On the first day of school at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Cynthia Gilbert (Ms. Cynthia to the kids) from the front office is running the registration tables, students and teachers are chatting in hallways decked out with murals, and after days of buffing, the checkered linoleum floors are gleaming.
Upstairs, in room 308, LuPaulette Taylor is getting ready for class.
“It's exciting,” she says. “You have a new chance to make new mistakes and to do things better than you did the year before.”
Taylor’s enthusiasm is a welcome note in a district that is still short 30 teachers at the start of the new year. It's all the more important at a school like McClymonds, sometimes referred to as "Mack," where it’s especially hard to hold onto teachers, and more remarkable still, coming from someone starting her 49th year on the job.
Taylor’s spent nearly all of those years right here at Mack.
She goes by Dr. Taylor, or most of the time, just DT.
“Everybody knows who DT is,” 16-year-old senior K’aun Green says. He’s a little nervous about his first English class with her. DT’s got a reputation.
“As soon as you step in that’s the first thing you'll hear about — DT, DT,” he says about coming to McClymonds as a freshman. “That’s what I was hearing about and I didn’t even know who she was.”
As students start filing in to Taylor’s class, she checks in with kids she knows, asks others when they started at Mack, and shouts orders at passers by. “Missy over there, pull that shirt down! Why is that hat on in the building?” Her tone is a mix of affection and affront, honed for maximum effect. “No phones out!”
When the students are settled, Taylor starts off by telling the class about herself, “I graduated from McClymonds, 50 some years ago, 1966.”
She gives the coordinates of her West Oakland childhood, “9th Street between Cypress and Center.”
The kids can start plotting the arc of her life, “I went to Prescott,” she says. “How many people went to Prescott?”
There’s no whispering, no phones buzzing. She tells the kids she turned down other job offers to stay here.
“It just didn’t feel right. I just felt like I should be here because this was home and this is my neighborhood, if you understand it, ok?" she says. "Some of you, I taught your grandparents. I can't even believe it's been that long.”
Now it’s the students’ turn to introduce themselves.
“Ok,” Taylor eyes the kids. “We gonna start over here or should we start over here?”
“Over there, over there!” students shout, pointing across the room. “Start with him!”
Taylor tells the students they’ll have to stand in front of the class. “It’s practice for senior project and the other presentations we’re gonna do.”
Groans all around. “Man!”
Green steps to the front of the class.
“I feel good today,” he says. “I’m excited to be a senior because I like to be looked up to by the 9th and 10th graders. I’m anxious about DT’s class and how much work I’m gonna receive. Yeah, I’m scared.”
He trails off, but he’s grinning.
Green is one of those students with deep ties to Taylor. She’s taught generations of his family.
“Since she knows my mom and my dad I can't really goof around,” Green says. "A lot of the teachers get run out of here because of the students at Mack. A lot of the teachers, they don’t get the same respect as she does from the students. She doesn’t ask for it, you just give it because of the history.”
There are a few people on campus who share some of that history, but nobody’s been here as long as Taylor.
“The turnover at our school — it's like sometimes we meet new teachers on the first day, and by Christmas they're gone, sometimes Thanksgiving they're gone,” says McClymonds social worker Relonda McGhee.
Only about 15 percent of teachers stay on for a third year here. It’s the worst retention rate in the district with one exception, a continuation school.
Principal Jarod Scott is pleased because less than half the teachers are new this year. That’s a big improvement, he says.
McGhee cites high turnover among administrators and inexperience as reasons teachers leave. Nearly half of teachers at McClymonds last year weren’t fully credentialed.
She also says teachers choose to leave for schools where hunger, grief and conflict aren’t vying for attention in class.
“Some adults cannot handle that,” McGhee says. “They do a year and then they're gone because it's too overwhelming.”
As Taylor sees it, teaching is a small part of the job. On any given day she might alternate between counselor, grandmother, auntie, cousin, social worker and preacher, she says.
“You don't ever get to just teach and you don't get to leave the kids here if you're doing what you're supposed to,” she says. “You take them home with you mentally and you try to figure out, ‘What else can I do?’”
Recently, a student reminded her about the time she showed up at his house one morning, unannounced, and dragged him to school. He hadn’t been showing up.
“What really hurts me is when I see kids giving up and they've done so well,” Taylor says. “When I see things get so bad for them they just sort of disappear — physically, or they check out mentally.”
Some days she can get weary, but she's always learning. That’s the part about school — about teaching — that she still loves.
“It was something that I always wanted to be when I was little. I think because I always enjoyed school. I enjoyed reading, I enjoyed math, I enjoyed experimenting when we did science. I liked everything about school. I liked recess. I liked PE.”
Taylor started teaching at 21, at what was then Hoover Junior High. She had a hard time at first, so she says she spent as much time as she could in other teacher’s rooms.
“If I didn't have a class I was in somebody’s class observing what was going on, how they did it, how I could make it my own,” she says.
Almost 50 years later she’s still at it. She drops in on new hires to see what they have to teach her. “I'm still learning,” she says. “I get excited when I learn something new.”
Plus, she just likes what she does. “I look forward to it like 97 percent of the time.”
On days when she doesn’t want to get out of bed, she says, “Coming here and getting around the kids, I feel better.”
Taylor’s almost 70, but she’s not planning to leave any time soon. It’s not right here yet, she says, too much coming and going.
Her colleagues aren’t eager to see her go.
“It would take about four or five people to replace Dr. Taylor if she decides to retire,” Scott says.
“Hopefully in the next couple of years we'll have a lot of people who can keep it rolling,” McGhee says. “Them’s some big shoes to step in.”
At the end of the school day, a former student comes by to visit. She just graduated and is headed to USC.
“That’s so exciting,” Taylor says. After checking on the student’s transportation and finances, and offering help getting more scholarship money, she sends last year’s valedictorian off with a hug. “Be good. Call me if you need anything.”
By now the school day is long over. Taylor could be at home, but another student just walked through the door.