Why Teach?

An update on five alumni dedicated to a challenging profession

By Kristin J. Bender
Illustrations by Helen Chau

Abe “Doc” Doctolero’s mother wanted her son to be a doctor or a lawyer. But when he graduated in 1968, he didn’t see medicine or law as his true calling. Unsure what to do, he sought advice from a favorite political science professor, who greeted him with, “Hey Doc, how’s teaching and coaching going?”

The UC Berkeley professor hadn’t seen Doctolero in a while and just assumed his former student had gone into teaching. He’d always thought Doc had a flair for it and thought it only natural that he would become a teacher. A nd that’s exactly what Doctolero decided to do, going on to earn an administrative credential and a master’s degree from Saint Mary’s College. When classes resume this fall, Doc will begin his 41st year in education, and while he promised his wife he’d have a retirement plan in place next year, he really isn’t going anywhere. He wants to stay in the classroom, where he feels useful and energized, despite the challenges that often come with teaching. Abe Doctolero

“It is the profession that really allows a person to affect another person’s future. It’s a heavy burden, but it’s a tremendous opportunity.” he said.

Doctolero started his teaching career at Jefferson High School in Daly City, spent about eight years as director of curriculum and instruction with the Contra Costa County Office of Education and last year settled in as assistant superintendent of educational services with the Pittsburg Unified School District. Over time Doctolero has maintained strong ties to the College and serves on the crediential board of the Kalmanovitz School of Education.

Checking in four years later

Four years ago, he and four other educators, all Kalmanovitz alumni, got together to discuss the challenges they face and why they stick with it.

That discussion, which also included Deanna Early (now Deanna Peake), Chantal LaCrampe, Joe Ianora and Leyla Benson, appeared in the fall 2007 magazine and was titled “Why Teach?” With more than 18,000 California teachers leaving the profession annually, we wanted to check in with these longtime educators to gauge their satisfaction, challenges, fears and victories in a time of great social, financial and educational pressure in their profession. We also wanted to know how the College’s Lasallian mission to serve others has helped them be successful in their careers.

“I think the best thing about Saint Mary’s is their focus on making sure teachers are prepared to teach all students,” said Benson, who has been working as an alternative education principal in the Mount Diablo Unified School District for the past four years. Not only do you have to be highly qualified in your subject area, you also need know how to manage your classroom, Benson said. “My challenge is to reach every student in my room. That’s what Saint Mary’s teaches you. Every student wants to learn and you have to figure out how to reach every student.” Layla Benson

The deck is stacked against teachers

California has more than 6.2 million students, roughly 1.5 million more than Texas, the next most populous state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But the overwhelming size of the school systemis just one challenge. California educators have the highest percentage of English learners in the nation, and the state has among the highest proportions of children living in low-income families, according to the California Department of Education.

At the same time, staffing levels in California lag behind other states, while the Golden State consistently falls below the national average in perpupil spending. Not only do teachers have less money, they also have more students than in many states.

Teaching today also demands a higher level of technical skill, Doctolero said. “The game has changed tremendously in a very short period of time. A teacher now needs be a master of content standards that apply directly to high rigor at a given grade level.”

Why stick around?

Even though teachers face significant challenges, the rewards are great, according to these five career educators.

“When students once again connect to school, earn grades they never thought they could, contribute a gem of an idea to a class discussion or just show up to school on a regular basis, it affords great joy and energizes us to stay the course,” said Benson, 29. “Nothing beats the feeling of being instrumental in changing a young person’s life for the better.’’

Joe Ianora, the principal of San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, began his educational career in 1989 after earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees and two teaching credentials from Saint Mary’s. He marvels at how the demands of his job have changed.

“The biggest challenge for us is how do we create a 21st century learning environment for our students,’’ said Ianora, 45. “When we went to school, you learned reading, writing and arithmetic. With the kids entering school now, the jobs that they will have haven’t even been created yet.” That means teachers must teach universal skills that could apply to any job, he said. “The new three R’s are rigor, relevance and relationship.’’ Joe Ianora

Ianora said many students glean those lessons beyond the classroom, learning many of the skills they’ll need to succeed. “They already Skype, they already text, they already (have) a lot of these skills,’’ he said. “And if they don’t know something, they don’t go to a book and look it up, they play with (the gadget, or phone or computer) and figure it out,’’ he said.

