Earlier this month, I spoke on a panel with some other teachers for an audience of education reformers. The topic was SFUSD, with a focus on the current strategic plan ("Beyond the Talk: Two Years In and We're Still Just Talking"). Needless to say, I had quite a lot of opinions on the issue and I aired these at some length to an audience that seemed receptive. At least they gasped at all the right parts, like where I ran down the school demographics and statistics, noted our #1 (in layoffs) status and then stated that these factors left me leery of the will behind the strategic plan.
Anyway, one of the other things I said was that I thought SFUSD would be a very difficult district in which to start one's teaching career. I didn't, for the record. When I got to SFUSD, I had a credential, done teacher training, had student teachers, done education research, all that noise. I knew what I was doing. So while I had to deal with the eccentricities of a new district, the vagaries of a mammoth district and the specific drama that is SFUSD I could go into my classroom and do my job.
Even better, I could do my job with none of the unpleasant nonsense of Reading First mandates, scripted math curricula (they even give you lines for the wrong answers they predict students will give!) and whatnot. If my students had mastered rhyming, I didn't have to teach it for seventy four more days. If the unit on wood went so well that we needed to stop and do a little carpentry art for a week, we could. We could even TAKE FIELD TRIPS (providing they were within city limits and free, but all the same! FIELD TRIPS).
On the other hand, there are some flaws in this model even for the veteran. Finding teachers with whom to collaborate could be a bit difficult - it took me a year to get a good buddy system going. Since I no longer used the purchased language arts program and there is no district language arts assessment, I had to come up with my own (or not assess at all, I suppose, but life is easier when you know what the kids know and don't know. They're not bored or lost, so their engagement is higher and the management is smooth).
But imagine this system as a first year teacher: worse, as a first year, uncredentialed teacher. A credential may give you very little in practical technique, but you will have at least a student teaching experience upon which you can draw. I can't imagine what this would be like. Of course, some schools probably have more cohesive programs (but not many) and at my school the grade levels are tight team projects so that even the greenest newbie can get some assistance (this I know is far less true at most SFUSD schools and generally not that true at Kindergarten, although I have no idea why).
The lack of support system is brutal for the newbie - and these teachers invariably start at high-needs schools, where there are fewer supports and higher concentrations of early-career teachers. And high-needs teaching is never easy: I have ten years in doing it, and I'm really good, but my job is not easy. Fun, yes. Exciting, yes. An intellectual challenge, oh yes. But it is not easy.
So you have the neediest teachers at the hardest schools having exceptionally hard times - the kind of experience that means burn out even if you do survive a layoff cycle. There just isn't a safety net in SFUSD.
Based on what the reformers told me later, SFUSD seems to know that there is a lot of site-based freedom. However, they seem less interested in building a safety net than building a boot camp - or maybe they just can't see a middle ground. I do suspect this will be the big tension of the whole "re-design" this year.