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Married teachers feeling double the pressure

Husband and wife teachers Liz and David Denny check on caterpillars that their students collected from oak trees.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Husband and wife teachers Liz and David Denny check on caterpillars that their students collected from oak trees.

TAMPA — Every morning, Liz and David Denny leave their South Tampa home and drive together to a century-old schoolhouse near Tampa's Ikea store.

After their ride, they share responsibility for the fourth grade at DeSoto Elementary School — all 33 children.

"I'm the math and science guy," says David, 59.

"I teach reading and writing, and I also teach social studies," says Liz, 44.

Lately, they've been sharing something else — distress about how the state of Florida is treating public schools and teachers.

Already, Gov. Rick Scott has signed a bill that rescinds teacher seniority rights and links pay to student performance. On the horizon are budget cuts and a possible weakening of the pension system.

It's hard enough when one breadwinner is a teacher. For two-teacher families, the stress is double. On top of everything else, David is recovering from cancer surgery.

"I just feel very, very vulnerable," he says.

• • •

A study by the Chicago-based General Social Survey group recently estimated that one in six married elementary and secondary school teachers has a spouse who is a teacher.

"People tend to marry people like themselves," says survey director Tom Smith, a former teacher who was married to a school clerical worker. "And most teachers share, if not a love of children, at least a tolerance of them."

The Dennys, whose marriage is the second for both of them, met at a school. David taught while Liz worked in the after-school program. She was newly divorced with a son who was prone to seizures. The child needed emergency medical care on their first date. When Liz took him to Miami for brain surgery, David followed.

They married in 1992 and worked together at several other Hillsborough schools, all low-income. This past year they arrived at tiny DeSoto, where 97 percent of the kids are economically disadvantaged.

They work in adjoining classrooms, swapping students at various times of the day. Liz is the strict one, she says; David the nicer one.

Their principal, Gilda Garcia, appreciates the way they collaborate. "When you put teachers together, they are going to talk about the kids," she says.

And they do, constantly.

"You can't shut it off," Liz says. "If I had another partner, I would drive him crazy."

Lately, when they aren't talking about this child or that child, they are contemplating their future in what is increasingly a hostile political climate.

They wonder how long they will be compensated for the master's degrees that cost them $48,000.

David doesn't mind contributing to their state pension, something that could effectively eat up as much as 5 percent of his pay.

But he wonders how viable the pension will be if it is raided, or if fewer new teachers contribute to it.

Liz, meanwhile, still has responsibility for her son Adam, now 20. An out-of-state student, he is still covered under her medical insurance. She acknowledges the benefit is generous, but wonders how long it will last.

Neither of them has much of a nest egg, aside from the pension. David has a son and grandchildren from his first marriage. They consider themselves luckier than many teacher-supported families, as they have two incomes and not one. And their students tend to test well, giving them less to worry about in terms of merit pay.

But you never know when that might change, and they shudder to think that a principal will be able to fire them arbitrarily.

"You're always running into people who say, 'I remember you. Are you still a teacher?' " David says.

Finishing his thought, Liz says, "I would hate to meet someone in Starbucks who asks me, 'Are you still a teacher?' And I would have to tell them that somebody fired me on a whim, or because somebody didn't make that FCAT score."

• • •

It's a long day at DeSoto. Some afternoons, the Dennys volunteer their time in after-school skills sessions.

Other days, they take students on outings, maybe to a movie.

They might go for a bike ride after work. Sometimes they return to their 1,200-square-foot South Tampa home, so tired they just sleep.

They try not to internalize the national debate about teacher tenure and accountability. Sometimes it seems as if the public simply has no comprehension of what they do.

"I can't believe some of these stories," David said. "It feels like somebody has a vendetta against us."

Those feelings fade when they are in the classroom, face to face with a child whose home life is chaotic, or whose parents cannot pay the bills.

It's a cliche, Liz acknowledges. But "there's always somebody who has it worse."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Married teachers feeling double the pressure 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 11:21pm]
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