Having been lucky enough to help choose the new Hernando County Teacher of the Year, I can offer this informed, thoughtful opinion about whether educators in this state and county deserve more money:
Of COURSE they flippin' do!
This year's winner — announced at a banquet Friday night — is Bethann Brooks, 48, who teaches nursing at Central High School and who impressed everyone on the selection committee as a great example of her profession — actually, as a great example of professionalism in general. Heck, of humanity in general.
Along with being a teacher, Brooks is the mother of five children and a nurse. Not a former nurse, but a teacher who spends some weekends and part of each summer at her old job, partly so she can bring students up-to-date, frontline information about their chosen career.
You'd think this would take her focus off teaching.
And you'd be wrong.
She switched from nursing to teaching seven years ago, she told us, because she thought it would give her more time to spend with her own kids. Instead, they ended up waiting for her after school while she helps out with a whole long list of extracurriculars.
She does this, she said, because it's fun, because she likes being involved with her school as much as possible and because she just plain loves teaching.
Teacher of the Year candidates would say that, of course, and sure enough just about all of them did.
So what? I believed them.
Not just because we on the committee could get a good feel for candidates' sincerity after spending six evenings over the past two weeks conducting interviews (which turned out to be as fun for me as helping out with the prom committee is for Brooks).
But also because, as countless psychological studies have shown, a strong sense of purpose is a major predictor of happiness.
And what could give a stronger sense of purpose than teaching? Nothing that I can think of, short of maybe brain surgery.
I know. Not every teacher is as skilled and committed as the ones we talked to. And without spending time in their classrooms, we couldn't even be absolutely sure they are as skilled and committed as they seemed.
I'm reasonably sure, though, that most of them are and that they mostly represent the quality of Hernando teachers as a whole.
I also think our investment in them is more than just an investment in schools, crucial as that is. As one candidate told us, teachers are teachers even when they aren't in class; a trip to Walmart can mean a half-dozen spontaneous parent-teacher conferences.
So, when we pay the salaries of our 1,477 classroom teachers, we're paying to build the community — which is, by the way, a community that suffers from chronic brain drain, a place of limited opportunity that many smart, young residents want to leave.
Teaching is one of the few jobs that keeps them here; about half of the Teacher of the Year contenders were home-grown.
So, if we're already retaining employees and providing them with rewarding careers, why pay them more?
Well, another recurring theme during these interviews was the lack of respect for their profession, which isn't surprising in a culture where respect is usually rewarded with cash.
And if teachers in Hernando are no longer near the very bottom of the pay scale in Florida, their average salary of $43,500 is still about $2,500 less than teachers statewide. And Florida teachers earn less than teachers in all but four states in the country.
So, put aside arguments about the finer points of and the motives behind Gov. Rick Scott's plan to give an across-the-board raise to teachers. Just ask whether they deserve more money.
Sure they do.
We can only give one teacher a Teacher of the Year award. But we can show them all a little bit more respect. With cash.