Newcomers find toll of teaching is too high
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
Bill Gaulman's teaching career began in early August in an old brick, two-story school north of Ybor City.
It ended in September.
In a matter of weeks, Gaulman fell prey to a punishing combination: The hours were too long, not enough students were interested in learning, and the pay was too low for the aggravation. He developed a knot in his stomach that wouldn't go away.
"The word that comes to mind is "overwhelmed,' " said Gaulman, 56, a man whose background (Marine, New York City firefighter, environmental specialist) would seem to have prepared him for anything.
"People told me "Just get through that first year,' " Gaulman said. "I was like, "I don't know if I can get through this week.' "
Erica Lavrack also started teaching this school year. She resigned on her second day.
Lavrack, 29, was given a class of emotionally handicapped children, though she had never handled a classroom before. Her qualifications? A degree in psychology, and that the Hillsborough County schools desperately needed teachers for special education classes.
"The kids were nice enough, but they were running all over the place," Lavrack said. "There was no way I could teach them anything if I couldn't get them to sit down. I didn't know what to do."
The stories of Gaulman and Lavrack -- new teachers who resign soon after entering the classroom -- are surprisingly common.
Everyone has heard of Florida's desperate need to attract teachers; an estimated 12,500 are needed each year. But Florida has another problem: Keeping teachers from quitting.
This school year, hundreds of Tampa Bay area teachers, and thousands statewide, have called it quits.
A handful retired this year after long careers. (Retirements will be an even bigger factor in the coming years.) But nearly 100 of the local resignations were hires who started teaching this school year.
The reasons are what you would expect. They left for better paying jobs. The stress got to them. The paperwork. The heavy emphasis on state tests. Disrespectful students and apathetic parents wore them down.
Some, like Gaulman, simply discovered they are not cut out for teaching. He was not trained as a teacher and didn't know what he was getting into.
School districts increasingly are hiring non-education majors, retirees and college graduates who enter the classroom as a second or third career. They begin teaching without the benefit of internships and training to handle a classroom. Sometimes it works wonderfully. But often they become disillusioned and start planning their exit.
"That's where we lose them," said Martha O'Howell, assistant superintendent in charge of human resources for the Pinellas County schools. "If we don't give them the support they need right at the start, we lose them."
In interviews with dozens of teachers who left classrooms this year, a picture emerges of new teachers unprepared for the realities of teaching. Help is available, but often it is insufficient. With maddening frequency, the least experienced teachers get the most demanding students or the most remote classrooms, often portables, where they struggle in isolation.
It's no wonder many of them can't wait to leave. And Florida's teacher shortage worsens.
Shortly after he began teaching, William Rodriguez's fellow teachers warned him about a student who created more than his share of classroom problems. The teen turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
"I saw that light bulb go on over his head one day and he said, "Oh, so it's like this!' " recalled Rodriguez, who taught science at Pasco County's Wesley Chapel High School. "He started asking intelligent questions. He started getting into science."
That's why Rodriguez got into teaching.
Here's why he got out:
"One day a student decides to yell at me, calling me parts of the male anatomy, and I say "Okay, go to the office,' " Rodriguez recalled. "The next day he's back in class and (fellow students) say "Hey, what happened?' He says, "Nothing. They called home.'
"You're powerless to discipline anyone."
Rodriguez, a microbiologist completing his master's degree at the University of South Florida, resigned after two months.
It's not that school districts don't know that new teachers need support and guidance.
Rodriguez had a mentor, 18-year teaching veteran Catherine Kalinowski, an American history teacher at Wesley Chapel. He regarded her as a godsend, a steady voice of experience.
It wasn't enough to keep him around.
"I know they try, but I don't really know how they can support new teachers," said Geoffrey Phillips, who taught at Pinellas Park High School for about two months. "Ultimately, you're alone in a class with 30 to 33 kids."
Phillips, whose teaching time was interrupted by an injury at home, had a degree in psychology and English, not education. His mother had been a teacher. He, too, wanted to make a difference in kids' lives. He tried teaching.
He soon became disillusioned, though he has no complaints about his colleagues and principal.
"I kept going to other teachers for help; I didn't know how to discipline kids," Phillips said. "They tried to help. They kept telling me, "You'll pick it up.' I didn't pick it up. I hated it."
Earlier this month, Gov. Jeb Bush proposed an ambitious package designed to get more teachers into Florida classrooms and keep them there.
He wants to offer signing bonuses, make it easier for non-teachers to get started and create a $50-million teacher retention fund.
Barnett Berry, who has studied teacher quality issues for years, applauds Bush's recognition that more attention -- and cash -- must be devoted to the subject. But the interim director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future said lawmakers are notoriously shortsighted.
"A little bit of money here and there is not the same as really addressing the problem," Berry said. "Schools are just scrambling to fill a classroom. And too many policymakers want a short-term fix."
If not done properly, the trend toward alternative certification -- bringing non-education majors into the classroom and working on certification and training after the fact -- could be disastrous, he said.
"You can't just take somebody who's good at math and expect them to be a good teacher," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union.
Berry worries that, in filling holes in classrooms, schools are setting new teachers up for failure and harming children.
"They get the toughest assignments," Berry said. "They get in front of the kids who need a good teacher the most. Then they're overwhelmed and those kids get a revolving door of well-intentioned, poorly prepared teachers."
When it lost Bill Gaulman, Hillsborough County lost an African-American man with a science background, a rare and valuable combination for a teacher.
Gaulman resisted the idea of quitting. And the district didn't want him to go.
"That was a big loss; I tried to talk him out of it," said Sarah Brown, in charge of alternative certification for the Hillsborough County schools.
Gaulman, who like many teachers, wanted to help children and be a role model, still wears a pained expression when he talks about leaving.
"I didn't want to shortchange the kids," he said. "I didn't want to fake it. I wanted to do it right."
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