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Teachers troubled with job, poll says

Many veteran Pinellas and Hillsborough teachers say if they had it to do over, they would do something else.

By By THOMAS C. TOBIN and MELANIE AVE
Published May 14, 2006


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A sizable number of teachers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are discouraged, strongly opposed to their daily marching orders in the classroom and thinking about other ways to make a living, a St. Petersburg Times poll shows.

The negative feelings are more pronounced in Pinellas, where 58 percent of teachers said morale is poor or "only fair" at their school. More than 60 percent said morale had declined in the past two years.

Across both counties:

- A majority of those surveyed - 52 percent - said they had thought about leaving teaching in the past year.

- About 40 percent said they felt physically threatened by a student in recent years.

- Large numbers of teachers oppose the emphasis placed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the cornerstone of the state's school accountability program. More than two-thirds said that the test is not a good measure of student performance, that they spend too much time preparing students for it and that it hinders their ability to teach subjects the FCAT doesn't cover.

- Veteran teachers were more negative than their younger colleagues on almost every measure, and veteran teachers in Pinellas were notably more negative than their contemporaries in Hillsborough.

The most poignant result: 41 percent of teachers with 15-plus years' experience look back on their careers and wish they had chosen another profession.

"That's sad. That means it's a rough ride," said Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who was deeply troubled by many of the responses. One showed that 22 percent of teachers rate his job performance as poor, compared to 5 percent for Hillsborough's new superintendent, MaryEllen Elia.

There's no question these sour feelings find their way into the classroom, educators said.

"Kids are sensitive; they know when things are wrong," said Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes.

"I can't believe that it doesn't seep in and affect the children," said Carol Cook, chairperson of the Pinellas School Board and a former teacher. "We can't just blow this off. We have to take it to heart and see what we can do."

The poll surveyed 701 of the 21,000 teachers in both counties, a sample size that ensures the results are accurate to within plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Jeffrey Goodman, 47, became a teacher at Tampa's Middleton High School four years ago after his New Jersey company downsized and left him without a job. But he is worn down by a "revolving door" of administrators and what he sees as a slavish drive to assess students.

"There's no one really upholding what we're trying to do," he said. "It's slapped together this week and slapped together next week. The morale at our school has gone downhill. ... As fast as I can get another job, I will."

Jan Owen, a teacher at Walsingham Elementary in Largo, keeps a retirement clock on her refrigerator. After 22 years as a teacher, she is counting the days left (2,969) before she can walk away.

She said she loves working with children, but adds that heavy-handed accountability measures have placed undue stress on students, sapped joy from the classroom and robbed teachers of autonomy.

"The reasons people got into teaching have been destroyed," she said. "The more and more choiceless you become, the more robotic you become as a teacher. You take the fun out of it, the spontaneity. ... I can't imagine someone starting out today and lasting for 30 years."

* * *

As president of the Pinellas teachers union, Michelle Dennard stumped hard in 2004 for a tax increase to bring teacher pay closer to the national average. Nearly 65 percent of voters approved it. By last fall, the money was flowing into teacher paychecks - an average pay raise of about $3,400.

Dennard expected smiles. Instead, many teachers started the year with complaints about working conditions. A new round of edicts from the state laid out when and how material should be taught, right down to what teachers should place on their walls. Administrators were doing "fidelity checks" to make sure teachers were following regulations.

The school day was suddenly more scripted, and many felt the changes were rammed through without teacher input, Dennard said. "That's an insult. It's an assault on your expertise as a professional."

The Times poll results help illustrate the fundamental rift in education over how to improve schools.

Many teachers long for the days when they had more freedom, unencumbered by mandates enacted by noneducators in Tallahassee and Washington.

"I hear it. I see it," said Valdes, the Hillsborough School Board member. "We are asking more of them and they definitely feel unappreciated."

Reformers argue the old days were good for teachers but not for students who fell through the cracks.

Teachers say they don't mind accountability, but the reformers have gone too far.

Teacher angst shows up in a number of ways, said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. He cited a 66 percent increase in teacher absences since 1992 and records showing antidepressants and blood pressure drugs are among the top medications used by Pinellas teachers.

This year's lesson is that teacher morale is tied to more than just money, Moore said.

