A weekend interview with ...
... Polly Jackson, a reading specialist at Pasco County's Lacoochee Elementary, a Title I school. Jackson is retiring this month after 39 years in education, most of them at Lacoochee. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the changes she's seen over her four decades in teaching.
Tell me a little bit about what it was like to teach in 1969.
I've done a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks. I was a fifth-grade teacher at Pasco Elementary. We were departmentalized, so I taught math, which was a love of mine. I was a math major for a while at school. The rooms were un-air-conditioned. I had over 30 children. The desks were mismatched, some painted in various colors of the rainbow. But it was my first classroom and I loved it. It was special. I think the biggest difference between when I started as a first-year teacher and now is there was no support for brand new teachers ... whereas now there is fantastic support.
Well, then, what did they do for you as a brand new teacher? Throw you in there and say, Good luck?
Basically, yes. I remember going into a book room and we found the reading books that we wanted. It wasn't one unified series for the district. It did have teacher's guides. Reading series have come so far. It's exciting, the new series that we'll be starting next year. It makes me a tiny bit sorry I won't be a part of it. But it's a good time for someone new to come in and learn it.
So back then you went in and it was basically sink or swim on your own?
There were other teachers who were there and would help. But now they have a mentor program where the teachers are assigned a mentor throughout the year, takes them through each step. And of course there wasn't as much paperwork back then. There wasn't the FCAT. There wasn't a lot of the assessments that we do, the ongoing monitoring.
What made you stay in teaching at that point? Was it hard? Was it fun?
I enjoyed it. Teaching was fun. It was fun.
Is it still fun now?
I hate to say it. (pause) When I'm with the children, yes, it is fun. I do enjoy working with them. But there are so many aspects that are a lot of work, a lot of frustration, a lot of stress.
Well, I work more with teachers helping them, coaching them. I work with assessments. And it takes a long time to DIBEL every child in the school, although I have help. It takes time to check running records and writing samples. There are reports. There are just many things. When I left the classroom, I remember, a third-grade teacher told me, Don't ever forget what it's like to be in the classroom. And I have tried to keep that in mind. And it has changed quite a bit. Teachers have a full plate. Everything that they have to get in, it's almost down to the minute. They have to have 90 minutes of reading, they have to have intensive reading, they have to get this program in, that program in. It's very difficult. I have the utmost admiration for the classroom teacher.
What do you make of it now as you see what is happening with the budgets and everything? People are talking about squeezing every penny. A lot of teachers throughout the state as well as here in Pasco are talking about the possibility of not even seeing their step increases and possibly seeing their class sizes grow. Is this a step backward? Is this a good time to retire?
It's a good time to retire for many reasons. I think it's time for some fresh ideas to come in. We are switching to a new series, so let's have somebody come in and learn it and go with it. There have been some times of struggle before. I believe there was a time when we had a pay cut. And the district has always been very fair and they tried to do their best to treat the teachers fairly. It's going to be a difficult year and they have to make the best possible decisions. But I think that they will look through and do what they need to do.
What other things have you seen change? I mean, just little things like the community, the kids, the parents. ...
Well, I think about technology. When I first started we had filmstrips and the people looked like they had clothes on from the '40s. We also had movies. Now we have the Smart boards that are interactive, and children can touch the white board and respond and do all sorts of things. Of course we have the computers. We have DVDs, so many things. That has been a big change.
Has it been for the good? Does it make children better students?
If it's used properly, yes. They are wonderful, wonderful tools. They open so much to the children. I have been in some classes where the children are working with the Smart board in centers, and it's amazing what they do. They are engaged, they're participating, they're moving around and they are learning.
What about the move to FCAT assessment accountability. Is that a lot different than before? And if so, is it a good change, because now you know more about kids? Is it a bad change because it's all based on one test. I hear so many different ways of looking at it.
Well, I can't say that I'm a strong supporter of the FCAT for determining retention. As a matter of fact, that's what made me enter the DROP program for retirement five years ago, when they were talking about the third graders being retained based on this. And I know they have other opportunities to pass.
As far as the FCAT, there have been good things to come from it. In the 1990s we started with Florida Writes, and I think because of that initiative we have learned how to teach writing better. And I think we are learning more and more how to teach reading effectively. It's more research based, we have training in place, the new reading series I think will help support the reading instruction. I won't say it's all bad. I just am not sure about how it is used. And I know we have to monitor the children. There have been many good things that have come up. ...
Are there things you are going to especially miss?
Yes. Oh, yes. The children. I will miss seeing them come in on the first day of school, smiling in their brand new clothes and new shoes, new school supplies. I will miss of course the faculty. I will miss being a part of helping the children learn. I will miss feeling like I'm making a contribution to their education and to their love of reading. I will miss the little things. I will miss the breakfast duty, seeing the children and interacting with them. I have had either lunch duty or breakfast duty for about three decades. It's been a great opportunity to interact with the children.
Do you have any special stories about being here at Lacoochee that stand out in your mind, even after all the years and all the kids and all the people who you have worked with?
... I have been thinking about the writing. Years ago we had a fat stuffed cat that the children named Effort. And one year we had a very successful writing contest. Effort was cat-napped. We had several teachers who were suspects. I intended for the intermediate students to write about why a person had cat-napped Effort. We had it on the TV program. The kindergarten children got so excited about it and so concerned that we included them in the contest, too. All of the students. It was total participation. The teachers who were the suspects got involved. They had costumes. They just totally played the part to the hilt. It was something that involved the whole school in a fun writing activity. And that's something that the children need to learn, that writing is fun. So that was a success.
Did they find the cat?
Yes. Yes. A kindergarten teacher had taken the cat. She returned it. ... It is in a fourth-grade classroom right now.