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Stress took all the joy out of what was once a dream job

Published May 14, 2006

For nearly 34 years, Melanie Woods got a thrill every time she drove into her school's parking lot.

But the excitement began to wane about three years ago, Woods says, when her desire to stay sane began to outweigh her commitment to her profession.

"When I first started teaching, I'd think, 'I can't believe they're paying me for this,' " she said. "Toward the end of my career, I'd started to wonder, 'Who's going to abuse me today?' That's when I knew I had to leave."

Woods, 60, quit the Pinellas County School District two years ago, suffering from low morale that has become increasingly common among local teachers, according to a St. Petersburg Times survey of Hillsborough and Pinellas county educators.

Like many teachers, Woods can't trace her discontent to a particular issue. But when pressed, she cites a growing lack of respect for her profession.

"Every time you hear about schools, it's always negative, and it's always the teachers' fault," she said. "When I started teaching years ago, you would tell people you were a teacher and they'd say, 'How neat.' Now they say, 'Oh, you're a teacher? How can you stand it?' "

Part of the blame, Woods says, lies with the schools. Administrators don't want to make waves with parents so they don't back up teachers' complaints. They also worry about how their school will look to the district office.

That has put teachers "between a rock and a hard place," Woods said.

Parents share some of the blame, she said. Too often they believe what their children tell them without listening to the teachers' version of the story.

"Parents need to start parenting their kids," she said. "The schools need to stop trying to be the parents."

New psychiatric diagnoses that prevent teachers from disciplining students is compounding the problem, she said.

One teacher she knew reprimanded a child for disobeying an instruction and cursing her. Then the teacher learned the boy was immune to consequences because he had a diagnosis of "oppositional defiance disorder" from the school psychiatrist.

"The teachers are so frustrated," Woods said. "But it's almost like they have a sign on their backs that says 'kick me.' "

All the while, she said, the FCAT hovers over schools like a dark cloud. In an effort to escape it, Woods switched from teaching English to history in her final years at Palm Harbor Middle School.

But it was still too much. With two years to go before her scheduled retirement, Woods gave her notice.

"There's just so much stress in the job," she said. "You're so stressed all the time that you could lose your mind."

[Last modified May 14, 2006, 09:11:45]

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