"It's the lack of control, empowerment," he said. "In the old days, I wrote the lesson plan. The county told me where I had to be after 180 days. ... They said, 'How you do it is not important to us. Get it done. If you need help, give us a call.' That was then."

"There's something about that that doesn't resonate with me," countered Wilcox, a reformer who has rankled teachers with calls for change. "Because if everything was good in the old days, why are we where we are in terms of student performance today? It's hard for me to simply sit here and accept the rationale that if you just let us do it like we used to do it, we'd be getting the results that you're asking for. If that was the case, why weren't we getting them before?"

In answer to every question about the FCAT, more than 60 percent of teachers polled in the two counties gave a negative response to the test. But more than 60 percent also agreed that schools should be held accountable for poor performance.

One was Polly Demma, 52, a reading teacher at Robinson High in Tampa, who scoffs at teachers who complain about paperwork or increased pressure from the FCAT.

"I understand how some of them are bogged down," she said. "But this is a career and how are you going to be successful at it? ... If we're all graded on the same scale, who has a problem with that? Our students don't have a problem being graded."

Morale at Robinson is great, Demma said. "We are a family. We look out for everyone's children."

* * *

It would be easy for educators to spin some of the poll results favorably. Across both counties, for example, 56 percent of teachers said morale at their school was excellent or good.

For some like Olivia Matthews, a rookie third-grade teacher at Blanton Elementary in St. Petersburg, life does not fit within the limited confines of a poll question.

Her first semester was overwhelming. "You do have ideas about, what can I do besides teach," said Matthews, 23. "Now I'm very excited for next year. I feel like I know what I need to know to be successful."

She may not stay in teaching, she said. But she sees herself staying in education, perhaps as a researcher or curriculum specialist.

While fewer than half of the teachers surveyed described morale as fair or poor, top educators saw cause for concern in many other numbers.

"Anytime I would see a decline in morale, I don't think that's good," said Elia, the superintendent in Hillsborough, where 35 percent of teachers report morale dropping in the past two years.

Wilcox's eyes went straight to a subset of numbers about morale. Twenty-five percent of Pinellas teachers said morale was poor, compared to 12 percent in Hillsborough.

"That's a huge number," he said. "It just seems to me that one in four in anything is something you've got to sit up and really take notice of."

Wilcox learned of the numbers in the middle of his second-year self-evaluation for the School Board. He wrote board members last week, saying the results were "causing me to do some serious soul searching about next steps and my future. I will not dismiss it - rather I will do my best to address each issue."

There are plenty of explanations.

A former middle school science teacher, Wilcox came to Pinellas saying he planned to focus on kids, not adults. He continued programs - highly unpopular with teachers - to assess students' academic progress more often. This spring, just before the poll was taken, he spearheaded a $19-million budget cut that led to job cuts at some schools.

He meets every three weeks with 10 or 12 randomly selected teachers to hear their concerns. But he also has called on teachers and principals to work harder.

Shortly after he arrived in late 2004 from Baton Rouge, La., he publicly spoke of "brutal facts" about low graduation rates and student performance in Pinellas schools.

"Nobody likes to have that pointed out to them," Wilcox said. "Part of my role, though, as superintendent, is to create a sense of urgency for kids. If we don't confront these problems head-on - and that's painful - then they just get relegated to a back burner."

Unlike Wilcox, Elia rose from within her district. The fact that locals know her well may be a reason her district fared better in the morale category, she said. "But there's no question I need to work harder."

HOW THE SURVEY WAS DONE

A total of 701 teachers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties were interviewed by telephone from May 1 to May 3. Some also agreed to additional interviews. More stories on the results will be published over the next several days.

Margins of error for various subgroups: All: +/- 4% pts. Hillsborough: +/- 5% pts. Pinellas: +/- 5% pts. Elementary teachers: +/- 5 % pts. Middle school teachers: +/-8 % pts. High school teachers: +/- 7% pts. Teaching 1-5 years: +/- 8% pts. Teaching 6-14 years: +/- 7% pts. Teaching 15+ years: +/- 5% pts. High poverty: +/- 7% pts. Middle-to-upper class: +/- 7% pts. Mixture: +/- 6% pts. Republicans: +/-7% pts. Democrats: +/-6% pts. Independents: +/-9% pts.

 

[Last modified May 14, 2006, 05:38:28]


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