ST. PETERSBURG — For any teacher who walked into a Tijuana Flats restaurant on Thursday, the deal was simple: Today your entree is free.
But if you peeled away a few layers of the burrito, it was clear that for many educators, this simple gesture went a lot deeper than the offer of free Tex-Mex food.
"It's wonderful," said Diana Pepper, a physical science teacher at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. "I mean, really, really, really. It's exciting."
It's no secret that public school teachers these days feel pressured and, in many cases, demoralized. After more than 40 years in public education, the retiring executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association recently told the Tampa Bay Times that teacher morale is the lowest he's seen.
Maybe that's why so many teachers who admittedly harbored perfectly good Christmas leftovers in their refrigerators flocked to Tijuana Flats locations around the Tampa Bay area for tacos, salads and burritos, spiced up with guacamole and potent hot sauces. And maybe it's why so many at the Fourth Street location in St. Petersburg gave the same simple answer when asked what they liked most about "Teacher Hero Day."
"It's just saying thank-you," said Shandy Gregg, behavioral specialist at St. Petersburg's Mount Vernon Elementary School.
Barbara Hanson, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at the Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport, also appreciated the thank-you.
"I think it's a really nice thing, a sincerely nice thing, for them to do. That, and it's a free meal."
Her daughter Karen Donovan works as an office manager for a law firm above the Fourth Street restaurant and saw the news on Facebook on Thursday morning. So Hanson and her daughter had lunch together, and Mom's beef tacos were free.
Donovan said her mother does "a lot of extra work that goes unnoticed. She works her butt off."
"I was very excited," said Gregg, who ordered chicken burritos. "It's about time we get a little something.
"I come here anyway, but I'll come here more. I think it's smart on their part," Gregg added.
Retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Michaels offer teacher discounts, and the state Department of Education lists many on the website fldoe.org/ justforteachers/discounts.asp. Many of these programs are to help pay for classroom materials.
Tijuana Flats founder and CEO Brian Wheeler decided after the Connecticut school shootings that something ought to be done to honor teachers, almost like Veterans Day or Memorial Day, said Ashley Montgomery, the chain's director of marketing. The free entrees were offered at all 87 of the restaurants, located in five states.
"It was really just something that we wanted to do to recognize that sacrifice and what they do every day," Montgomery said. The company said in a statement that "this event will allow us to be reminded, annually, just how important teachers are — and have always been — in shaping the lives of all of us."
That's a welcome message, several teachers said, because it's not what people always hear about them.
Recent coverage of events such as the Chicago teachers strike created "a lot of negative media about teachers being greedy and always wanting more," said Heather Vincent, who teaches classics at Eckerd College. But, she said, "This job is not a walk in the park. We're not greedy for wanting a middle-class wage. That Tijuana Flats wants to appreciate teachers really means a lot."
Several teachers also made reference to the recent school shootings.
"The thing in Connecticut," said Gregg, "shows we put our life on the line."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected]