Sitting in a circle with Gov. Rick Scott, a group of teachers at Madeira Beach Fundamental spoke frankly about how their profession has been "degraded and demeaned" to the point where they dread people's reactions when they say, "I'm a teacher."
One said she felt her role had been reduced to that of a puppet, told what story to read on which day of the week. Another said teachers work extra hours and spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on school supplies yet their pay and benefits have been attacked.
"We are suffocating our heart and soul," said David Tagliarini, a 23-year teacher. "I can't tell you how many of my colleagues — good colleagues — who are looking for another field."
Scott met with about 15 teachers Wednesday at Madeira Beach Fundamental as part of a statewide listening tour to hear from teachers and parents about education. Teachers were invited to one hourlong session, while parents were asked to another.
Scott told teachers he thought most people were "very appreciative" of them. The group said that message doesn't reach them — except, perhaps, from some of their students' parents.
"We are educated professionals, and that's not how we feel," said Amy Thomas, an eight-year teacher.
Teachers noted that the state cut $1.3 billion in education funding last year — putting about $1 billion back in this year — and that Scott signed a merit pay law that does away with teacher tenure and ties performance evaluations, in large part, to student test scores.
Tagliarini, a band director, suggested that "master teachers" in the same subject judge their peers, rather than principals or assistant principals.
Scott also visited Miami, Jacksonville, Boca Raton and Fort Myers this week.
He said that while each group has been different, some themes stood out.
"The teachers want to make sure they're respected and rewarded fairly," he said.
Scott has been criticized for making the tour invitation-only, shutting out other elected officials, the public and the media during the sessions.
On Wednesday, the governor's office eased some of those restrictions. A spokeswoman said reporters in Fort Myers were allowed in so long as television cameras were turned off.
In Pinellas County, school officials and reporters were told to leave the sessions. But the governor's staff opened both sessions to reporters after three Pinellas County School Board members stayed in the room and a reporter raised questions about a potential violation of the state's Sunshine Law.
Under the open government law, board members can attend the same event, but can't speak about issues that might come before the board.
Both sessions at Madeira Beach Fundamental, held in the school library, were informal and polite. Scott showed off his cowboy boots to parents, while he reminisced about a recent visit to the school with teachers.
Some of Scott's statements were familiar Republican talking points —he said the state needs "choice and competition" in its school system — while others suggested he was keenly aware of the intense criticism this year of the state's testing system, which has been riddled with problems.
"While we need accountability measures, they have to be something that makes sense," he said.
"So it's not just teaching to a test."
Scott didn't get into specifics Wednesday, saying his goal was to listen.
During the parent session, Elizabeth Fehr, mother of an eighth-grader, told the governor that the FCAT and other standardized tests were "pressure cookers." Her son does well in school but has struggled with testing, she said.
"I don't think (poor test results) should exclude them from a diploma," she said.
Pinellas Board member Linda Lerner, who didn't speak during the sessions, said afterward that she thought the governor did listen.
"I hope he learned something from it," she said. "Time will tell."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.