Times Staff Writer
Long ago, when I was a kid growing up in Florida, I had some teachers who were very good, like the one in the third grade who made everything, even math, seem fun. I also had some who were, shall we say, interesting.
There was the one who insisted that, despite what our textbooks said, the Civil War was not about slavery. And the one who commanded that, even if we were in the middle of a fire drill, we had to stop five minutes before the bell to pick up any litter around our desks. Or the one who, while trying to show us how warm water rises and cold water sinks, lit a Bunsen burner beneath a big fish tank full of water, which promptly exploded and drenched all the kids in the front row. Come to think of it, he was kind of fun too, but not in the same way.
Florida has always had a lot to teach the world about education. When the Spanish colonists first settled in St. Augustine, an order of Franciscan friars launched the first religious school in America there in 1606. Then they started what’s believed to be the first public school in 1787. It served both white and black students.
When the Spanish departed Florida, interest in public education waned until after the Civil War. In the early 1870s, Florida at last designated school districts in each county, allowing them to charge taxes to pay for building schools and hiring teachers and buying textbooks.
The architect for much of Florida’s public school system was a state superintendent of schools named Charles Beecher, who happened to be the brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Whenever anyone complains about Yankee carpetbaggers, I think of Charles Beecher, who did his best to make his adopted state a better place to live for everyone.
These days, though, when people talk about Florida’s schools, they’re usually talking about Florida teachers like the infamous Debra Lafave, who when she hit the limelight was a 24-year-old reading teacher at Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace.
Her blond hair and blue eyes made her into a media darling in 2004 even as she faced charges of lewd and lascivious battery on a 14-year-old student. Her pouty picture became a fixture on front pages and TV screens around the country. Her attorney said she was too pretty for prison, but her look was just right for a chat with Matt Lauer. She ended up pleading guilty to two felonies and serving probation, to the copious disgust of Nancy Grace.
Bad teachers like Lafave are notoriously hard to fire in Florida. Still, we have had teachers fired for having a side job as a bikini model and for having a past career in porn. We have had teachers who got in trouble for tapping a student on the head with a banana and for making some kids wear a “cone of shame” dog collar as seen in the Pixar movie Up. We have had at least one teacher, a first-grade teacher from Polk County, who faked a fatal illness so she could skip class.
We have had some teachers who made headlines because they didn’t get along with their students — say, mocking them as both stupid and ugly (“Honey, you look bad every day. Pages will be turning in the yearbook and mirrors will be smashing.”) We had others who made headlines by getting along with their students a little too well, if you know what I mean (buying them alcohol, teaching them about twerking and so forth).
How many bad teachers do we have in Florida? Nobody knows because the state Department of Education refuses to pay attention to this problem.
“We’ve asked for this for years,” my colleague, education reporter Jeff Solochek, told me. “How many teachers have been arrested for sex with students? How many for being drunk on campus? The answer consistently has been, we don’t keep track of that.”
Let’s say the number of bad teachers is lower than 100 percent, because we all know selfless, dedicated teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies and work far more than 40 hours a week. Some, as we saw during the Parkland school shooting last year, would even lay down their lives for their kids.
But how much lower? Is it 10 percent? Twenty? Thirty? Forty? We just can’t say.
Now think about this as the Legislature pushes to add one more thing to this mix: Guns. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, state legislators want to make schools safer by arming Florida’s teachers -- even though nobody knows how many are "interesting" teachers and likely to misuse those guns in some way. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?
Right now I’m picturing Debra Lafave waving around a Sig Sauer. Somehow, this does not seem like an idea Charles Beecher would give an A+.
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.