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Learning a hard lesson in quest for top teacher

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003

This Thursday, Pinellas County's schools will reveal the winners in their teacher of the year contest. There will be five category winners and an overall "outstanding educator" who will represent Pinellas in the state's teacher of the year program.

From the get-go, let me say: That's what is most important here.

Congratulations in advance to the winners. Congratulations to the rest of the finalists. Thank you. We don't honor you enough, let alone pay you enough. Thanks, too, to the Pinellas County Education Foundation and its donors for putting on the event.

But that is not today's topic.

Today's topic is about something odd that happened along the way to Thursday's awards. At first blush, you might decide it was decent and well-intentioned. But on reflection I think it represents a lapse in judgment by the Pinellas School District and sends the wrong message to students.

Here is the gist of it:

There was an elementary school teacher who was accidentally told that he was a finalist in Thursday's event when he was not.

What an uncomfortable situation. The teacher's school had already made a big deal of announcing he was a finalist. Nobody wanted to embarrass him. What was the right way to set things straight?

The right way would have been to tell the truth.

The right way would have been for his principal -- who had announced his status as a finalist after being misinformed by the school district -- to make an equally big and gracious show of explaining the mistake: "In our book, he already IS the teacher of the year. We love him and we're proud of him, and we'll cheer for him next time."

It would have been over.

But, no.

The teacher was kept in the dark. Pinellas school officials engaged in the practice of making him a 16th "finalist" who could attend, but who would not win.

An associate superintendent, Ron Stone, explained the existence of an extra finalist by declaring in a memo to the School Board that there had been a tie. (At best it was a moral tie -- the score sheets certainly didn't show it.)

I've bounced this episode off several people, and most had the same initial reaction: So, they made up a little white lie. So what?

Let's talk about so what.

First of all, the awards themselves are a big, formal deal. Pinellas County is one of the nation's largest school districts. It has 140 schools, 113,000 students and more than 8,100 full-time teachers.

Choosing five teachers out of all this, and then one overall, involves a large and fairly structured process, with judges and score sheets and recordkeeping. We're not talking about Gomer and Goober and Barney down at the county fair decidin' that yep, they liked Aunt Bee's pie the best.

Are we saying now that this process really doesn't count, that the administration can sweep aside the scores and add (or subtract) the names of anybody it wants?

That is not fair to the 15 finalists who are there on points. It is not fair to the semifinalists who didn't quite make it. It is not fair to past and future winners of the contest.

I know this is not a federal case.

But Pinellas school officials had a tough situation. They took the easy way out. They created an untruth, and then they got wedded to it, and even backed it up with documentation. Even now, they stick to their guns, reassuring each other they acted nobly, to spare embarrassment.

But whose embarrassment was being spared, really -- his, or theirs? That teacher has absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. By every account, he is a fine and deserving guy. Let's congratulate him. Let's salute him. Let's thank him. I sincerely hope he wins in another year.

Neither am I beating up anybody out of holier-than-thouness. I have been guilty, many times, of succumbing to the same kind of temptation and thinking I could finesse my way out of it.

On the other hand, I was not being paid tax dollars to carry out the sacred duty of teaching "values" and "life skills" to the children of Pinellas County.

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