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One special ed teacher's fears about SB 6

SB 6 doesn’t make allowances for students like Liza Johnson’s, who have emotional behavior problems. So she is campaigning vigorously to get Gov. Crist to veto the bill.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

SB 6 doesn’t make allowances for students like Liza Johnson’s, who have emotional behavior problems. So she is campaigning vigorously to get Gov. Crist to veto the bill.

Liza Johnson sat on the edge of her gallery seat and tried to muffle her gasps.

In the chamber below, members of the Florida House of Representatives asked pointed questions about Senate Bill 6, which may change the face of Johnson's profession by tying teacher pay to student test scores.

"These aren't widgets," the 15-year teaching veteran wanted to yell. "They're kids!"

Back in Pinellas, Johnson, 49, teaches eight third-graders at Calvin Hunsinger School, a campus in Clearwater devoted to educating kids with emotional behavior disorders. This is where one fourth-grade girl lay on the floor in tears during the FCAT this year because she didn't want to take it.

Over the years, Johnson's students have scratched her, hit her, slammed her arm in a classroom door. Last week, while Johnson spent three days lobbying in Tallahassee, one of her students started shoving desks and throwing objects, tearing the classroom apart while a substitute presided.

Still, Johnson insists, in the life of a teacher, there are bad years and good years.

"I'm having a good year," she says.

But even in a good year, Johnson wonders, how would the state measure success when it comes to challenging students like hers?

Pages of homemade graphs — illustrations by Johnson's students of their progress on practice FCAT tests — hang outside her classroom.

Most show an upward trend. Who will determine if it's enough? The bill doesn't say.

Johnson first learned about SB 6 in early March at a meeting of local union representatives.

"It's beyond comprehension," she recalls Pinellas County Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black telling those gathered.

For the first half of her career, Johnson shied away from the union. She didn't think it offered her anything she couldn't get herself.

But as Johnson matured as a teacher, she found herself questioning what she felt were some nonsensical mandates that would appear one day and disappear the next.

So when the union needed a new school representative seven or eight years ago, Johnson raised her hand.

In the past month, she has driven to Tallahassee twice to make the rounds of local delegates' offices to plead for their help. After driving back, she made a "Veto 6'' sign and stood with a couple hundred of her fellow teachers on the side of the road to send the governor a message.

"We can really affect this," Johnson says, seated in her classroom hours after all her students had gone. "And I truly believe we can on the Crist thing."

Gov. Charlie Crist has given opposing ranks hope he might veto the teacher bill.

"I think he realizes this is a bad bill," Johnson said.

Once upon a time in the 1990s, before Johnson became a teacher, she was a political science major who clerked in Crist's Florida Senate office.

She met him about three times and doesn't believe he would remember her now.

But when she talks about Crist's stance on SB 6, she talks about him like he's on her side:

His sisters are educators, she notes. He's from Pinellas County, she explains. He needs teachers' votes in his U.S. Senate race against Marco Rubio, she says.

"We can connect with him more than anyone."

Johnson didn't always want to be a teacher.

She came to it after a judge she clerked for convinced her being a lawyer wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

She considered teaching more seriously after being a substitute. She had always loved school as a child.

Johnson enrolled at the University of South Florida to get her master's degree in elementary education. But after volunteering in a special education classroom, she was hooked.

"They were so lost and needy and what they got from the teacher, it meant so much more," she said. "A lot of them didn't come from the best homes. And in some cases you realized this was the most nurturing some of them would ever see."

Johnson thinks that if SB 6 becomes law, her personal finances won't change as drastically as it might for teachers with families.

She is single, has no kids and works as a waitress on weekends for extra spending money.

However, Johnson is trying to become a National Board Certified Teacher, a rigorous process that brings extra pay for teachers. SB 6 would eliminate that bonus.

The truth is, Johnson long promised herself she would leave teaching the moment she stopped enjoying it.

Her biggest fear with SB 6, which she calls "a horrible, horrible detriment to education," is that it will turn schools into unpleasant places to work and learn. That teachers won't collaborate and students will get less from narrowly focused classes.

And that might make her want to quit.

"I love my job," she says. "I actually love my job."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

One special ed teacher's fears about SB 6 04/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 10:57am]

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