Florida's Teachers Stressed Out

Feb 1, 2016

Some Florida teachers are angry about working conditions. They made that known the first week of the legislative session when a couple thousand of them showed up in Tallahassee to get lawmaker's attention. Some of the biggest issues raised included: too much testing vouchers low pay and there's more. And those same issues have also led to another problem a shrinking teacher workforce.

There are at least fourteen bills floating out there that in some form or fashion add to the current school day, not extending the day but add something to a teacher's actual workload of what they have to teach or do, and when you look at all of those things independently they're not bad ideas. But, when you're adding them all together on stuff that you already have to do, something has to come off the plate in order to make that work. And at some point legislators need to ask educators what's best for their students.

Do you get the sense that there are at least enough lawmakers who are listening and who are pushing for at least anything that's going to be helpful?

With the current configuration that we have in the Florida House and Senate, we have some folks who really listen and then probably the majority I would say do not. I would say that's the place (Florida Senate) that is the most advantageous to those that are in education because they really will listen. But for us, spring boarding off this rally and how energized and angry my members are across this state I want to keep that same pressure on through this legislative session. I want them on our key issues to be contacting their house members and their senators so that they are clear and understand that we are mad and we're not going to take it anymore and we're going to carry that to the ballot box on November 26th. 

Let's talk about testing because it's obviously a popular topic. We're dealing with Florida standards as the new system statewide. What are the biggest concerns teachers have about this system what we're doing and just testing in general?

Seeking to ease the pressure on schoolchildren — and quell the growing backlash from parents — the Florida House voted unanimously Wednesday to scale back testing in public schools. The proposal (HB 7069) eliminates an 11th-grade English test and a requirement that local school districts create tests in every subject not covered by the new Florida Standards Assessment. It also allows the school year to begin as early as August 10.
Credit El Nuevo Herald

  Well testing is out of control and what we like to say is we're not opposed to testing, heck teachers invented testing. But the way that we are making it an all-or-nothing in the FSA testing and the former FCAT system isn't good for kids and it's not good for schools and we're worried about this almighty test. At the end of the year from March until May it's testing season in some form or fashion. And the kids are losing two months worth of teacher time that they could be educated in other things. We're all so worried about this FSA and it's not fair to the kids. It's not fair to the schools. It's not fair to the parents because what we're doing is we're robbing the kids of a good quality education because we're only concerned about making sure they pass this one test. So things like art and music and recess and P.E. and really great electives in high schools are going by the wayside because we have to make sure that we're teaching all of those things that are on the FSA, and I have to tell you we don't have much faith in the FSA. They rolled that out last year it was a debacle from start to finish; how the test couldn't withstand the band, kids were losing their tests, they had to restart their tests. So that in itself bothers us. But yet students are going to be held accountable to whether they graduate or move to the fourth grade. Teacher's salary (is determined in large part by the test). I have to say this test was field tested in Utah. Utah's population is not like the Florida population and I believe this test is biased to our minority students.

Have you ever thought about why lawmakers are so it seems almost married to testing what why do they want to do so much testing?

We at the F.E.A. and myself personally believe it's tied to money. There are high powered lobbyist that contribute high dollars to campaigns and this is a money-maker for test companies and book companies. Those that write the standards, those that grade the tests, those that create the test, they're making millions of dollars off of Florida's kids. And I have to say all of those folks who are making money are making it outside the borders of our state. So we're shipping tests to other places to be graded and checked on. 

Let's talk about another hot topic which is teacher evaluations also linked to this test. What do teachers feel is a fair and workable system for evaluating promoting even firing teachers what do they believe is the right way to do it?

Well they have now changed the system based on Senate Bill 736 that everybody starting from July of 2014 became an annual contract teacher. So at the end of every year if you're an annual contract teacher you can be left with no reason at all and you can be highly effective and rated highly effective according to your principal. But you can still be let go at the end of the year. So my brand new teachers are fearful. Because they have no security net. Not even if they prove to be a really great teacher, they can be let go because they're not a fit for the school. So my teachers are really feeling put upon I guess is the best term I can use. They feel like everything is being blamed on them and they're not allowed to do their jobs. They can't be creative, they can't be innovative. We are given a curriculum, we're told to stay to a script, we are told how many minutes to teach certain subjects. And you're supposed to teach the exact same thing in every single classroom. So it really sucks the joy of teaching out of teachers and it sucked the joy of learning out of our students. So my new teachers are fearful. And once they have enough years to retire - they exit. And those teachers used to at least wait till the end of the school year. But if their time happens to expire in October or December or January or February they'll go that way because that's how ludicrous the system has become.

