) To make ends meet, Dreyfus shares a garden apartment on the western fringe of the city with two others, including Krista Holter, a first-year teacher from Minnesota. They spend a lot of time talking school.

“Was John good today?” Holter asks at dinner.

Her share of the rent is $365. But don’t forget car payments and insurance bills, plus the cost of new teacher supplies. Setting up her classroom with big puzzles and fat pencils, beanbag chairs, and books like Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type cost about $1,000. Taking a Praxis test that the district decided in February that new teachers must pass in April cost another $200.

“We could make more as cocktail waitresses,” Dreyfus says grimly.

HOLD ’EM

To help prevent that sort of unintended career change, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) has more than a few cards up its sleeve. Through one Association initiative, new teachers can move up on the salary scale by taking an urban studies course. Through another, a whole new column on the pay scale has been created for those who earn an “advanced studies certificate” at a local university—that’s a bump of $3,000 for practical work in such topics as English-language learners.


Stacy Dreyfus and her colleagues on the kindergarten team meet weekly to share lessons, chocolate, and practical advice.
But salary isn’t everything. Often, working conditions are more important to teachers—and that’s proven true in Clark County. Teachers ranked administrative support, in a recent survey, as the most influential factor in deciding whether they’ll stay or go. Having time to do the job ranked second.

“You’re not going to return if you don’t have a good strong principal giving good support, and creating a good learning environment,” says NEA’s Eubanks. Empowerment to make decisions also was important in Clark County’s survey—more so than salary, which ranked sixth. To answer that challenge, CCEA and school administrators have collaborated on opening four “empowerment” schools this year, where teachers and principals will be free from many district regulations.

To keep promising new teachers, district officials, NEA, and its affiliates will have to consider ideas like Clark County’s, Eubanks says. And they’ll have to rethink some long-held traditions, like the idea that the most senior teachers should go to the “best” schools, often leaving the newest recruits in the toughest ones. “It’s the culture of teaching that dictates you’re not ever going to get financial rewards, so you measure your success by getting ‘good’ schools or AP classes,” he says. “We need to change the culture to make those challenging schools more meaningful, and find more effective career ladder programs.”

Which brings us back to Dreyfus. At the end of her first year, where does she see herself on that ladder? Stepping off, perhaps?

Looking back, here’s what happened last year in Miss Dreyfus’ class. Julissa learned to speak English, and so did Luis. John learned to walk in a line, Bobby to put on his jacket. All the kids learned their ABCs, how to write a sentence, and how to listen carefully when Miss Dreyfus reads aloud.

And yes, Miss Dreyfus learned to be a teacher.

This year, when she comes back, she’ll just be a little less soft and a little more “scary,” she hopes.

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20-Sep-06