In the waning days of the summer of 1975, an eager young teacher named Mary Edington opened the door to her first classroom, a tin-roofed portable with no air conditioning at a Polk County elementary school.
Last week, an eager young teacher named Alexa Tankersley opened the door to her first classroom, a large, sunlight-filled space on the second floor of Parrott Middle School in Brooksville.
Edington is 57; Tankersley is 22. Their careers started more than three decades apart, but they have much in common: Both are new to the Hernando County school district, working as teachers during a paradigm shift in Florida's education system.
A portion of teacher pay will soon be based on student test scores. The tenure-like protection of multiyear contracts is gone. Teachers, like other state employees, must now contribute 3 percent of their pay to pension plans. And massive hits to school district coffers threaten job security.
Despite these challenges, Tankersley and Edington say they are exactly where they're supposed to be.
"I still see enough benefit working with the kids and seeing the eyes light up when they say, 'I got this,' " said Edington, who will teach seventh-grade math at Powell Middle School.
"Sometimes," she said, "you have to shovel a little manure to grow a garden."
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Tankersley knows just how students will feel when they sit down to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. She took the FCAT as a student at Parrott, too.
The Illinois native was a fifth-grader when she moved with her family to Hernando County from St. Petersburg. One of five children, she attended Brooksville Elementary School for a year before moving on to Parrott. She graduated from Hernando High in 2007.
At that point, Tankersley envisioned a nursing career. But while taking nursing courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College, she worked as a substitute teacher at her former middle school.
"I've always loved school, and I just want to make a difference," she said.
Tankersley earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida and interned at Suncoast Elementary in Spring Hill. She felt most at home in front of a middle school class, though, where students can develop a passion for school — or an aversion to it.
"If you engage them the right way and build their trust, then they will have a desire to learn," she said.
Her experience at Parrott helped her land the job that, due to budget cuts, is one of only about 15 new teaching positions in Hernando this year.
"She's just so compassionate to the students, yet firm," said Parrott principal Leechele Booker. "It's sometimes hard to come in as a substitute and command their respect, but she did."
Tankersley will be learning from her former Parrott teachers all over again — a half dozen of them are now her colleagues. One of her younger brothers will start eighth grade there this week.
As a student, Tankersley conquered the FCAT. As a teacher, she will be working with some of the lowest-performing seventh-graders, leading two periods of intensive reading. She also will teach a critical-thinking class and two periods of language arts.
Tankersley said she isn't too worried about the fact that a portion of her pay will be tied to student test scores starting in 2013, even though there is serious debate among teacher quality experts as to whether test scores can accurately measure a teacher's contribution. Nor is she too much bothered by the phase-out of protections that shielded teachers from a quick firing.
Young, idealistic and motivated by a desire to one day sit behind a principal's desk, she sounds a lot like the supporters of the controversial reform measures signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott this year.
"I think if you're a good teacher and you're doing what you're supposed to do, you shouldn't have a problem," she said.
"I'm just excited to teach, and I'm going to teach, regardless."
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While Tankersley works with teachers who taught her, Edington hears from former students now in their 40s who work as teachers, lawyers and business executives.
The daughter of two teachers, Edington jokes that her destiny as a teacher was preordained.
"I didn't have an out," she said with a laugh last week as she took a break from classroom decorating at Powell. But she also remembers the feeling of accomplishment when, as a middle-schooler, she taught her little brother how to read.
A product of Pinellas schools, Edington earned her bachelor's degree from Florida Southern College, and later a master's degree from USF.
Since her first teaching job in Polk County in 1975, Edington has worked at 10 schools in two states. If her career says anything about the teaching profession, it's this: You adapt, or you're done.
She saw textbooks make room for Commodore 64s and bulky personal computers make way for laptops and now iPads. Just as technology has changed, so have teaching methods. Gone are the days of standing in front of the entire class teaching straight-up math problems. Now visitors to classrooms are more likely to see students working at different stations in the classroom — some on the computer, some in small groups tackling hands-on exercises.
Edington taught in Florida until 2002. It was the first year of the rule requiring third-grade students to be held back if they didn't pass the FCAT, and she remembers some of her third-graders crying when the test booklet landed on their desks.
That's a flawed system, she said, and so is the premise that teachers can be fairly evaluated and compensated based on the results of one test.
But she's still here.
After her fiance died in 2000, Edington felt the urge to strike out on her own. She spent nine years teaching in Arizona, the last two on a Navajo Indian reservation in the remote northwest corner of the state, where students traveled miles over unpaved roads to get to school.
Edington decided to move to Spring Hill to be closer to her father and sister. She had to reapply for her teaching certificate, so she is officially a first-year teacher without the protections of a multiyear contract.
This month, she attended a conference to brush up on the state's new streamlined curriculum. Monday will mark her 37th first day of school, and she will have butterflies just like she always does.
"I have faith that what I bring to the job, with the years of experience, a decent ability in math and a love for the kids," she said, "that we'll get through this successfully."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]