Six months ago, Andy Kwok was on spring break with his college buddies in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The University of Michigan senior had a light course load and plenty of time to sleep in, play basketball and go out with his friends.
On Aug. 27, he was in a West Oakland classroom, discussing bathroom passes and make-up work with a restless group of high school freshmen. It was 9:15 a.m., and he had been up for hours.
Kwok is one of 200 brand-new teachers in the Oakland public schools this year, and he considers himself among the greenest. Before landing at EXCEL High School, his only teaching experience, aside from tutoring third-graders in Detroit, was in summer school.
At 22, he is just seven years older than some of his students.
"You new?" a boy in third period asked on the first day.
Kwok paused for a beat.
"It's my first year at EXCEL."
Kwok studied biology in college, but he realized early on that
a career in medicine wasn't for him. He had always connected well with kids, and he felt teaching could be another way to use his gifts to help others. So when he learned he could fast-track his teaching career through the Oakland Teaching Fellows program and that some of his college friends found jobs in the Bay Area he seized the opportunity.
Some of his friends and family, including his parents in suburban St. Louis, questioned his decision.
"I'm right out of college and going into a classroom," he said. "Even my friends are like, 'What are you doing?'"
During the first two weeks, as Kwok struggled to teach over the banter and back talk, he asked himself that same question.
The Oakland public schools are filled with new, idealistic teachers like Kwok. More than 40 percent of the district's hires in recent years have come from partnership programs such as Teach For America and Oakland Teaching Fellows.
Whether they stay or go, flourish or wither, the experiences of Oakland's new educators will have a profound effect on the district's 40,000 students. For all of the passion, money and work poured into reforming the school system, it's widely believed that the prospect of lasting change rests largely on the quality and stability of its teaching force.
Each year, the school system loses about 14 percent of its teachers to other professions or different school districts. Last fall, 50 dropped out in the first few months, leaving hundreds of students with substitutes. About 20 of the departed were rookies.
On the first day of class, students watched Kwok closely as he went over the pronunciation of his last name ("Kwok, like Wok"), the syllabus and the meaning of plagiarism.
He watched them, too. He knew they could decide to fill the next nine months of his life at least, 55 minutes of each day with meaning or misery.
"That's my biggest worry, just making sure the students grab hold of the expectations I have for them," he said on the Friday before school began, as he rearranged the desks to make the old-fashioned laboratory classroom more "teacher-student friendly."
Though admittedly anxious about the unknown, Kwok sounded upbeat.
"If I get these next couple of weeks down, the rest of the year should fly by."
One week later, Kwok's eyelids drooped and his posture sagged. His young body was reeling from the uplifting and crushing moments that seemed to come at him, unexpectedly, at every turn. At lunchtime, alone in his sunlit room with views of downtown Oakland, he admitted he was beat.
"The past couple of days I've just been completely wiped out because so much has been going on," he said.
During the low points, he said, the staff showed real empathy. They had all been in his shoes, and not too long ago. Most of his colleagues have been in the profession less than three years.
Kwok took the job at EXCEL High because he wanted to be part of the changes that were taking place at the new, small school on the McClymonds High School campus. For the past two years, Principal Yetunde Reeves and her young staff have worked to create a different learning experience and a better future for kids who might have failed or dropped out in a larger high school.
Reeves, just 32 herself, said she sees a confidence in Kwok that is rare in new teachers. But she knows how easy it is to become discouraged, especially in the first few weeks. She wants to give him space, but she is careful to keep tabs on his morale.
"We've had people who have (only) made it the first six weeks, and we know what those warning signs look like," she said.
Many of the West Oakland students bring "a tough reality" to school each day more so, even, than in other urban schools, Reeves said. The students have seen so many adults come and go that they often push new people away to test their commitment, she explained.
If Kwok remains firm, everything will be OK, Reeves said.
"If he starts bending and giving in, it's over."
Kwok's sixth-period class did plenty of testing on Day 4. They ignored him throughout much of the class, he said, and some were swearing and acting out. The worst part was that it wasn't just one or two students; it was everyone.
In his first entry in an online journal Kwok will keep this year, he reflected on the week:
"It was by no means what I expected. I mean, it was, but it wasn't. Of the five days, I went home all but one of the days with a sickening feel to my stomach."
A few days and a new seating chart later, the 10th-graders in sixth period seemed calmer. They didn't always listen to their teacher, and the class didn't go by without a few outbursts, but to Kwok's surprise, it was a vast improvement.
Kwok held their attention during fast-paced questions about the scientific method, using a bottle of water as an example. After he played a short video of a split grape that exploded in a microwave, one student made him smile when she blurted, "I want to be a scientist when I grow up."
But that was Tuesday. Kwok knew Wednesday could be different.