LARGO — Up before dawn, in bed by sunset.
That's been Kelsey Bennett's Monday-through-Friday life since August, when she became a Pinellas County schoolteacher.
The daughter of an educator, Bennett thought she knew what she was getting into when she signed on as a first-grade teacher at Northwest Elementary in St. Petersburg. The 23-year-old quickly learned there was more to the job than she'd ever imagined.
"I went home crying a lot over the stress of it all," Bennett said Wednesday at a gathering of other first-year teachers hosted by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "I felt a big responsibility on my shoulders. I was afraid I'd do something wrong."
First-year jitters was a common theme as other rookie teachers shared their hard-won experiences with things like discipline issues, mountains of paperwork and getting their students ready for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Lauren Hansell, a 27-year-old science teacher at Pinellas Park High, said she's been mistaken several times for a student. Karen Kaminsky, a 37-year-old itinerant music teacher, said she's often felt a step behind because she wasn't hired until after the school year began.
Both Hansell and Kaminsky praised their colleagues for getting them up to speed.
"People eventually realized I was new and took me under their wing," Kaminsky said.
The mood was upbeat at the second-annual PCTA barbecue and new teacher celebration as the teachers took turns sharing their successes. One had become a cheerleading coach. Another encouraged a struggling student to make all A's. And another is ending the year with all her students reading at grade level.
The chance to share war stories as well as successes is the reason why the union brings the new teachers together, said Mercy Roberg, a faculty representative and a teacher at Mildred Helms Elementary in Largo.
"It's just to thank them for a job well done," Roberg said. "We have a lot of great first-year teachers and we want them to stay in Pinellas County."
But getting teachers to stay is becoming more and more difficult, according to Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. For generations, education majors graduated from college and taught until they retired. Now, Pudlow said, many people teach for four or five years and move on to something else.
"Some love the idea of being a teacher until they get into the profession," Pudlow said.
Florida Department of Education statistics appear to bear that out. A report released in 2003, the most recent study available, shows that of the 107,229 public school teachers in Florida classrooms in the fall of 1992, only 61 percent were still teaching a decade later.
The Pinellas district retains about 40 percent of its new teachers over five years, said senior human resources specialist Kim Leitold. The district introduced a new program this year that aims to provide two hours a month of continuous training to new teachers in an effort to improve the retention rate, Leitold said.
But no amount of training can prepare a teacher for some things, said Bennett, the rookie first-grade teacher at Northwest Elementary.
Bennett, who normally wears contact lenses, came to school one day wearing her glasses. One of her students looked up at her and told her the glasses made her look like an old lady.
"I told him, 'You just have to deal with it for today,' " she said.