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New teachers in Hillsborough County enthusiastic as first day of school nears

TAMPA

Lance Roth's father was a teacher for 40 years, and Lance never doubted he'd want to do the same.

Nor did his fiancee, Cassie Balsdon, who is starting a new job at central Tampa's Edison Elementary School.

"I'm a very passionate person about education," said Balsdon, 29. "I have always felt this was my life's mission, to help students."

This is what teachers sound like in those steamy weeks leading up to their first days — still steamy — in the Hillsborough County school system.

They have yet to be overwhelmed by a torrent of instructions that will greet them Monday, a staff-only day for the district. Classes begin Tuesday.

Speaking during a recent training week at New Tampa's Freedom High School, they were as wide-eyed as those magazine-ad kids with the shiny apples.

"It's just, I feel I was put here to help students," said Roth, 33 and headed for Miles Elementary School in northeast Tampa.

"This is what I want to do. I'll never question it."

Climbing the ranks

There's good reason to be optimistic.

Hillsborough, unlike surrounding districts, avoided layoffs and furloughs through cost-saving measures in recent years. The changes weren't necessarily popular with parents; a school bus system that was once exceedingly generous has been scaled back considerably.

But the savings have offered protection to Hillsborough teachers, and administrators are not shy about promoting that fact.

"We're working, our School Board is working very hard to support economic stability in Hillsborough County," superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the more than 600 teachers at Freedom.

Some were straight out of college, while others had transferred from other districts and states.

Olga Cuevas, a 53-year-old Spanish teacher who was born in Cuba, just climbed out of the ranks of part-time adult education and into a full-time job at Seffner's Armwood High School, with better pay and benefits.

Her immediate goals for her students?

"To make them realize the importance of being bilingual by now in this state," she said. "First of all the benefits, and after that the richness of our culture."

Ebou Howard, 31, was sent to the training week by his principal at Potter Elementary School in central Tampa. A teacher in the Head Start preschool program, Howard had a rough year and needed a refresher course in classroom management.

He's not deterred, not in the least.

"I love the kids, especially teaching Head Start," he said. "I was a Head Start student myself, and I know what it did for me, and I feel like I'm giving back."

'This is what I know'

From the downtown Tampa headquarters to Tallahassee and beyond, policymakers have been changing the way teachers are hired, fired and judged along the way. Now in the midst of a grant-funded Empowering Effective Teachers experiment, the Hillsborough district is replacing traditional tenure with a complex combination of assessments.

The objective is to nurture and retain the best teachers, in the interest of a world-class educational system, while parting ways with those who cannot do the job.

And Florida teachers statewide have lost earning power because of pension reform.

Longtime teachers and union leaders are watching these developments warily.

For new teachers, it's all part of the bargain.

"You can look at it in a way as a negative," said Kim Satterfield, 23, who will teach science at Marshall Middle School in Plant City. "But if you really are in teaching for the right reasons, you're not going to look at the pay cuts as something that's going to deter you."

In some ways, said Frank Lane, also 23, it pays to be unaccustomed to the job protections of the past.

"I'm not used to the old system," said Lane, of Durant High School near Plant City. "This is what I know."

It's all a matter of attitude, said Howard, who has been teaching for four years.

"When I look at the legislative things, the attacks against teachers," he said, "truly you have to have a passion to do this, or you won't survive."

That was more or less the advice of Tamara Craddock, a school district mentor who is bracing for the anxiety some teachers might experience when the realities of the job set in.

State and district record-keeping requirements, principals' preferences and the feared Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test are just a few of those realities.

"We all go into this profession thinking about those shining faces you're getting and how you love the children and how you can't wait to get to your children," she said. "But that's just part of it. It's a job."

She hopes she can help teachers stay focused on the reasons they became teachers and to keep students moving forward.

At training week, at least, 37-year-old Spanish teacher Lori Barron believed she could.

A recent transplant from Georgia, she moved to Tampa because of her husband's job transfer. She has been assigned to Chamberlain High School, a north Tampa institution that, having educated some of the city's most distinguished citizens, also saw more expulsion cases last year than any other high school.

Barron said she likes the staff and the principal at Chamberlain. "Having children of my own, I can relate to kids," she said. "I have four boys."

A big urban high school? No problem, she said.

"I've done urban before."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

New teachers in Hillsborough County enthusiastic as first day of school nears 08/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 9:16am]
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