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Another Florida teacher quits, blaming state mandates — but is that really the problem?

Tracey Suits had been a teacher for 27 years before she quit a couple weeks ago, publicly annoucing her decision to the Pasco County School Board. Now she works at the John Germany Library in downtown Tampa.
Published Feb. 4, 2016

LAND O'LAKES — After 27 years in the classroom, one moment prompted Tracey Suits to end her teaching career.

Suits arrived at her Land O'Lakes High School classroom just before 7 a.m. one recent day to find a parent waiting. Why, the parent wanted to know, hadn't Suits responded to an email sent less than 12 hours earlier?

The English honors teacher, still carrying her bags, had her reasons: She had spent the evening grading papers, writing lesson plans and eating dinner with her family before going to bed.

In fact, she wouldn't have time to see the email until lunchtime that day.

"I just felt frustrated," Suits said. "It was, 'Give me a break. I'm trying.' "

For many veteran teachers, life in the classroom has become a far cry from the profession they entered years ago. Climate surveys indicate steep declines in morale, with much of the blame placed on increased state testing, heightened time demands and a perceived decline in respect.

The atmosphere has compelled some to walk away and publicly declare their frustration — which is exactly what Suits did last month when she told the Pasco County School Board:

"I can do it no longer. I am resigning."

• • •

"It's just a whole new job," Suits said in an interview, citing the added work required to create a daily lesson as an example.

When she became a teacher, she explained, the plans were general, with a teacher trusted to make the lesson meaningful.

Now, she said, each one must include a list of standards to be covered, daily objectives and warmup assignments. It must list every task and how those will be tailored to each student, and detail how students will prove what they know.

Teachers turn those in quarterly, Suits said, and don't really know where they go next.

The exasperation has come through in protests, like the Florida Education Association's recent rally in Tallahassee. And lately, some of those most bothered by the changes have publicly denounced the system on their earlier-than-expected exits.

Polk County special education teacher Wendy Bradshaw's October resignation post on Facebook went viral. Duval County first-grade teacher Carol Inmon made the news last month when she quit her school of 37 years, telling reporters the "joy" was gone.

Suits joined their ranks five days after joining the FEA to shout to lawmakers that "Enough is Enough." During the Pasco School Board's public comment segment, she said she really meant it.

"Often times, people in social situations ask me about my job," she began. "When I answer that I am a teacher, I frequently get a response of, 'How do you do it?' or, 'I could never do that.' Well, the time has come to ask myself, how do I do it? And the answer is, I cannot."

She blasted an education system that forced her to teach children to "regurgitate information for secretive high-stakes student tests." She lamented the loss of autonomy and creativity in the classroom, as teaching becomes "education by legislation."

She spoke of how her time has been eaten up by paperwork, extra duties and meetings, leaving little for planning or family.

"I cannot continue to be cursed by students, berated by parents and bullied by politicians," Suits told the board, adding the stress has affected her health.

Parents and other teachers in the audience clapped quietly and shook their heads. They said they shared her views, and at least one educator said he wished he could afford to quit, too.

Two weeks later, Suits worked the last day of a career that took her through Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough schools as a teacher and media specialist.

She loved her school, her students, her colleagues and the district, she said, even offering to help her permanent replacement with the transition. But at age 54, she felt the need to start over in what she told students was her "dream job."

Despite a significant pay cut and longer, more hectic commute, Suits eagerly accepted a reference librarian post at the John Germany Library in downtown Tampa.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning called Suits' public resignation "dramatic" and said he wished the district could do more to help teachers who feel so downtrodden.

"The state drives what we do," Browning said. "As a superintendent and as a School Board, what we try to do is minimize or mitigate as best we can the impacts of state directives. We still have to comply with what the state says we have to do."

District employees work hard every day, he added. "And they've had it. I get it."

• • •

Analysts who track teacher trends cautioned against making too much of high-profile stories that suggest teaching has become a bad profession, though.

"We're all doing a really good job of bashing the profession of teaching," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "The unions and reformers and legislators, whoever, are telling you that teaching is a lousy job and nobody lets you do it the way you want to do it. It has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It's not to say that some changes in education have not hurt what good teachers can do in the classroom, Walsh said. But there were also problems with allowing teachers to just close the door and conduct their business unmonitored, she added.

"We spend too much time telling teachers that their job is horrible. There are days when all of our jobs are horrible," Walsh said.

Despite some proclamations, attrition rates among teachers are no greater than any other profession, she and others said.

"I have certainly heard those kinds of anecdotes," said Dan Goldhaber, director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. "I have not seen good evidence that suggests there are teachers systematically leaving the teaching profession because of accountability."

No doubt there are teachers sick of accountability, Goldhaber said, and Florida has been a leader in passing laws that might lead some to quit.

"Then again, there are also things that led some teachers to quit 25 years ago," he noted, citing classroom crowding and low salaries as two of them. "Right now, it is very easy to point the finger at policies focused on teachers, because it's something that everybody knows about."

Indeed, Florida labor statistics show that, like national trends, teachers tend to leave in their early years, and the rates get lower until they start to rise again as teachers near retirement, said Chad Aldeman, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that works to help school systems.

"These trends are much more closely tied to economics and the broader economy than they are to education policy," Aldeman said via email. "We see lower teacher turnover during recessions (when no other jobs are available) than during economic expansions (when all workers become more likely to change jobs). I'm very skeptical of any claims that teacher retention rates are mainly due to new teacher evaluations or Common Core or whatever ed policy."

For Suits, though, the reality was stark: Teaching has become a discouraging job.

"They're losing teachers because education is being micromanaged," she said. "It used to be they would trust teachers. If you said you were teaching The Scarlet Letter, they would trust you to do a good job. Now, it's how do we know we've reached every learner in the class? I see the future. It's going to be a revolving door of new teachers. The older teachers are going to get out."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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