Forced to be all things to all inner-city children
Many US teachers drop out of the profession during their first year, and Jacqueline Elliot was nearly another casualty.
The former director of a family planning clinic, who chose to change jobs in her mid-30s, Elliot was granted emergency teaching credentials to fill a place in one of Los Angeles' under-staffed public schools. Now, with 11 years in the profession behind her, she remembers having a rough time of it.
"I was flying by the seat of my pants," she said. Jacqueline was bumped from her first school after a few weeks because enrollment fell. She transferred to an elementary school in a run-down area of the San Fernando Valley. It had 1,700 children and felt, she said, like a penitentiary. Jacqueline, who spoke only broken Spanish learned from her clinic experience, was given the job of teaching a bilingual programme to a class almost entirely drawn from South American immigrant children.
Fellow teachers, she said, simply struggled to keep up with the social and economic problems. "One teacher was held up at gunpoint at 3pm," she said. "And a fourth grader was shot in the head in cross fire."
Teaching experiences in American schools, public and private, vary wildly in pay and conditions. But in inner-city New York, Chicago, Dallas, or wherever, you are going to find this kind of environment, said Jacqueline.
She echoes a common complaint of American teachers that instead of simple educators they are forced into the roles of psychologist, counsellor, parent, and disciplinarian.
Jacqueline is 47, divorced, with two daughters aged 14 and 21. Her husband was also a teacher, but became miserable in the profession, she said. She took to it "like a duck to water" and they grew apart. She is now fully qualified and with a masters degree in educational administration. The LA salary scale runs from about $29,000 to $50,000, (Pounds 18,000 to Pounds 32,000) with good benefits, and the chance of extra work at year-round schools.
She recently started work as a teacher-co-ordinator at a publicly financed, semi-independent charter school: "In California, teachers have been traditionally underpaid, and have not been treated or looked upon equal to other professions such as engineers, doctors," she said.
"I believe it's changing because the public is realising that the product coming out is not up to par. So they are starting to look at the factory workers, how the teachers have been treated."