Marshall Ogletree started his career as a math teacher at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg in 1969, just as the tense, emotional process of integration was about to begin.
But Ogletree thinks teacher morale is now even lower than it was then, thanks to a "perfect storm" of factors that include the Great Recession, legislative manipulations and changes in parental attitudes toward educators.
Ogletree recently retired as executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. He spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the changes he has witnessed in his four-decade career in education.
Ogletree, 65, grew up in Pinellas County, attending Clearview Elementary School, Lealman Junior High and Northeast High, and received undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of South Florida. He taught math at Dixie Hollins for 11 years, beginning in 1969. He then went into full-time work with teachers unions, including many years in Tallahassee as a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association. He returned to Pinellas County in 2009.
Here are excerpts from his recent conversation with Times staff writer Curtis Krueger.
When did you decide to go into education?
From the seventh grade on, or maybe eighth grade, I wanted to be a teacher. I think the phys ed coach was my role model in terms of teaching initially. And obviously great teachers in high school made a difference too.
What was it about that physical education teacher?
Just the fact that this person took a lot of interest in his students and cared. At the same time, learning was very important to me and my family. I came from a family that wasn't well off. I was the first one to graduate from college and my dad (who worked in St. Petersburg's tree department) wasn't a high school graduate.
What is the state of morale among teachers?
I've never seen — talking about 2012 — teachers more demoralized.
In the most recent survey of teachers, what issues stand out?
There are several things that play out as being very important to teachers right now, but discipline was second or third on the list. The top thing on the list was time to teach — "I don't have time to teach, there are too many other nonteaching demands that are being made . . .'' I know (new Pinellas superintendent Mike) Grego is very concerned about that and I do believe he's a breath of fresh air and I think we're going to see some changes that hopefully in the next couple years start lifting our morale again.
That's one of the most significant things that I've seen change in the course of my career. Loss of morale, frustrations about things that they can't control. . . . And remember in my early years in teaching, integration occurred in this district. And I was at Dixie Hollins High School, which had the nickname "Rebels." So we were on national television almost an entire week with issues that happened at our high school, caused by and large by parents that didn't value diversity.
You mean bigots?
Yes. We actually had motorcades traveling around our schools touting the rebel flag. That was a major issue. We had a stabbing at our school. We were in lockdown for almost a full week. A very trying time. We've moved a long way in 40 years, but then again we still have achievement gaps — which wasn't even a term when I started teaching in 1969-70.
Would you want to be a public school teacher today?
That is a difficult question . . . I probably still would be teaching because I love the classroom.
I remember at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market one Saturday, running into a former student and they'd been in St. Pete JC (now St. Petersburg College) probably a year or two. .. . That student came up to me and said "Mr. Ogletree, you're the best teacher I ever had and I appreciate everything you've done for me.'' And you can't buy a cup of coffee with that, but you can certainly have a good feeling in your heart about that.
After raising two children who are now adults, you and your wife are raising a 7-year-old relative. What's different about being a school parent this time around?
The things that you have to know in kindergarten now are far more than you had to know 10, 20 years ago. And when I went to school we didn't even have kindergarten. . . . I understand we're a country moving forward, learning is critical to employment and everything and expectations are higher. And I believe in that. But at the same time sometimes you have to stop and think and slow down a little bit.
What do you see that worries you most in that regard?
I am very concerned about some of the requirements about higher-level math skills and higher-level science skills as a requirement for graduation from high school. Not everyone's an Einstein. Is it going to stop? Is every kid going to have calculus in high school? I don't think that's possible.
Have we forgotten the value of vocational education?
I think we're refinding it, if that's a word. I think the last 12 years have been pretty much academic-oriented and I think there's now a movement back to a better blend of the two.