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A slap in the face for the teachers

My wife works at least twice as hard as I do for barely half the salary. My work stays at the office. Hers goes home, seven days a week, late into the night. I work at a desk, where I can take a break whenever I want. She is on her feet most mornings for four hours without a break, and she skips her 20-minute lunch period most days to meet with clients who can't see her at any other time.

As regular readers know and others must have deduced by now, Ivy is a teacher in one of your public schools, where she and many others like her give Florida better than it deserves.

This weekend, when she ought to be unwinding on spring break, she is with some 2,000 French students at a statewide conference in Orlando, where she will make post-midnight bed checks and get too little sleep. It's all on her time, not your payroll, because to a conscientious teacher such extracurriculars are simply part of the routine. Thank-yous are not; when one comes, whether from parents, students or the administration, it is as an infrequent and treasured surprise.

Teachers learned long ago, of course, to live by the adage that a job well done is its own reward. Then, at least, they could count on respect from students, parents and the community. Students who did not complete assignments expected to face consequences at home as well as at school. None would have dared to say, as said one of Ivy's pupils, "Ms. Dyckman, there are two words you need in your vocabulary: no homework."

Teachers were among the first to sense the national decline in values and standards. For them to hear the Legislature scapegoating them is the unforgivable injury. Here, at least, overwork is a blessing; Ivy is too busy grading tests, correcting essays and writing three lesson plans a day for five classes (in which her non-French speaking husband cannot help) to focus on the drivel in Tallahassee.

What's going on up there is enough in itself to make you wonder about the educational system: How could so many people grow to maturity and achieve positions of trust and power without having learned the virtue of responsibility? Why is nothing ever their fault?

One of their leaders asked not long ago what I thought of the House bill to abolish tenure for new teachers or veteran teachers who move from one district to another. I replied with a question that seemed to stump him: Why just teachers? Why should they be the only public employees to lose their jobs at a supervisor's whim? Why not cops, social workers, librarians, sanitation workers, highway engineers or agricultural inspectors?

There would be one hellacious public outcry, of course, if they proposed to sack state troopers without an explanation or a hearing. But hey, it's only the teachers, and what a golden political opportunity to bash their unions.

Yes, there are a few teachers who shouldn't be teaching. I could name some names. But no one who really understands bureaucracy believes that kind would be the first to go. Often, someone higher up is protecting them. Without tenure, it's the whistle-blowers who would go. The radical House version of the tenure repeal bill might as well also be called a relief act for sexual and racial harassers.

Thoughtful legislators _ yes, there are some of those, too _ understand that the perceived shortcomings of the schools are in fact reflecting complex and deeper problems throughout society. These include rootlessness, poverty, the rampant vulgarity of popular culture, global economic changes that pose enormous challenges to the curriculum, and the rising (if irrational) expectation that the schools must compensate for what parents cannot or will not do. Teachers wish more than anyone else that they were coping better with these titanic forces. But instead of help from the Legislature, they are being slapped in the face with symbolic solutions whose political appeal is that they cost no money. Why raise taxes to reduce class size when you can pretend that bad teachers are the problem? Why budget for seven daily instructional periods when you can just make a law ordering students to learn more in six?

In the Legislature's running arguments over whether to allow as many as 97 new school districts to be established with as few as 15,000 students each _ a terrible idea, by the way _ Pinellas Sens. Jack Latvala and Don Sullivan are on opposite sides. Latvala, whose wife is a School Board member, objects to the extra cost and the potential for isolating inner city schools. Sullivan's rejoinder is that those who oppose the bill are defending the status quo.

"I reject the status quo when it comes to education," Sullivan said during a recent debate. In other words, let's have change for change's sake.

Many of education's problems can be traced to just that mind-set. Remember new math? Open classrooms? Now, "controlled choice" has come down the same pike, perhaps to crash.

What teachers really need are old-fashioned and basic: more time to plan their lessons, more time for their students, smaller classes, textbooks that are plentiful and current, more counsellors and tutors to cope with the consequences of dysfunctional households, child labor laws rewritten to insure that no student works at night absent real financial hardship, and of course more parental support. What they do not need are more gratuitous insults from Tallahassee. If the politicians will not help, could they please do no more harm?