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Veteran teachers see another change coming from Capitol

Six weeks after Sue Creekmore landed her first classroom job in 1968, Florida teachers staged a walkout over school funding.

"You would have thought I'd have caught on then that the job was political," she said with a chuckle. "But, no. It took me a while."

Forty-two years later, Creekmore, 64, a third-grade teacher at Tampa's Graham Elementary, has seen the political winds blow in and out of her classroom so often that she can't help but have a sense of humor about it.

Whole language. New math. Standardized testing and school grades. Bonus pay tied to student performance. Merit pay or not. Vouchers. Charter schools. And now, controversial legislation sweeping through Tallahassee promising to tie pay increases to student test scores, eliminate many teacher benefits and make it easier to fire teachers.

How does it feel to have your profession and classroom become society's laboratory, subject to overhaul at every election cycle?

We talked to three veteran Tampa Bay educators about how they negotiate the changes when everyone else thinks they know how to do it better.

• • •

In 1977, before Creekmore left the classroom for 12 years to raise her children, the directive to teachers was about creating "behavioral objectives" for students, a lesson plan movement popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Then, when I came back, it was all 'whole language,' " she remembered.

A decade later, in 1998, Florida's students took the FCAT for the first time, and a slew of Tallahassee-based reforms followed.

It wasn't that standardized tests were new. But tying rewards and sanctions to the test scores was certainly different.

Creekmore is a National Board certified teacher who has been rewarded over the years for her students' strong FCAT performance. She says good teachers tackle the mandates knowing that what they do in their classrooms should ultimately be dictated by the children's needs, not the flavor of the day.

"We have gone through so many different changes," she said. "I think when a person first begins teaching they can be a little critical of the veteran teacher because we don't jump on every bandwagon.

"But we've seen that bandwagon a lot."

• • •

Donna Violette was the kind of teacher whose elementary class projects you remembered.

Every year, her students would study different nations. Each would pick a different part of the world, write a report on their country, do a presentation on it and then create a shoebox float decorated with items that represented that country's culture.

Parents who were former students would regularly ask her if she was doing the country floats project this year.

"I doubt if former students come back this year and ask me if I'm going to do FCAT prep with their kids," said the 37-year teaching veteran.

But she is.

Since accountability reforms came to Florida more than a decade ago, Violette has had little time for the kinds of unit studies that she felt cut across subject lines and gave her and her children more room for creativity.

At Wimauma Elementary, an A-rated school where a substantial portion of the students are learning English as a second language, Violette's 18 third-graders spend most of their day reading and writing and working on test preparation. When they're not reading a story aloud or answering questions about a story, they're sitting at their desks reading books to themselves.

Even before and after math lessons, they read.

They know that after taking the third-grade FCAT reading test to determine if they move on to the next grade, they face the fourth-grade FCAT writing exam.

A National Board certified teacher, Violette, 62, spends many Saturdays in training or training others. She sees politically influenced reform as a fact of life.

But that doesn't mean she forsakes all she knows to be good.

"I think when you close the door to your classroom, you have to do what's best for the children in front of you," she says. "You are the professional."

• • •

Rob McMahon has done the math.

He has 48 minutes a day for 180 days to teach his eighth-graders at Carwise Middle School everything they need to know about physical science in order to meet, and hopefully exceed, state requirements.

That means he has access to about 1 percent of their lives.

After 31 years of weathering various reform efforts, he's not sure the latest legislation tying his pay to his students' test scores is reasonable or fair.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have no control and am not the adult in their lives," McMahon said. "I don't know what they do in the summer. I don't know what kind of conditions they live in. And yet this bill wants to tie my well-being based on what I can accomplish with them in 1 percent of their time."

In the past, McMahon, 54, who served as head of the local teachers union from 1996 to 2000, managed to roll with reform.

When Florida legislators first experimented with merit pay in the 1980s, he watched as once collaborative colleagues became secretive and competitive over the pay. Within a few years, the program was restructured.

When FCAT came along and required teachers to spend more time on test prep, he killed the ecology unit his students used to enjoy. No more taking and testing soil and water samples or studying the National Parks.

There wasn't time.

Despite all that, he thinks the students at his Palm Harbor school have no idea how much he detests the way the state's leaders reward and punish schools based on one test.

"I still for the most part enjoy what happens when I close my classroom door," McMahon said. "It's just getting harder and harder to put up with all the other nonsense everywhere else."

• • •

All three teachers are nearing retirement.

Though they're survivors who are well respected among their peers, not one of them believes the latest measures being handed down at the state Capitol are good for the future of their profession.

"This last one may be the most difficult," Violette said. "It pretends that teachers are the only force that makes a difference in the classroom. It forgets that parents are a part of that equation and students are a part of that equation."

Though Hillsborough schools could be exempt from the mandates while it implements its own reform plan funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Creekmore said the proposals make her sad.

But she holds hope that good teachers will continue to do what good teachers do.

"Things change. People come and go," Creekmore said. "But your children are always there. They come back day after day."

Staff writer Letitia Stein and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Fast facts

Legislation

Under SB 6 (passed Senate, pending in House):

•Teachers would serve a five year probationary period and then get single-year contracts, with pay based on evaluations. Half of their pay would be linked to student test results. Teachers are now paid based on degrees and years of service and multiyear contracts are given after three years.

• Bonuses now given to teachers with National Board certification would be eliminated in 2014. Districts could give incentives to work in low-income and low-performing schools.

• Districts that don't comply could be penalized, including funding cuts and requirements to raise local taxes.

Under CSCSSB4 (passed Senate, pending in House)

• All students must take geometry, two years of algebra, biology, chemistry or physics and an additional "rigorous" science course.

• Phases out the FCAT in high schools by 2014 and replaces it with end-of-course tests. Students who fail the tests can move to the next grade, but graduation depends on passing.

Source: Times staff

Veteran teachers see another change coming from Capitol 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 11:03pm]

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