Sharon Zinke has spent her last 38 years teaching kids, but on Tuesday she looked like a cat just delivered from the shelter as she tiptoed through empty hallways searching for her first new classroom in over a decade.
“I’m so lost here,” said Zinke, a recently hired sixth grade special education teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and the self-proclaimed “most experienced new teacher in the Bay Area.”
Even though Zinke was grading homework before most of her fellow Berkeley Unified rookies saw the light of day, she is part of a wave of fresh blood at the district—the largest class of new teachers to hit Berkeley Unified in several years.
When all of the paperwork is completed, Berkeley expects to hire 60 new teachers this year—about 10 pe rcent of the entire staff, said Pat Calvert, the district’s human resources director for teachers.
The hiring frenzy comes mainly from improving district finances. Unlike in recent years when budget deficits forced the district to increase class size and shed teacher positions, Berkeley Unified goes into 2004 with its books balanced and its coffers full enough to replace departing teachers.
Adding to the increase in job openings were a spike in teacher-requested leaves of absence and about a dozen new positions created by higher-than-anticipated enrollment, a new algebra program and an additional social science requirement in the high school.
This year’s class, which assembled at an orientation session Tuesday at King Middle School, could be the first wave of new hires if voters pass an $8 million tax measure on the November ballot. The initiative would reduce class sizes to 2001 levels and add 59 teacher positions, according to district estimates.
Calvert, who has two file drawers full of applicatio n s, is confident that the district won’t soon suffer from a lack of qualified candidates. “Berkeley is still a draw,” she said. “People want to come here to work.”
Perhaps no new teacher has traveled as far to join the district as Joseph Omwamba. Last y ea r the veteran instructor was teaching English in his native Kenya to students who sat with their hands folded on their desks. This year he will teach Swahili and English to Berkeley High students who have garnered a less obedient reputation.
“I think it’s more fun when students talk back, because then you know when they understand and when they don’t,” said Omwamba, who got a taste of the American education system several years ago in Hayward.
Another new teacher making an unusual transition is Mikk o J okela. His desire to teach in his adopted hometown led him to resign from the prestigious Piedmont Unified School District to take a job at King Middle School teaching humanities.
Although they come from different backgrounds, Omwamba and Jokela shar e on e common bond that make them more attractive to the district: neither is white.
While not fully reflecting Berkeley Unified’s student diversity, among the roughly 40 teachers at Tuesday’s orientation were five African Americans, several Asians and a woma n wearing a Muslim headdress.
To bolster their ranks, Calvert said the district planned to develop a minority recruitment program this year.
Demographic and statistical information on the new hires hasn’t been compiled yet. Calvert estimated that the average new teacher has between zero and five years experience and all are credentialed, although she guessed about six would be working on an emergency credential.
If past trends hold, the new teachers will remain in the district for between 15-20 y ears, she said, although it’s unclear if average tenure for new teachers has dropped since the local real estate market started surging over the past decade.
While several young teachers feared home prices could one day force them from the district, most said they flocked to Berkeley for the same reasons the city attracts so many outsiders
“Here it seems like I’ll have a lot of opportunity to give a progressive education that asks critical questions and is critical of our history,” said Chris Young, a w orld history teacher at Berkeley High.
Zeike, who’s taking a pay cut to join the district, decided to leave her job in a Hayward elementary school when budget cuts would have doubled her workload and forced her into two district schools.
“There wouldn’t have been enough time to work with the kids,” she said. Zinke is close to King Principal Kit Pappenheimer and said she was happy to be closing her career out in a district that wasn’t rolling over to education bureaucrats.
“I feel at home in Berkeley,” she sa id. “In Hayward they’re doing what they’re afraid they’re supposed to be doing, Berkeley still respects personal judgment.”›