TAMPA — Sara Malinka and Autumn McCarty sat in the nosebleed seats of the Armwood High School auditorium as leaders of the nation's eighth-largest school district welcomed them into the fold.
The message Wednesday was the same through an hour of speeches: It's different in Hillsborough County. Teachers and administrators collaborate. New teachers get all the support they could possibly want.
It hit home with Malinka, 22; and McCarty, 45 and entering teaching after a career in retail. Both are assigned to high-poverty elementary schools.
"I love all the support they offer to new teachers," said Malinka, who will teach third grade at Mort Elementary.
The new teacher welcome is a tradition, held during an orientation week that this year attracted close to 1,000 new teachers.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who will begin her 10th year on the job, assured the teachers, "you're not going to be alone."
Deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins urged them to get to know their students and their families. "They are a human being. You need to care for them," said Eakins who, with his wife, joined the district 25 years ago.
Deputy superintendent Cathy Valdes reminded them of the importance of humor. "If you're not having fun, your kids aren't having fun," she said.
School Board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell, who's been in office 22 years, delivered a more sobering message: "We don't get a second chance with children."
And, to a one, they all advised the teachers to join the union, some acknowledging that in other school districts that pitch would never happen. "We're not normal," Valdes said.
Critics of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association say the group is overly friendly to the administration. The union collaborated with the district on Evaluating Effective Teachers, a Gates-funded project that delivered massive changes in the way teachers are evaluated. The new teacher mentor program, which speakers praised Wednesday, also came out of that initiative.
The union, for its part, says more is accomplished when teachers are at the table than when they are kept at a distance.
"We are a solution-driven union," said president Jean Clements, who also has spent more than a decade in her job. "Your voice through our union is strong. And it's listened to."
School begins for 200,000 Hillsborough students Aug. 19. McCarty, the teacher in the audience, already got a taste of the job last year, when she spent three months at Foster Elementary.
The job is sometimes terrifying, she said, but that's because she cares about it. She switched careers in part to set an example for her 13-year-old daughter.
"I got sidelined," she said. "Now I get to do what I always wanted to do."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.