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Harming more than helping our teachers

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


Of all of the hare-brained schemes to come out of Jeb Bush's Tallahassee office and his shadow world of "commissions," his latest proposal ranks as the dumbest yet.

The governor intends to take away the state's $275,000 contribution to the Florida Center for Teachers that is now permanently headquartered at the University of South Florida's Bayboro campus in St. Petersburg. Sadly, the Senate education budget committee also wants to slash the center's budget. The modest budget is well-spent, paying for teachers to attend three- to five-day seminars.

This column is an appeal to the governor to leave the center's budget alone and to find ways to ensure long-term funding for the center.

Although the center, an affiliate of the Florida Humanities Council, is a low-key operation, it is well-known and highly regarded among the state's public school teachers. Now eight years old, it has the only statewide staff development programs in the humanities for Florida's K-12 teachers. Its many seminars, led by some of the state's most outstanding scholars, inspire teachers and enrich their knowledge of Florida literature, history, folklore, social issues and other topics. Teachers use their training in their classrooms.

I have been aware of the center since its inception, have participated in five of its seminars and have corresponded with dozens of its 1,700 past and current seminargoers, scholars and presenters. Everyone has high praises for the center's efforts.

Why, then, does the governor, along with the Senate committee, want to gut the budget?

Bush's rationale is that he wants his recommended $36-million for teacher training to be managed by local school districts. Moreover, language in his budget shows that he does not understand or does not care about the invaluable intangibles that go into teaching. He wants teacher training to concentrate on school safety, data analysis, assessment, subject content, teaching methods and classroom management. Each element is part of the picture.

"Our program serves Florida's finest teachers at a time when our state is facing a critical teacher shortage," the center's director Susan Lockwood said. "The Florida Center for Teachers is the only statewide program that is devoted to providing content-rich programs that excite teachers with ideas and materials they can take back to their classrooms. By providing a program that employs exceptional scholars . . . FCT serves more than just the Florida teachers who attend. The real beneficiaries are the students they teach."

Excerpts from a letter from Mary Conway, a seminar participant who teaches in Manatee County, to David Asburn, the state's director of Human Resource Development, are worth noting because they typify the sentiments of other conferees:

"I have been participating in FCT seminars for approximately five years. Every seminar I have attended has allowed me to return to my classroom with new material to use in the teaching of my students. It also has allowed me to return to my students with a deeper understanding of who they are. The most recent seminar I attended, entitled "Hip Hop, Hoops, Homies: Contemporary Popular Urban Culture,' enabled me to relate to the youthful offenders I am currently teaching. . . ."

"These students engaged in discussions, read articles and wrote opinion papers on the topic. For years I have struggled to find an area that would engage these students and leave them with a desire to read and write. This FCT seminar found that topic for me. I have been amazed with the positive results that have taken place in my classroom since I attended this seminar."

Again, Bush wants local districts to conduct their own teacher training. But one benefit of the teacher center is that it gives teachers from across the state opportunities to compare notes with and learn from colleagues from different districts. Being away from their districts gives teachers the chance to rejuvenate free of the politics and friction of their home turfs.

I have met several teachers who would have quit teaching if they had not attended one or more of the FCT's seminars.

Mary Conway is one of them. "The FCT keeps teachers like myself trying to reach these hard-to-teach students," she said. "The FCT is the only place I have ever felt appreciated and celebrated as a teacher. I would have left the classroom long ago had it not been for the FCT staff. These professionals make me feel that what I am doing is truly making a difference in the future of our society. The FCT is the only place that acknowledges how hard Florida's teachers work and struggle."

The governor should pay attention to the Mary Conways and stop trying to craft a good public school system on the cheap. And if we are not going to do anything to help teachers, let us not do anything to harm them.

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