1. Opinion

One more insult to teachers

Published May 12, 2012

You can call it what you want — tax savings, cost cutting or budget restraint — Florida's public school teachers are under siege. And from the Panhandle to Key West, many teachers say that as a result of how they are being treated, morale is as low as it has ever been.

Clearly, our conservative lawmakers who dominate Tallahassee are not cheerleaders for our public schools. They are busy devising new ways to redirect public funding to for-profit institutions by, among other tactics, lowering per-pupil spending and strapping local districts with unfunded mandates.

In most money-saving moves that school boards across the state have been forced to take, teachers are disproportionately affected, substantively or symbolically or both.

In Pinellas County, School Board members, responding to state funding cuts, determined that one way to save money on toner and printers was to hire a private company, Ricoh Business Solutions.

Apparently too many teachers were printing their own materials at too high a cost. Officials decided to confiscate teachers' personal classroom printers even if the machines were paid for and maintained with donations, personal money and teacher incentive pay. Teachers learned that any printer not removed from their classrooms would become district property. Beginning July 1, according to the Tampa Bay Times, teachers must send most print jobs to a central station for processing.

Although officials changed their minds about confiscating donated or personal printers, teachers who keep their machines must pay Ricoh out of their pocket for toner and repairs. Many teachers said that letting them keep their printers is a lukewarm concession by the district, but it does little to ease the insult and the sense of powerlessness they feel.

"It's one of the last things a teacher had control over, and it's so symbolic," Kim Black, president of Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, told the Times.

She said teachers have no voice in other core areas of their profession, including curriculum, professional development, material and technology selection, scheduling and planning time.

Second-grade teacher Christine Amstutz, a 25-year veteran who has two printers in her classroom bought and maintained with donations and incentive pay, told the Times the new policy affects her sense of professional worth.

"It's just felt like one more thing," she said. "As a teacher, this decision has left me feeling disregarded and unimportant."

Brooker Creek Elementary teacher Patricia Spears was so upset that she complained to board members in an email: "We do not have the luxury to go to the main copier whenever we would like. Morale has been low over the past few years, and this latest micromanagement will make it even lower."

The district is obviously trying to save money. But snatching classroom printers, an act that seems to be benign at first blush, assaulted teachers' sense of autonomy and will further erode morale. And morale is defined as the extent to which people's needs are met or the extent to which people feel satisfaction in their jobs.

How important is morale?

Public education is a complex culture, one in which selflessness is a guiding force, where high morale is a necessity among the teacher corps if the school experience is to greatly benefit everyone involved. Too many politicians and school administrators apparently fail to comprehend the interrelated complexities of public education. Losing the freedom to print in the classroom may seem like a small matter, but it is part of a systemic operation that kills the morale of those on the front line each day, those already being blamed for the ills of greater society, ills such as poor parenting and wrongheaded legislation.

Other morale killers include high-stakes testing that has not been fully researched, decisions arrogantly handed down from the top that make teachers feel like babysitters rather than educators, and low pay that does not keep pace with high living costs. Many teachers, in fact, are forced to moonlight.

In Florida, another big morale killer is the personal toll of teaching in so-called low-performing schools. Not too long ago, many teachers welcomed the challenging rewards of teaching in low-performing schools, where seeing students' improvement was the big payoff. Today, however, these schools are graded as "failures," and their teachers are seen as incompetents chasing easy paychecks.

There is little real payoff when test scores are emphasized, when critical thinking and creativity — the true stuff of education — become secondary concerns.

About the new printing policy, Pinellas superintendent John Stewart said: "It boils down to an issue of convenience as opposed to efficiency and effectiveness."

Perhaps he is right. But what often parades as efficiency and effectiveness, such as so-called reform, is actually myopia and regression.

How much efficiency and effectiveness will we get by killing teacher morale, by fostering negativism that takes teachers' full attention away from their students?