ST. PETERSBURG — Every babble and desk squeak was a teachable moment for Kali Davis and the restless fourth-graders before her.
"If you can hear me, clap once," she commanded.
"Tootsie roll, lollipop, we've-been-talking-now-let's-stop!"
Before long, Davis resorted to the classic "I'll wait" as she tried to teach a language arts lesson on animals native to Florida.
She coaxed the kids to sound out "opossum" because it's funny and starts with an "O." They "blew" the word "tail" in their hands with a whisper. They took turns saying "citation."
In the back of the classroom at Midtown Academy, another kind of learning was going on. Kirsty Brice — the class' regular teacher, in her first year on the job — took notes on Davis' engaging techniques.
"Whenever I have a question, she's one of the first people I go to," said Brice, a 24-year-old University of South Florida graduate. And Davis, just five years her senior, will pick up Brice's frantic phone calls, even if it's a Saturday morning.
Although she's a classroom veteran, Davis is also just starting her job — an unusual new position funded jointly by the Pinellas County School District and the teachers union. Her assignment: to mentor and coach 26 first-year teachers in six of the district's lowest-performing schools, in the hope that they will stay.
"My goal is to stop the teacher shortage," says Davis, who spends her days traveling among the schools. "I want everyone to be supported and to be where they feel is a good fit."
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During an American Federation of Teachers conference last winter, Davis spent days snowed inside a New York City building, but her mind was in St. Petersburg.
The Tampa Bay Times' "Failure Factories" series had just documented declines in the city's five worst schools, including how they were hemorrhaging teachers overwhelmed by demanding conditions. But it was also an opportunity for the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association to be more visible and part of a solution.
Involved in union activities since her college days at the University of Florida, Davis had become a leader in the PCTA and the state's union, the Florida Education Association. Now she was brainstorming with co-workers on ways the union could help St. Petersburg's struggling schools.
"We knew we had more to offer than just negotiations," Davis said. "I was excited for the possibility of true negotiation. I was so excited for the stigma of the union to go away."
Perhaps the union could provide more training, they thought. Or, what if the union and the district created a position to get extra help to first-year teachers?
"That's probably where the biggest shift happened," Davis said. "It was no longer the district and the union. It humanized both sides."
Davis' new job is a much-needed olive branch between those sides, which had been going through a rough patch. The teachers union needed two votes to ratify its bargaining agreement last fall, and morale took a dive as the district's struggling schools underwent major restaffing over the summer.
But on Sept. 19, the district and the union formally agreed to hire Davis as the first "Early Career Educator Support & PCS/PCTA Liaison," and split the cost of her salary.
Davis, an energetic and confident 29-year-old, was a good fit. She started her Pinellas career at Melrose Elementary in 2012 and quickly became a much-sought-after reading coach. She knew what it was like to be young and in the trenches.
"Turnaround is tough because you have to acknowledge where you're at, but you really need to plan," she said. "It's that give and take of how much we are asking teachers to do. But at the same time, if you're not planned and prepared, you're going to be a different kind of tired."
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Davis' schedule is scattered, and every week is different.
She could be at Midtown Academy in the morning, Lakewood Elementary in the afternoon for one-on-one teacher support and Campbell Park Elementary after hours for the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.
The project provides training for teachers, part of a movement out of Sacramento, Calif., that Davis is bringing to Pinellas. It encourages teachers in low-performing schools to visit their students' homes to talk about possibilities, not problems.
Davis aids only teachers at those six schools who independently seek her help — no principal referrals allowed. Her support is optional, not disciplinary.
She preaches high structure and consistent behavior, processes and procedures. You can never be too planned-out or prepared, she says. She even asks teachers to map out a student's path to the pencil sharpener or to get a piece of paper.
Davis believes her position is needed now more than ever, as the excitement of a new school year fades and the school's first quarter comes to an end.
"I think you could have several more of me," she said. "The need is greater to fill."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.