Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Maxwell: Teachers or tutors?

Desperation seems to be the new guiding force in many of Florida's public schools as they try to improve the performance of students struggling in the classroom.

Tutoring, both after school and on Saturdays, is one of the popular trends to emerge from this desperation.

The Pinellas school district has set aside $4.5 million this year to boost its enrichment programs for students who are behind academically. Officials apparently believe that if students are in school more hours each day, they will learn more.

A major problem for the district is finding enough tutors. According to a recent Tampa Bay Times article, about 80 tutorial positions are open for assignment beyond the regular school day. Ideal tutors, of course, are experienced teachers.

But not enough teachers are signing up to be tutors. And no one should be surprised. From opening to closing bells — 7 ½ hours — our teachers are busy, and many take home school-related work each night. They simply do not have time to teach all day, tutor after school and get appropriate physical and mental rest. And most teachers have families to care for.

And then there is that other problem involving teachers as tutors: money. Already underpaid for their regular duties, the overwhelming majority of teachers simply will not work for tutorial pay. Until a recent union-negotiated increase to $20 an hour and back pay for hours already worked, teachers were paid $15 an hour for afterschool tutoring. Next year, again because of union negotiations, teacher-tutors will earn their regular hourly pay of $29 — as it should be for this vital work.

Another problem is that many teachers already are working in extracurricular programs that compete with the tutoring effort.

Then, there is this: Officials do not involve teachers in tutorial-related decisionmaking. Many teachers resent this treatment. As professionals, they want to be included in matters that affect their careers and personal lives.

The need for more tutors highlights the very definition of teaching, perhaps deepening the conflict between teachers and district officials. Many officials believe that tutoring and teaching are not the same and should be compensated differentially.

Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, disagrees. She defends the integrity and standards of the classroom teaching profession, arguing that when teachers tutor, they are teaching — performing the same essential duties they perform during the regular school day.

As such, teachers should be paid their professional rate. Otherwise, the afterschool and Saturday work of full-time professionals will be treated as "discounted" teaching. The intrinsic and practical value of the teaching profession is discounted enough already.

Pinellas is trying to make up for the teacher shortage by hiring college students at $20 an hour. The students must have at least 60 credits, at least a 2.5 grade-point average, the good word of a professor and a commitment to work with students. They will complete the district's standard orientation and special training at the schools where they are assigned.

Because not enough teachers are signing up for the program, using college students is an acceptable alternative. But for it to succeed, the district must have rigorous screening, ensuring that potential tutors are competent in their subject areas and demonstrate the temperament to work with schoolchildren who more than likely will come from low-income groups. Many of these schoolchildren will have special learning challenges and behavioral problems.

District officials also must ensure that the tutors are consistent. After all, these are college students with their own academic commitments and personal lives. Will they be available as scheduled and as needed?

Although using college students may be good stopgap strategy, Black has the best answer for long-term viability: "We want the student to have adults who can meet their needs. Having the teacher who they have the relationship with during the day is a much more effective model."

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