MAXWELL:  Failing schools have dedicated teachers

6/19/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the Newspaper

FCAT has spoken, and school grades have been posted.
The purpose of this column is not to minimize the importance of FCAT and the governor’s A+ Plan. As a Florida parent and grandparent, I hope the governor’s initiatives yield results that truly benefit our students over a lifetime.
My purpose is to put a human face on a process that discounts the hard work of teachers whose schools did not perform well on FCAT. The best way to put a human face on this problem is to let teachers speak for themselves.
Listen to this impassioned plea for understanding to Gov. Jeb Bush in a letter published in the St. Petersburg Times. It is from Sarah J. Robinson, an English teacher at Leto High School in Tampa:
“As a classroom teacher in a school not earning a high grade under Gov. Jeb Bush’s grading system, I take great offense at his statements about high-performing schools having committed teachers. While I do not doubt . . . the commitment of the teachers in those other schools, to suggest that my colleagues and I are less so is a slap in the face and lacking in common sense.
“Does the governor think our jobs are easier teaching students whose families are poorer and less-educated in schools that are older and less-equipped than those “high-performing’ schools where our colleagues get bonuses each year? Who would have to be more dedicated to go to work each day?”
I do not know who has to be more dedicated to go to work each day _ teachers at A schools or teachers at F schools. But I do personally know one of the most dedicated teachers in Florida. Her school, Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, received an F. I know her as a former 10th grade classmate at Dillard in 1961.
My former classmate, a straight-A student, matriculated in Columbia University, where she became an honor student. Even during the bad old days of the late 1960s, she was offered teaching jobs from school districts in many parts of the country. Several private sector companies also wanted her.
But she followed her dream of becoming a teacher and returned to South Florida, eventually working her way back to Dillard 12 years ago. She taught one of my nephews and a niece and the kids of many of my former schoolmates and friends.
Let me tell you what I know about her: She knows her subject, and she spends her own money and time staying academically current. She is a natural-born reader and a salty traveler. But all that is to be taken for granted when one is a teacher. Proof of her commitment and dedication lies elsewhere.
“I know who I am, and I know who I chose to dedicate my life to,” she said. “I came back to Dillard because I believed I could make a difference. Many of these kids have one parent, and a lot of time that one parent doesn’t appreciate the importance of education. Think about it: If a parent doesn’t give a damn about education and the family is poor on top of that, the teacher is looking at some major-league problems.
“Now, imagine a class with 25 kids and 20 of those kids come from the type of family I just described. I’ve been there. I refuse to give up on them. I do all I can for them.”
Doing all she can for her students includes using her own money to buy classroom necessities. More significantly, at least to me, is that she spends two nights a week of her own time visiting students and parents in their homes. She also shows up at students’ churches on Sunday to let her charges know that she cares about them. She persuaded her husband to accompany her sometimes.
“My colleagues and I do all we can with what we have,” she said. “Our kids have a lot of real-life crises that undercut learning. We struggle each day. And I’m not blaming the kids, either.”
Faced with the same problems, Robinson wrote in the Times: “And while I take some responsibility for how my students perform on that test, there are other factors that the governor ignores: parental support and responsibility. Less than 10 percent of my students’ parents have ever come to a parent night, for example, but the governor would rather blame school personnel. . . . Instead of demanding that parents be more accountable or instead of taking responsibility for our state ranking 49th in the nation in spending on education, Gov. Bush continues to blame us for not being able to perform miracles.”
These two teachers _ like hundreds of others in failing schools _ confront the stubborn problems of poverty. They need to be recognized for the difficult, thankless work they do. In many ways, they do perform miracles.