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Tampa Bay teachers say they're under attack, undervalued and undermined

Jennifer Hart, shown with her son Jonah Loewenberg, attends a rally in Tampa last week against slashing benefits for workers. She teaches at Lee Elementary School.

Marlene Sokol | Times

Jennifer Hart, shown with her son Jonah Loewenberg, attends a rally in Tampa last week against slashing benefits for workers. She teaches at Lee Elementary School.

TAMPA — She's the least political person she knows. But there's Emilsa Guillot, waving a protest sign at rush-hour motorists on Kennedy Boulevard.

Surrounded by like-minded public employees, Guillot can't help feeling — what's the word she uses?

Undervalued.

It happens when people say she is "just a teacher." And they do: at social functions, at children's birthday parties.

"I've gotten that from people who don't have half the education I do," said the 33-year-old first-grade teacher at Colson Elementary School in eastern Hillsborough County.

"I have a master's (degree). And somebody who doesn't even have a bachelor's will tell me, 'You're just a teacher.' It shows me how education is valued."

It's hard to remember a tougher time to be a public school teacher. It's as if parents, students, voters and politicians have declared open season on the army of civil servants charged with making America globally competitive.

Even in Barack Obama's White House, there has been a call for performance-based assessments to upgrade the teaching ranks. Where Florida grabbed headlines last year with a move to end teacher tenure, this year numerous states are rewriting teacher conditions and benefits.

"I just think that education across the nation is under attack," said Christopher Pearl, a teacher at Tampa's Eisenhower Middle School. "Public education is under assault."

Teachers, interviewed at Tuesday's Awake the State rally, were divided as to what has caused this sentiment, or how widespread it is. Some blamed the conservative media; others, special interests that seek to create profit centers in privatized schools.

Regardless of the cause, the trend has teachers fearing for their future and questioning their decision to enter the profession.

"Florida came to me," said Leto High School teacher Chris Notidis, who was born and raised in Massachusetts and hired by the Polk County School District out of college.

"I'm a department head. I have new teachers in my department who are contemplating leaving."

• • •

It doesn't matter much that Hillsborough already is revamping its teacher evaluation system under a grant from Bill and Melinda Gates, and that the district will therefore be exempt from much of what the Legislature is contemplating.

Teachers hear about an attack on tenure, about a request that they contribute to their retirement funds, about proposed cuts in school funding, and they see red.

It's true of veterans and newcomers.

"After 21/2 years, I go home sometimes and wonder, 'Why am I doing this?' " said Darlene Sigle-Lam, 32, of Leto. "Because there is more pressure to perform and even the highest-performing teachers are going home asking, 'Can we ever do enough?' "

Jessica Vaughn, 33, became a teacher after weathering the collapse of the mortgage underwriting industry. "And I thought, 'Whoa, let's be a teacher, that will be safe,' " she said.

As an intern at high-poverty Sulphur Springs Elementary School in Tampa, she has had a taste of the job's enormous demands.

"You have kids that come in that don't have food, and you're their mom, and you feed them and clothe them. It's heartbreaking," she said. "You try to be a buffer and do something good, and you have to fight for your rights to do something good. It doesn't make sense."

Whether they blame manipulative politicians or a misinformed public, teachers say the message they are hearing is that they are overcompensated for what they do.

"I've been a teacher for six years," said Jennifer Hart, a 33-year-old divorced mother who teaches at Lee Elementary School. "Our health insurance is very expensive. By the time I pay for me and my son, I have very little money to live on. Honestly, not very much at all."

Notidis said that when he started out, he was working two jobs.

"I was working with a mentally challenged individual from 5 to 7 every day, five days a week, and any part-time job that I could get after school."

Fourteen years later, he said, the pay is still not that good compared to other markets.

"It takes us 29 years to get to the top of the pay scale, and that's with a master's degree, not even $65,000," he said.

Pearl, the Eisenhower teacher, went into teaching knowing full well that he would take a pay cut from his job in the private sector.

"For me, I feel more fulfilled in the job that I do now," said Pearl, who comes from a family of teachers and school administrators.

Christine Farrell, 37, of Leto, was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in California. "I was making twice as much money out there," she said. "I could have retired after 20 years over there, making $100,000."

Still, it's not the modest pay that has her incensed.

It's the idea that, under the new evaluation system, she is to be graded, in part, on how her students perform on tests — even though she has no control over their home life.

It's the suggestion that she is not held accountable even though it seems someone is always walking into her classroom to observe her.

"Really, there is no way to make it as an underperforming teacher," she said when asked about job security. "Maybe back in the day, when we first started, people used to show movies. Those days are gone."

• • •

Karen Prentice, 40, grew up in the Virgin Islands. "I am from a different culture," she said. "The respect teachers had in the Caribbean is not the same here. People look down on you. They don't think you're serious about what you do."

She knows that parents are undermining her. She'll speak to a child, she said, and the next day that child will return with a different perspective, having discussed the matter with his parents.

"It makes you feel disgusted," she said. "You wonder why you want to love what you do. The bottom line is, you keep giving because that's where your heart is."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay teachers say they're under attack, undervalued and undermined 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 10:04pm]
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