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Teachers at Tampa's St. Mary's Episcopal flourish in supportive, trusting school culture

TAMPA — Think about what makes a workplace a good place to work.

Freedom to do the job as you see fit? An employer that provides the tools you need and cares about your well-being? Customers who appreciate your efforts? Maybe a little fun?

Teachers at St. Mary's Episcopal Day School in Tampa run down the list with a smile: check, check, check and check.

"When I got my first paycheck, I almost saw it as a perk," said Emily Kirkwood, 25, a fifth-grade teacher and 1999 alumna of the school. "A lot of kids my age hate their job sitting in a cubicle. I don't feel like I'm coming to work."

Many of the teachers contrast St. Mary's with their experience in public schools. Students arrive in uniform each day, ready and eager to learn. They don't struggle with distractions such as disciplinary problems.

"The worst behavior I see is when a kid loses his belt," said Janeen Henson, who teaches seventh and eighth grades. "You spend your entire day teaching. It's like a fantasy. These kids want to learn."

St. Mary's doesn't serve the wide spectrum of kids that public schools typically do. Annual tuition is $10,775. The school accepts a little more than half of applicants, using criteria such as ''likelihood of success in a challenging academic environment" and "appropriate social and emotional development."

Like other private schools, St. Mary's isn't required to give the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Teachers prefer not to feel like they're teaching to a standardized test.

They also aren't shackled to a rigid curriculum handed down by some school board.

"We're allowed to teach — and teach our way," said Garhett Wagers, a division head and fifth-grade teacher. "There's a sense of trust. You're trained as a professional, and they let you do it."

Starting pay is less than at a public school, but comes close after several years, says headmaster Scott Laird. Teachers work under one-year contracts and can't earn tenure.

Second-grade teacher Flo Roberts said that's a plus.

"In public school, when someone gets tenured, it's very difficult to move them," said Roberts, who spent 40 years in public schools before coming to St. Mary's. "A public school doesn't have the ability to clean up its act."

Teachers and administrators work together during summer planning sessions. They update the faculty and student handbooks and tweak policies, such as how strictly to police certain uniform rules.

"We're heard," said third-grade teacher Diana Roverts. "I'm not afraid to talk to them, and they listen."

An $8 million school building opened in 2001 with classrooms twice the size of those in the original school. The 430 students enjoy two science labs and two computer labs.

Teachers receive $100 at the start of the school year to decorate their rooms. Henson, the seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, used to make trips to Kinko's to buy copier paper out of her own pocket for her public school classes.

"We want for nothing," she said. "There's always a (copy) machine working. If not, the repairman is there in 10 minutes."

The parents association asks teachers each year to submit requests for new equipment.

"Anything we can use to benefit education of the children," said pre-K teacher Adrienne Brightwell.

Last year, her class got new digital cameras. She took photos at the school's open house and on field trips to share with parents online.

Employees also enjoy benefits that compare favorably with big companies': an initial 5 percent match on retirement fund contributions, rising to 8 percent after 15 years, and 90 percent of health insurance premiums paid by the school.

St. Mary's also pays 90 percent of tuition and books for teachers pursuing post-graduate degrees in their field of expertise.

Henson spoke emotionally about the intangibles at St. Mary's. She was new to the school when her young son had a bowel obstruction that required a monthlong stay at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The school told Henson not to worry after she burned through all her sick days. Each day, two people from St. Mary's came to the hospital with lunch. She never lost a penny of pay, and teachers covered all her classes.

Her son died from the illness a year ago at age 17. St. Mary's and staffers handled all the arrangements for his funeral and reception at the church next door. They closed the school on the day of the service.

It's the type of personal touch that employees consistently say makes for a top workplace.

The school also matches new teachers with veterans to help them navigate the first year. Not just to learn the ins and outs of the classroom, but also softer details like what to wear to faculty parties.

And the fun part?

A few years ago, headmaster Laird and a few assistants made secret arrangements for a Christmas treat. An announcement came over the loud speakers for everyone to leave their classrooms and line up outside in five minutes.

Buses pulled up and whisked students and staff to WestShore Plaza theaters for a showing of Polar Express.

The surprise wore off after a couple of years. So Laird brought a Christmas video and a couple of bottles of wine to an after-school staff meeting.

"The faculty needed a little lift," he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

What employees

say about

St. Mary's

"I am doing exactly what I want to do in the best environment to do it. I am professionally nourished and appreciated while being challenged

to stretch."

"I have the

freedom to be

myself with my teaching style, I am 100 percent supported by my administration and we have the most amazing school community full of excitement and enthusiasm!"

"It is interesting

and different every day. It demands

my best. It uses

my skills."

"The students

are incredible!

Teaching is a joy!"

"Working with children gives a teacher the opportunity to

guide and help

direct the future

of our community

by helping to

teach and raise responsible

students."

"I am a part of something bigger than myself. I know that my actions positively affect those around me, both adults and children. The atmosphere is upbeat and

positive."

"The administration is involved in the

lives of their teachers and is both helpful and understanding."

"We're allowed

to teach and

teach our way. There's a sense

of trust. You're trained as a professional, and they let you do it."

No. 1 St. Mary's Episcopal Day School

Founded in 1953 in Tampa, the nonprofit Episcopal school serves students in pre-K through eighth grade with

"a well-balanced and challenging curriculum delivered by talented and enthusiastic teachers in a caring, Christian community," it says in a mission statement. Its single campus serves 430 students with 50 teachers and 58 employees.

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Teachers at Tampa's St. Mary's Episcopal flourish in supportive, trusting school culture 03/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 6:18pm]

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