Cover Story: They love their students — will they stay?

As Florida’s school districts continue to experience difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers and education staff, FEA decided to talk to a handful of early career educators about why they joined our schools, and if and why they’re staying. No matter the chal­lenges they have faced, what shines through is their love for the work, their students and our public schools. All, however, wished that their paychecks showed that our state loves them — in the sense of respecting and valuing their professionalism and dedication to students.

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of The Advocate, the official publication of the Florida Education Association.

Naomi Bell

Seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher at James A. Shanks Middle School, Quincy, and the elected secretary of the Gadsden County Classroom Teachers’ Association

Growing up on the island of Saint Martin, Naomi Bell knew early on that she wanted to be a teacher, like her favorite aunt. “She would bring her students to the house” and “would always have the funniest stories about her day at work,” Naomi said. “I’ve always wanted to help people. Teaching just happens to be something that fell into my lap because I watched my aunt do it.” After she came to the states to attend Florida A&M University, Naomi realized that she wanted to work with one age group in particular. She spent time in a friend’s middle school classroom, and “I fell in love with it.”

“I like the fact that I’m pushed to be a better person.”

What she likes about her work: “I like the fact that I’m pushed to be a better person. I’m able to gain so many experiences. I’m able to grow. The kids literally push you, to the point where you have to reinvent yourself all over again. Because of that, I feel like I’ve become a better teacher, a better person because of my job.”

What has surprised her: “I guess before I started actually teaching, I thought it was going to be an easy transition. It is not. You’re not just a teacher. You are more than that. So that’s one of the biggest things that surprised me, is how many hats I have to wear every day.” Meeting students’ needs means providing not only academic instruction, but ongoing emotional and social support as well, she observes.

What’s discouraging: Naomi feels that while teachers are held to high standards, there’s a lack of accountability for administration. And, of course, pay is a huge issue. Gadsden County has the lowest average teacher salary of any Florida district. “Some of us, we have two, three jobs just to make it. And it’s ridiculous because we work long hours. We give so much of ourselves to this community and to see the way that they, the district, treats us is ridiculous. … Pay is one thing, but even with resources, it’s like I have to beg for them to give us what we need.”

What should change: “Listen to your teachers more. We are the experts in the field. A lot of people who are passing laws and telling us what we need to do to have not been in the classroom. We know exactly what these kids need. We understand what’s going on with the system. We know what’s broken. We know what’s working. Listen to us.”

Her future: “I’m going to retire as an educator. That’s a definite. I just pray that as the years go by things change within the state of Florida when it comes to education.”

Her union: Naomi started her career in 2016 at a Gadsden County charter school and came to James A. Shanks Middle School about two years ago. As soon as she left the charter and was able to join her union, she did. Naomi had been in Student FEA at FAMU, “So I knew what the union stands for, how important it is,” she said. “The union is that backbone that a lot of teachers need in order to survive this, this thing.”

Paul Acosta

Teacher’s assistant working with prekinder-gartners at Hunt Elementary, Coral Springs, and member of the Broward Teachers Union

For education staff professional Paul Acosta, taking a full-time job at Hart Elementary was a natural progression. Paul attended the Broward County school, his mom works in the front office, and he remained connected to Hart as he grew older, returning as a volunteer. “It has been such a blessing to be here. A lot of people who work at Hunt never leave,” Paul said. “It’s a family school. … It’s really, truly my home.” His coworkers, he said, “are my heroes, my mentors.”

“I love just being in the classroom and having that family.”

Paul is now a teacher’s assistant working with preschoolers who have developmental delays and has been in his current position for about five years. Paul also attends Broward College and is close to earning his associate degree. He plans to complete the college’s four-year education program, with the ultimate goal of becoming a certified teacher.

What he likes about his job: He enjoys working with small children for their imagination and the “little milestones” they achieve. “I love just being in the classroom and having that family,” said Paul, who grew up as one of five kids.

What surprises him: “How well teachers adapt” not just at Hunt but anywhere else, to Covid or any other challenge that comes their way.

What’s discouraging: “You wish you could help kids when they get home. … There’s only so much you can do in the classroom.” Beyond his classroom and on a national scale, he wishes public education and educators were more valued. “It makes me so angry that our country puts so much on teachers, but there is such a lack of respect from people who are not in it, and are defunding education,” he said. “There should be a pay increase for everybody in education.” As things stand now, he works in the Hart after-school program for extra money, but “I can’t afford a car.” He rides a bicycle to the job he loves and has done that for years.

What he would change: As a paraprofessional, he would sometimes like to have more contact with parents and to be able to offer them more support.

His future: Paul is in the public schools to stay, and plans to teach prekindergarten, kindergarten or first grade after earning a four-year degree. “If I were a wealthy person, I would volunteer and do education for free.”

His union: Paul joined the Broward Teachers Union soon after he began working full time and a representative reached out. “It’s nice to have people who have your back.”

