Apparently, it’s just not cool to be a teacher these days.

Far fewer young people are setting out to become teachers. In recent years, the number of students in California teacher preparation programs has plummeted.

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact cause of the teacher shortage. Years of high-stakes testing might have made the profession less enticing. Layoffs triggered by the Great Recession couldn’t have helped the appearance of job security. And surveys show teachers satisfied with their jobs plummeted between 2008 and 2012.

For the last several years, the looming problem has been hidden by the simple fact that few school districts across the state have been hiring much. But as hiring forecasts improve, and with fewer younger educators lined up to replace the ones aging out, now’s the time for districts to line up their future teaching stock.

The problem isn’t lost on San Diego Unified, which put together a Teacher Pipeline Task Force to figure out not just how the district can attract more teachers, but the right kind: a more ethnically diverse crowd, highly qualified and ready to hit the ground running on the new Common Core state standards.

That task force, made up of district staff and representatives from the teachers union, put together a dense, 58-page report that includes recommendations for how the district can deepen its teacher pool.

Superintendent Cindy Marten said she’ll come up with a plan for how to put recommendations in action. While the district is waiting, it would do well to look closely at a small contingent already at work within San Diego: Teach for America.

Now in its second school year in San Diego, Teach for America has expanded from 19 to 41 teachers. Of local corps members, 80 percent are teachers of color, 70 percent come from low-income backgrounds and a quarter come from STEM backgrounds – notoriously tough-to-staff positions. More than half of recruits are locally grown or had ties to San Diego before joining TFA.

Granted, TFA makes up only a small fraction of teachers in San Diego Unified, and diversity can look more impressive when the sample size is this small.

Critics characterize TFA, along with charter schools, as part of a reform movement aimed at dismantling public education and rebuilding it as a corporate model.

Not surprisingly, veteran teachers have taken umbrage with TFA over the years: Who are these kids with fancy-pants degrees and only five weeks of training who think they can parachute into our schools and show us what’s what?

A common argument against TFA is that its members often leave the profession after their two-year stints. But that’s not entirely fair.

Nationally, about 60 percent of TFA Corps members stay on for a third year. But that looks less surprising when you look at the numbers for traditional-track teachers: Less than half of those who work in low-income schools make it past their fifth year.

In recent years, TFA has undergone a shift in how it presents itself – becoming less of a competitor with traditional teachers and administrators and more of a community partner. But some of that skepticism still haunts the organization.

I’ve spent some time examining TFA’s first year in San Diego. Essentially, TFA is already putting to work some of the same strategies the district is now recommending.  Here are a few things they’re getting right so far.

It’s recruited a diverse, local teaching corps.

David Lopez, TFA San Diego’s executive director, is aware of the criticism against the organization. In fact, he told me it was part of what drove him to go on a “listening tour” before he opened shop so he could hear from school board members and community leaders what they wanted out of a local TFA chapter.

Lopez grew up in Little Italy and North Park. He understands the local landscape and neighborhood history. That community context – something a teacher at Lincoln High recently told me was lacking in traditional teacher prep programs – is also part of the reason why Lopez is committed to local recruitment.

Apart from the obvious concern – not having enough qualified teachers to staff schools – the dwindling numbers present another challenge: The diversity of the teaching force doesn’t come close to matching the diversity of students.

About 77 percent of students in San Diego Unified identified as students of color. Compare that with 31 percent of teachers.

This is more important than diversity for its own sake. Hiring more teachers of color, or those from low-income backgrounds, might help teachers build better relationships with students instead of resorting to suspensions and expulsions to resolve classroom problems. Bilingual teachers would be better equipped to deal with the high percentage of English Learners who’ve failed to make progress in recent years.

It has found people to teach in high-need areas.

There’s not much of a secret to how Lopez finds interested corps members. He recruits – hard. TFA pounds pavement at local universities, speaks to classes, hosts webinars and makes it known that TFA is here in San Diego.

They look for students with the unique qualities right for San Diego: bilingual students, those with science and math backgrounds or those willing to teach in Special education.

That’s partly because those are the high-need areas San Diego Unified needs to staff. About 75 percent of local corps members currently teach in math, science, special education or bilingual education.

TFA’s targeted efforts help them land students like Liset Godinez, a senior at the University of San Diego who started the school’s first Latina sorority. Godinez grew up in Sherman Heights and was attracted to TFA specifically because it would allow her to give back to the neighborhoods like the one she grew up in.

After she sent in her application, she met with Lopez and asked him about the chances of being placed locally. Lopez told her he doesn’t have final say over where corps members land, but told her she did three things right: She got her application in on time, she’s from San Diego and she’s bilingual.

Next year she’ll be in a San Diego classroom near you, teaching bilingual studies.

It’s instituted support systems for young teachers.

Talk to teachers who’ve been around, and one thing is pretty universal: It sucks to be a first-year teacher.

Regardless of where teachers earned their credentials, certain elements of teaching can only be learned once someone’s on the job. Finding a rhythm takes time.

Last month, EdSource published a blowout report about where California was falling short on preparing teachers and recommended how to strengthen the profession.

Included on the list was beefing up support for first- and second-year educators – something baked into TFA’s fabric.

Corps members get ongoing support. A teacher-coach observes, then debriefs on what looked good and what didn’t. TFA also watches students’ test scores and talks to principals to find out which teachers are struggling. If they are, they get additional support.

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This can include non-traditional kinds of support, like something Lopez calls real-time coaching: A teacher wears an earpiece and a coach actually talks as he or she is teaching, telling the rookie what to do (or what to stop doing).

“It sounds weird until you hear from the people about the miracles it works. It breaks the rhythm of what’s not working,” said Lopez.

San Diego Unified offers a Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program, known as BTSA. This teacher induction program allows teachers to earn a “cleared,” or bona fide teacher credential (TFA Corps members take classes at San Diego State University as they work toward a cleared credential).

BTSA requires some coursework, but gives new teachers a chance to work with a mentor, a seasoned teacher who can help rookies over the rough spots.

But reviews are mixed. Danny Blas, now a teacher at Kearny High, said a lot of what BTSA offered him looked a rubber-stamp process. He liked the mentorship, but would have enjoyed more of it. The program stressed standards, one-size-fits-all teaching philosophies that don’t translate to students at a school like Lincoln, where Blas taught in his first years.

♦ ♦ ♦

Make no mistake, TFA isn’t perfect. Education reporter Dana Goldstein describes teaching methods that seem scripted and inflexible – as if new teachers are afraid to veer away from a prescribed template on how to respond to misbehaving students.

Even locally, TFA isn’t batting 1,000. Of the 19 corps members from its first cohort, five didn’t return for a second year. One of those teachers was let go mid-year, three weren’t invited back.

Of the five who didn’t return, four started the school year late due to a late hiring timeline for the district and were never able to find their rhythm or catch up on curriculum, Lopez said.

It also illustrates a broader point: No matter how tenacious or targeted the outreach, teaching is hard business and little can predict how well a prospective teacher will do in the classroom.

Lopez believes schools can be better, but is careful to view TFA through an appropriate lens.

“There is nobody in TFA who believes the way we change public education in America is to fill it with corps members,” he said. Their numbers are just too few to affect that kind of macro change.

“But we believe a great way to affect change is for corps members – whether those people stay in teaching, go on to become administrators, or work in a related field – to all have that front line experience in teaching,” he said.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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