Ianora said many of the survival skills students need to succeed were laid out by Tony Wagner in his book, “The Global Achievement Gap.” Wagner writes that the essential skills are critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. Teachers have to incorporate those skills into their lessons.

“It’s no longer that (students) have to learn 15 chapters of Algebra II in their daily lesson,” Ianora said. “What’s more important is learning to communicate; your business partner or work partner might be in China or London. Teaching that is a different challenge.” This challenge reflects a new paradigm. People like Ianora are no longer simply teachers or the sole keepers of knowledge but guides who point students in the right direction while also imparting knowledge. “And students are hungry for someone to help them through this process,’’ he said.

Chantal LaCrampe, a fifth grade teacher at Vichy Elementary School in Napa, especially enjoys guiding children when they’re young and eager to learn.

“It’s like this frozen moment in time,’’ she said. “They will hold your hand, they will cry if they are upset. By sixth grade they are more hardened by the world around them. I love the age group, I love the curriculum and I love the field trips.”

Chantal LaCrampeBut the 31-year-old knows being a teacher these days requires tremendous dedication.

“As a teacher in this era, it’s all the more pressing that we build our classrooms as reprieves from the harsh realities of the outside world, and as a teacher you have a commitment to your students to give them the best education possible,’’ she said.

Simple advice for newcomers

“Stay positive,” said LaCrampe, who earned her doctoral degree at Saint Mary’s. “Use the standards as a guiding force rather than an absolute binding contract. I don’t limit myself to just using district curriculum, but I use it in combination with other novels and textbooks.”

Deanna (Early) Peake says the joys of teaching haven’t changed, even if her methods have, now that she’s teaching fourth and fifth graders at River Montessori Charter School in Petaluma.

“The students are able to express themselves in ways the younger children I used to teach could not,” she said. “I love that I can use humor with these 9- to 11-year olds as we go through the day, and that the students and I are actually partners in their learning.”

Just as her methods have changed over the years, so too have the students. “The children question everything and want to be involved in every aspect of planning their day, which can be exhausting emotionally. The endless negotiation, planning and re-planning, which are inherently part of the process, are also very time-consuming,’’ said the 45-year-old who earned a master’s degree at Saint Mary’s.

Her day begins long before she steps into the classroom. There’s email, lesson planning and reading papers before the sun rises. She arrives at school by 7:30 a.m., where she does everything from make copies to fetch crickets for the classroom gecko. Deanna (Early) Peake

Teaching at a Montessori School in Petaluma is far different from when Benson voluntarily took a two-year stint at Stevenson Academy at Pittsburg High School. She taught 160 of the most at-risk students among the school’s 2,600 kids. They were chronic truants, kept in school 6:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and fed all their meals at school.

None of them really wanted to be there when Benson started. They said it was like prison and the day too long. Slowly, Benson changed their attitudes.

“Within a month, they were calling themselves the ‘Stevenson Family’ and they wanted to extend the program from ninth and tenth graders to eleventh graders, as well,’’ she said. Benson won the kids over by pushingthem, encouraging their creativity and instilling in them a sense of pride and a desire to learn.

Benson kept their work and showed it to them periodically so that they could see their progress. “These are students who would just throw away their papers. I also allowed students to take ownership of the classroom: decorate the room so it became their space, a safe space.”

Benson earned her single subject credential, administrative credential and master’s degree at Saint Mary’s and recently became coordinator of fieldwork supervision for the single subject program at the College. She hopes to begin the doctorate program in education leadership next summer. Her career has exposed her to people from many socioeconomic levels, but she treats everyone the same and believes they all want the same thing: to learn.

“I personally believe every student is capable of learning and wants to learn,” she said. “It’s my challenge to figure out what I can do to connect each student to what I’m teaching in my room. As a teacher, you may not be able to purchase all kinds of lab experiments or have all the resources you may have had before, but what makes the most difference is the relationship they have with their teacher.”

Guided by a common mission

The five educators said they hold close the mission of the Kalmanovitz School of Education: Rigorous study, reflective practice, engaging students and treating them with respect and passion, keeping alive the educational ideals of St. John Baptist de La Salle, who founded the Christian Brothers and established the first Lasallian school more than 300 years ago. For all of them, the Lasallian motto: “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve,” still resonates.

“Their mission and their philosophy really reflect my personal and professional approach,’’ said Doctolero. “I want to be a direct reflection of what they would like to see from their graduates.”

Kristin J. Bender writes for the Oakland Tribune, covering city governments, breaking news, education and investigative stories in the East Bay.