Guest Commentary: Respect and value our teachers | News, Sports, Jobs

Betsy Vaughn

On March 16, 2020, the Florida Department of Education closed all K-12 public schools for an extended spring break due to rising coronavirus infections. During the two-week hiatus, Lee County academic leaders scramble to formulate a distance learning plan should the closure be extended. After two extensions of the closure, Gov. DeSantis announced on April 18 that Florida schools would remain closed through the end of the school year.

When Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced in July 2020 that Florida would open brick-and-mortar schools in August, the SDLC offered parents three educational options: face-to-face classes and two types of online classes. Many teachers found themselves teaching both face-to-face and online synchronized classes; some even balanced hybrid classes of students in their classrooms and on their computer screens at the same time.

Scores of guest teachers withdrew, leaving teachers behind to teach ill or quarantined colleagues. Teachers were already struggling with low wages and a lack of respect for the job before the pandemic, but now they also faced health problems, exhaustion and burnout. Many teachers decided to quit or take early retirement.

The problem of accelerated departure of teachers from the classroom is exacerbated by the declining number of teacher enrollments. Long before COVID-19, when teaching was increasingly perceived as an undesirable profession, young people avoided careers in education. Between 2006 and 2019, educational attainment in the US fell by 22%. The pandemic exacerbated these falling enrollments as some now feared an occupation with increased health risks. Although our human resources department has worked tirelessly to recruit new teachers, there simply aren’t enough applicants. As of October 2021, Florida teaching vacancies totaled over 5,000, an increase of more than 67% from August 2020. For the week of January 10, 2022, there were a total of 128 teaching vacancies in the SDLC!

Low financial compensation is often cited as the main reason why fewer people decide to become or remain a teacher. The wage gap between teachers and other professionals with a comparable level of education is widening. It was 6% in 1996 and 21% in 2018. Overall, around 20% of teachers have extracurricular activities during the school year to make ends meet; others supplement their salary with school jobs such as coaching or additional classes. Although Florida Gov. DeSantis announced significant salary increases for prospective teachers in 2020, funds received from schools were insufficient to fund across-the-board salary increases. The losers? Experienced teachers.

Attracting and retaining effective teachers requires a rethink of what it means to treat them as professionals. Teachers are demoralized by the lack of respect for the profession. In Florida, the attack on public education by Tallahassee lawmakers continues to escalate. In a recent CNN interview with a member of the local Lee County delegation who serves on two Florida House education subcommittees called public schools “government schools” that has to be “reduced”. Teachers lack autonomy. Politicians who have never spent a day in the classroom feel qualified to tell teachers how to do their jobs. In many schools, teachers are not even involved in school-based decision-making.

Public school teachers have long explained what changes are needed to keep them in the classroom and make schoolchildren the ultimate winners. Unless politicians, administrators and school boards start listening, the exodus of professional teachers will continue and our system of free public education for ALL will collapse. The losers? Our children.

– School board member Betsy Vaughn represents District 6, a seat at large.

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