Rebecca Schempp

Elementary school art teacher at the two campuses (PreK-3 and 4-5) of Lewis Anna Woodbury Elementary, Fort Meade, and member of the Polk Education Association

The path that led an “Army brat” to Polk County schools began in a Virginia classroom with an art teacher who reached out and made a connection — holding up Rebecca’s photographs as examples and enlisting her help in teaching darkroom photography. “Mrs. Shelton was the one who really inspired me to think about teaching.” Rebecca had a family connection in Central Florida, so when it came time for college, she headed to Polk State and then the University of Central Florida. And when it came time to find a job, Polk was the district that called back. Covid hit during her first year in the classroom, 2019-2020. When on-campus classes resumed in August 2020, she’d gone from classrooms at two schools to an art cart. This school year, she’ll be happy to be back in rooms and “able to do a lot more with my students.”

What she likes about her work: “The connection with the kids is what I enjoy the most. … My biggest accomplishment is that the kids are taking what I’ve taught them into their own artwork. They get so eager to show me their work, and then I’d see them repeat the same lessons, using something different. It really warms my heart.”

“I don’t really see myself doing anything else right now.”

What has surprised her: “I feel comfortable. Like I know this is where I’m supposed to be.” She is also surprised by how embraced she feels by fellow teachers. As an art teacher, Rebecca thought she might be somewhat isolated. But, she said, “It’s like a big family at my school.”

What’s discouraging: “Right now the most discouraging thing is I’m technically still on a temporary certification,” she said, explaining that she has until June of 2022 to finish her subject exam and professional exam. “The big discouraging thing is that I’ve taken my subject areas six times. I know the materials, but I don’t know why, keep not passing it.” She notes that as an elementary school art teacher, she has been surprised to see advanced topics, such as metal forging, on the test. But no matter the challenge, she works to stay optimistic and urges other early career educators to do the same. “My biggest thing is to not give up on yourself. I had a lot of doubt my first year, because I was like, I don’t know really what I’m doing. So, you know, don’t give up. Always try to look at the positive.”

What should change: “Definitely, the pay is the biggest issue. If we can’t even afford a place on our own, if we have to find people to live with or stay at home for a while … that’s a really big thing.” In fact, Rebecca still has a second job, as an occasional manager at a family fun center in Lakeland.

Her future: “I know once I pass my small hurdle of my temporary [certification], this is where I want to be, even though I was discouraged a lot. My family didn’t think I should go into it because of the money, but working with kids is what I like to do. I don’t really see myself doing anything else right now.”

Her union: Rebecca connected with Student FEA at UCF then signed up with the Polk union during teacher orientation. Her union proved its value very quickly. For some reason she did not end up in the payroll system in time to get paid at the start of school in 2019. “I immediately went to the union and was like, this is my situation. And that’s how my love for my school actually grew, because that day I found out they had all rallied together to give me some kind of money. … So it was very nice to have a union on my side, because that was a really big thing that helped me. I’m always going to be there for the union.”

Andrew Burk

Band director at Valley Ridge Academy, a K-8 public school in Ponte Vedra, and a member of the St. Johns Education Association

“I was struck as a high school kid,” Andrew Burk says of his decision to become a teacher. “I loved high school and I wanted to be a high school teacher. I was like, I don’t want this to ever end.” The work is so important and potentially gratifying that he was sure his peers would love the idea of teaching too, “but as we approached applying to college and looking into our future lives, nobody wanted to be a teacher. And it was like, well, why not?” The answer quickly became obvious and motivates his union work to this day: “Quite frankly, it’s really hard to live as a teacher sometimes. The days are long. The job is demanding, and the pay is subpar.”

“In five years, I want to be in the process of running for Florida House.”

What he likes about his work: “Teaching music is an amazing job. I absolutely love bringing people together and building a band family that learns to work together to succeed. The kids all look, think, and live a little differently from one another, but for 45 minutes a day we all do the same thing at the same time and become one musical group bigger than an individual. I think that is a sorely needed experience for all people in today’s world.”

What is discouraging: Simultaneous teaching during Covid was nearly a deal-breaker for Andrew, and in fact did factor into the departure of two colleagues who were passionate educators. “I was incredibly discouraged (last) year trying to deliver lessons simultaneously in-person and livestreaming on Zoom. It cheapened the education that kids received.”

What should change: “My number one priority for all public education activism outside of the classroom is teacher salary and benefits. I strongly believe that the most effective way to improve everything about a child’s academic success, emotional growth, safety and so on, is to pay their teachers a professional, competitive, desirable salary. … That’s how you get really good new people into the field. And that’s how you keep the really good teachers who are already in the field. … At the end of the day, a passionate and knowledgeable teacher who knows how to connect with kids is the most important ingredient for education, and higher pay for teachers is the best way to recruit and retain those educators.”

His union: “I’ve been in the union since day one as a teacher.” Andrew explains, “I joined the union primarily because I want the state of Florida and all its public schools to pay educators a professional, competitive, attractive salary. I believe union membership and advocacy is one important route to that goal. I take inspiration from this quote by Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”

His future: “I am really excited to be a fifth-year teacher this fall and be better for my students now that I have four years of mistakes and successes behind me.” In the longer term, look for him in an elected office. “In five years, I want to be in the process of running for Florida House. That’s what the dream is, and I’ve learned, you just gotta do it.”

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