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Count your blessings, hear our teachers

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

So, what's on the minds of the best and the brightest teachers in Citrus County these days? Glad you asked.

They want to see parents get more involved in their children's education. They embrace the concept of teacher accountability, but they want it to be a comprehensive assessment and not based just on the snapshot that a standardized student test provides. They also would like to see less paperwork so they can spend more time with kids.

Interestingly, bigger paychecks or expanded benefits are not at the top of the list.

I had the privilege recently of being on a panel that chose the county's next teacher of the year, and I don't know when I've had a more daunting task. Every one of the candidates is a star. Picking a pope or Miss America can't be this difficult.

It was a full day of quick interviews with 20 extraordinary people who clearly love what they do. You could power a small city with the energy they exude. I came away thinking how fortunate our kids are to have teachers like this in their lives.

The only negative was that process was constrained by the large number of candidates and the short amount of time we had to chat. The four panelists each could ask only one question, the same one, of each teacher and there was no opportunity for follow-up questions.

That was unfortunate, because I would have enjoyed talking to these folks all afternoon. In fact, I have to believe there is some way to get these innovative and intelligent men and women more involved in the decision-making processes of the district. They see the problems firsthand and, somehow, their voices must be heard.

In the few minutes we had together, the teachers provided many insights into the state of education today in Citrus County, and I thought I'd share some of them with you. I'm not going to attach names to the comments as I believe they speak for all of the teachers -- and the speakers themselves will recognize their own words. (And, no, I'm not going to reveal who won because I don't know. It was a secret ballot; I'll find out along with everyone else on Jan. 28.)

Here are some snippets of answers given to two questions. The first deals with what they think the focus of the Citrus school district should be; the second, with what advice they would give to someone about to enter the teaching profession.

"We have to get parents more involved in education; parents should get to know the teachers. . . . We see so many children who need more support at home, not just in food and shelter but emotional support as well. . . . Kids need more discipline. They're not learning coping skills."

"Accountability is the big issue today, but teachers should be judged on the whole picture, not just a test (the FCAT). . . . The amount of paperwork that we're required to handle is overwhelming; it pulls my time away from things I need to be doing, which is teaching the kids."

"Class size is a problem -- we're more effective when we have smaller classrooms."

"Money (or the lack of it) is always a problem. We've become masters at grant writing."

"There needs to be more interaction between teachers and administrators. We need more positive strokes, to make teachers feel better about themselves. . . . We need to counter the negative attitudes toward education."

"We should pay more attention to diversity; we need more people of color as role models for our children."

"Our focus should be on reading. We have kids who can't read and comprehend. If you can't read, you can't do anything."

"What should our focus be? Kids, kids, kids."

My sole question dealt with their advice for new teachers. Here are some of their responses:

"Go to a good college but realize that you won't learn what you need to know in college. . . . Find a partner, another teacher at your school, and learn from them."

"Don't be afraid to be wrong; learn from your mistakes . . . Don't be afraid to say you don't know everything. Students appreciate honesty. . . . You're not there to be their friend; you're there because you care."

"Be a people person. Be interested in the topic and establish a rapport with your students. . . . You have to love what you're doing, you have to like working with kids. . . . Visit a school, volunteer in a classroom, to be sure this is what you want to do."

"Consider the amount of time it takes to be a teacher. It's not an 8-4 job. . . . Toughen your skin, and don't take it personally. . . . Hold on to your idealism in the face of challenges. . . . You have to be flexible; adjust and grow.

"You have to be energetic. Understand that you're competing with video games and other technology for their attention."

"Every day, take time to find something wonderful that happened to you that day. Think of something good about every kid in your class. . . . Stay away from the grumblers and the naysayers (on the faculty.) They'll find you. Seek out the encouragers not the discouragers."

And, finally:

"Be organized and flexible. Learn from other teachers. And get a really good pair of sneakers."

It's no secret that public education in the United States in general, and in Citrus County in particular, is not perfect. The headlines trumpet the crises almost every day.

But for one special day, I got to see what is working in our schools, and I am grateful for the opportunity. While we recognize the flaws, we should also be sure to count the blessings.

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