MAXWELL:  Put the teachers first for a change

3/14/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I was a child in Florida’s public schools during the 1950s and 1960s, I admired my teachers. Along with being benign tormentors, my teachers were role models, neighbors, surrogate parents, friends. After becoming a college writing teacher in the early 1970s, I proudly encouraged many of my students to become schoolteachers.

More than a few took my advice.

Today, however, I would be hard pressed to advise a student to become a member of what used to be called “the noblest profession.” Yes, teaching still carries many intrinsic rewards, such as the satisfaction of watching inquisitive minds grow intellectually or helping youngsters who lack self-esteem gain the courage to voice their opinions in class.

In far too many ways, though, teaching has become an ignoble profession, especially here in Florida, where public education per se is under siege on several fronts, where our GOP-controlled legislature and our new Republican governor, Jeb Bush, are treating teachers as if they were enemies of the people.

In addition to ramming through vouchers (using tax dollars for private school tuition), many Florida politicians are spewing punitive rhetoric that, among other things, casts teachers as slackers responsible for the sorry conditions in many school districts.

The governor, too, refuses to face the hard truth about what needs to be done to improve public education: Put teachers first. Every reliable study on the subject shows that teacher competence is the most important pedagogical factor in the classroom. Without good teaching, effective learning is virtually impossible for most students.

Bush and lawmakers should stop the sleight-of-hand approach to education immediately and pass legislation that sets teacher salaries high enough to attract the best and the brightest, salaries high enough to keep competent teachers in the classroom.

I am talking about salaries high enough to endow the profession with the dignity that it deserves. I am also talking about an attitude change that treats teachers as professionals, as our children’s allies _ not as their enemies.

But nowhere does Bush earnestly address the issue of teacher salaries. When speaking most recently to the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, he claimed that he could improve teaching by increasing requirements for certification, rating colleges of education on their performance and raising college admission standards for prospective teachers. These measures are part of a larger effort, not solutions unto themselves.

As for Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, having been in public education in Florida for nearly 22 years _ as a fifth-grade teacher, middle school dean, assistant principal, principal, district superintendent and state commissioner of education _ he has become one more unprincipled politician who has turned his back on reality in the classroom. He recently wrote a guest column for the Times praising Bush’s disingenuous plan for improving teacher education.

Unlike conservative politicians, such as Bush and Brogan, who tell rich retirees and other right-wingers what they want to hear, administrators and professors _ who direct the nation’s colleges of education _ struggle daily to attract, instruct, train and, of course, retain the nation’s public school teachers.

They, therefore, confront the problem with sincerity and candor. Last September, for example, I asked Roderick J. McDavis, dean of the University of Florida College of Education, to explain how _ if he had the authority _ he would attract excellent teachers who will not automatically abandon the classroom if another job comes along.

“From the standpoint of recruitment, we need to increase salaries. That’s No. 1. Today, when high school and middle school students look at careers, whether it’s right or wrong, they look at how much money they can expect to earn. I think that’s especially true with men. Young men tend not to look at education as a career path because they don’t feel they’ll be able to earn enough money to take care of a family. So, we’ve got to find a way to increase beginning salaries for teachers and long-term career salaries.”

The state also disregards teachers’ need of money by not adequately funding an incentives program meant to bring teachers into academic areas where they are in critically short supply. Under the program, the state is supposed to either help pay off loans or reimburse tuition costs for new or veteran teachers who agree to take courses that prepare them for positions in “critical shortage areas” such as special education, science and math.

For the second time in nine months, the state is scrambling to keep its end of the bargain. Hundreds of teachers, some having left other careers to work in the classroom, are awaiting money promised to them.

Why are we having this problem? Because elected officials apparently do not think that money for teachers is important enough to place them high on the list of legislative priorities.

The governor, because he is the state’s chief executive officer, and the handful of right-thinking lawmakers in Tallahassee could fix the current problem by simply transferring funds. For the long term, however, they need to pass legislation that permanently guarantees adequate funding for the program. Our teachers deserve no less.

A rarely told story is that the overwhelming majority of public school teachers are caring, generous professionals who willingly compensate for the stinginess of their districts, as borne out in a survey by the National Education Association. In 1996, the NEA asked teachers how much of their own money they spent during the previous school year to meet the needs of their students.

Incredibly, 94 percent said that they had spent an average of $408 on everything from stickers to pencils to paper to pizza to shoes and clothing.

And what do elected officials and the rest of society give teachers for their generosity? Hostility from parents, unruly charges, mountains of paperwork, disrespect, unsupportive principals and superintendents, unnavigable bureaucracy, lousy legislation, low salaries.

As Florida rushes to improve public education by implementing vouchers, establishing charter schools, testing students every year from third through 10th grades and raising standards for state-sponsored college scholarships, officials should listen to the University of Florida’s McDavis. He wants to improve current teacher quality and recruit a new generation of public school teachers by making them _ and their profession _ feel valued.

“We’ve got to start saying more positive things about public education,” McDavis said. “You’ve got to give a young person a reason to want to go into education. If all you read and hear about schools is negative, it’s a turn-off. The perception these days is that our best and brightest do not go into teaching. Within our communities, we need to do more to honor teachers in a way that brings respect back to the profession. Teachers used to be highly respected. The level of respect has dropped off. People don’t tend to go into a profession perceived to be disrespected.”

Unfortunately, the measures and the rhetoric coming out of Tallahassee perpetuate disrespect. Because teachers have been demonized, their concerns are virtually ignored. Only enlightened, apolitical leadership can reverse this costly, destructive trend.