School Districts across the country are looking for ways to recruit and retain teachers.
SARASOTA — When students walk into Ronnique Major-Hundley’s fifth grade classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School on Monday, they will hear a speech that has been fine-tuned over a 25-year teaching career.
The kids — full of the swagger that comes with being 10 in a school where everyone else is in single digits — will be put in their place on day one with Ms. Major-Hundley.
“You’re not going to come and take over my room because I’m the queen of this castle,” she will tell them. “This is my queendom, right? You are just a pauper. And I’m the queen.”
Despite her tough talk, she knows the three things kids want more than anything — a formula so simple it has the makings of a how-to book for aspiring educators: Boundaries, love and attention.
“My day one story is, ‘I love you. But you’re not my friend,’” she said. “And I’m not here to be your friend.”
It’s easier said than done. Every year teachers armed with similar mantras and hopes of making a difference in the life of a child enter the system and quickly burn out. Various studies have reported that anywhere from 30% to 50% of new teachers nationally quit within the first five years.
On Monday, roughly 100,000 students will return to school in Sarasota and Manatee counties for the 2019-20 school year. The high teacher turnover rate, coupled with fewer teachers in the pipeline at local education programs means their instructors have become an increasingly hot commodity. Community leaders in Sarasota are looking for creative solutions.
Earlier this month, John Annis, the senior vice president of the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, presented the results of a teacher survey on how to recruit and retain teachers. The goal: Figure out how to get more Ms. Major-Hundleys — lifers who are in it for much more than a paycheck.
Looking around her classroom on Thursday afternoon as she prepared for this school year, Major-Hundley said she has never had higher aspirations.
“I don’t want to be a vice principal, assistant principal, nothing,” she said. “I want to be a teacher. I want to teach.”
The results are in …
Low pay is usually the first thing mentioned when discussions turn to why teachers are leaving the field in droves. But there is one thing Sarasota’s teachers want even more than a larger paycheck: A boss who has their back.
Nearly 800 teachers responded to the survey, which was conducted by the Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation. While concerns over pay made up roughly a dozen of the top concerns, the number one item was administrative support.
“If you’re the teacher, it’s always ‘my fault,’” Annis said at a recent Sarasota Tiger Bay luncheon, describing conversations the survey team had with teachers. Administrators “just rolled over and the parents were always right … a supportive principal who can run some interference is really important.”
Major-Hundley said she was tired of teachers always being blamed for lacking skills kids should be learning from their parents. When kids show up not knowing their numbers or alphabet, there are not many excuses that fly with her.
“You know, the Dollar Tree flashcards are a dollar, right?” she said.
Losing the best
Few people exemplify the challenge of keeping quality teachers as clearly as 2017-18 Sarasota Teacher of the Year, B.J. Ivey. The year after winning the honor, the Riverview High teacher and basketball coach turned in his walking papers.
He had two children and a wife to provide for, and he was coaching basketball — a side gig he described as a full-time, year-round job that paid a $4,000 stipend.
He loved teaching, and his students made him happy. But that wasn’t enough.
“You know what else makes me happy is my family,” Ivey said at the Tiger Bay luncheon. “Should I love my family and my kids more than the 140 that roll through my classroom on an annual basis?”
The answer he came to was yes, and Sarasota’s top educator from last year is now the director of basketball operations with Florida Gulf Coast University — a position that pays less than teaching but brings with it the potential of upward mobility that classroom teachers don’t have, unless they want to become administrators.
“If I had the opportunity to make a lot of money elsewhere, am I foolish not to?” Ivey said.
He said he is glad he got out when he did, pointing to the older teachers who feel trapped by their future pension in a job they no longer love because they’ve invested so many years.
Ivey is still passionate about education, and he described several strategies that could get new teachers in the classroom. Attract more men to teaching by paying coaches what they deserve. Start clubs for future teachers in high school. And get teachers to stop bad-mouthing the profession.
“As a teacher you can’t speak negatively about your profession to kids,” he said.
Stay above the drama
Major-Hundley tries to ignore the politics that have dominated the district recently, with the School Board, teachers union and administration entrenched in constant sparring, but it’s hard to tune out the drama.
Last week, as she and her colleagues prepared their classrooms, union executive director Barry Dubin emailed teachers, forecasting the imminent destruction of the school district as they knew it. Dubin warned of the district turning into “some good-old-boys club where favoritism reigns and bosses can give and take favors with reckless abandon.”
The teachers’ boss, Superintendent Todd Bowden, faces allegations he ignored sexual harassment complaints, and his boss, the Sarasota County School Board, remains bitterly stuck in two factions, with nearly every vote coming to a 3-2 decision.
The constant soap opera isn’t good for morale, Major-Hundley said, without picking sides or offering criticism.
“If I paid attention to it, I would just be a mess,” she said. “I got my own issues to worry about here.”
Annis said Sarasota’s teachers are increasingly disillusioned by all the bickering between administration, the union and the board — a dangerous undercurrent in a district desperate to retain its teaching force.
“It feels like it is them against them against them, and they forgot about us,” Annis said one teacher told him.
Former students return
On Friday, former students visiting Major-Hundley rattled off the things they learned in her classroom: Self-control, decimals, fractions, strategies for dealing with bullies.
Although she begins each year by telling the kids she is not their friend, that is often what they become once they leave her classroom.
She writes college recommendations for her former fifth-graders and still travels to Maryland to visit students she taught in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago.
But one former student’s visit stands out in her mind.
Several years ago, Booker Middle School sent an urgent message, seeing if anyone had seen a missing student. Minutes later he showed up at Major-Hundley’s door, a shocked sixth-grader with grim news: His mother had been murdered.
“He said, ‘My mom is dead over there in the woods,’” Major-Hundley recalled. “I said, ‘you know, sweetie, I saw those police cars over there.’ And I gave him a hug.”
The high turnover rate for teachers may be an indictment on the current state of the profession, with the usual culprits to blame — testing, paperwork, low pay, long hours.
It also, most likely, is an indicator that many people simply don’t have what it takes.
Even if, by some miracle of policy, teachers got everything they wanted — instant pay raises, administrative support, and less standardized testing — there is no government solution that provides the “it” factor a good teacher must have.
“You definitely have to have a presence,” Major-Hundley said, a presence that inspires equal parts fear, curiosity, respect and admiration. “The kids can smell blood in the water.”
She rolled her eyes at desk jockey professionals who say they would like to teach when they retire, as if there were no better way to celebrate the golden years than with 12-hour days, most of it on your feet, orchestrating activities for dozens of kids with high stakes on your success or failure.
Her advice: “You might want to sub first.”