More than 2,000 teachers and educators rally at the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in protest of statewide education policies enacted under the leadership of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature.
Credit Kristen M. Clark / Miami Herald

There was another rally in Tallahassee, this one having to do with the state voucher system and that again is the system that allows some students to use scholarship, some of it is state funded, some of it corporate donations to attend private schools religious schools. The folks who were at in Tallahassee protesting are basically asking the association to drop its lawsuit against the state on this. What do you say to those parents?

That's not going to happen. This is what I say to the people that orchestrated that (protest), many of the people that came and spoke at the rally are ministers or bishops who are benefiting financially from those children coming to their church schools. We believe it's unconstitutional because in the Constitution, in the Florida Constitution, it says it is a paramount duty of the Florida legislature to provide a free high quality uniform public education system, not a parallel system, not a for-profit system, but a uniform public school system. They are taking the resources that really belong in the general revenue to be distributed for education to these for-profit schools. Here's our concern with for-profit schools they don't teach the same standards. They don't have the same rules. They don't have to give the same steps or accountability yet they get all of this money with no accountability. Their teachers do not have to be certified and the schools don't have to be accredited. So I'm concerned number one that these students are really getting a quality education because we have seen where schools have closed and seniors were running back to their public schools trying to get enough credits to graduate after they had been at these charter and for-profit schools. There are three hundred schools that the state has identified are underperforming schools and these students are getting vouchers to leave to get a better education. What about the kids you're leaving behind? We should be talking about those schools and what we do in those schools to make it a great education for everybody, not just the seventy thousand that can take a voucher and go. 

I mentioned earlier that teacher certificate applications in the state have dropped in recent years. In Broward and Palm Beach counties we're dealing with teacher shortages. And you mentioned just a little while ago, sometimes they’re (teachers) just leaving as soon as they can, so in this environment how do you convince a teacher to stay in the field?

It's tough, it's really tough. We do not have people that want to come to the state, they want to go to a state where they're valued. The system we have in place is one where your pay is judged whether you can advance on the pay scale by your test scores. You're an annual contract teacher if you're coming now so you have no security. It's high stress. We have a lot of teachers that say it's the highest stress level that they've ever had. We just did a stress survey of our members asking them is their stress better or worse, and it's off the charts. And we also asked them would they stay. And we also asked them where they see themselves in five years. Many of them that were at retirement age said to be retired. Many of them said they would leave the profession. So it's a huge problem that this state has created. 

When I look at international surveys where teaching, the profession, is respected and revered, the U.S. is not high on the list. What do you think has to happen to encourage young people, whether they're in high school or in college, to even consider going into the teaching profession.

There's a couple things we can do but the first part starts with the Florida legislature. They should repeal Senate Bill 736 and start over. We should be at the table talking about what teacher evaluation systems should look like and what would be great. And they should restore professional service contracts to teachers so that they can have some job security. There was a process in place where you could be fired and it was pretty easy. But how that system worked was for three years you were on an annual contract teacher and if you had good evaluations and you were doing a good job then you were offered a professional service contract. And then after that your job was guaranteed. Only if you were doing a good job. Because if you're not doing a good job there are ways to document that and fire a teacher. So that was the premise of why they went to annual contracts, they said that it was too hard to fire a teacher. It's also difficult for teachers to make ends meet because where probably ten thousand dollars below the national average. So those are things that are important and I think the Florida legislature can take the first step and start doing those things for teachers to make sure that we are recruiting and retaining the best teachers. The second thing I'm going to say is it's up to the public. If you do a survey teachers are at the top of the chart. Legislators are clear at the bottom. The public trusts their public school teachers and they like their public schools.