United Way to hold summit on better teachers

Tallahassee, FL – When politicians talk about education, it's often public school teachers that come in for the most criticism. How can teachers become better and more effective? Tom Flanigan discovered there's been a quiet effort all over Florida in recent months to find out how to do exactly that.

The organization leading that effort has been the United Way of Florida. Usually, the words "United Way" trigger thoughts of yearly fund raising campaigns. But United Way of Florida President Ted Granger says his organization is ideally suited to help find out what makes good teachers.

"We don't have any expertise in this particular area, but we have an expertise in helping to bring communities together and have civilized discussions about what solutions should be and we believe that most teachers - the vast majority of teachers - are good teachers and we need to figure out how, as communities and as individuals, that we can support them."

Why focus on teachers? Granger says it's because they are so often the main target when the public school system comes under fire. And he thinks that criticism may be driven partially by the fact we expect so much of today's teachers.

"I think as a society we've gotten to a point where we expect the teacher to be the parent, the minister, the grandparent, the counselor and everything else. I think we need to figure out how, as a system and as communities, we help those good teachers maximize their potential and their impact on the students."

Over the past year, there have been more than fifty "empowering effective teachers" community meetings all over Florida. Lots of public school teachers and administrators have been in attendance, along with parents and education advocacy groups. There have also been a few attendees with alternative ideas on teachers and schools. At this particular session, Susan Golden was taking part. She's the director of the acclaimed Tiger Academy, a very demanding charter school that's been working some educational miracles in the gritty, low-income neighborhoods of Northwest Jacksonville. Golden says her school works on a very different model than the state's traditional public schools.

"What we've done at Tiger is we've built in a longer day, a longer year, we have no union, everyone works at will including the principal, we hire and fire at will, our expectations are high, and we pay well."

At the same time, Golden acknowledges not all of these ideas might be workable in the regular public school setting. But they are still worth considering, says Victoria Zepp. She's been facilitating the "empowering effective teachers" meetings statewide.

"It's such a large education system and there are so many moving components that whatever your perspective is, you take your perspective and when you're trying to understand someone else's, you take what you know and you wrap around assumptions. We're looking to remove the assumptions and have real dialogue in a purple state of mind'. Not us-versus-them but together. We're communities, so that's our goal."

And it hasn't been only input from those at the meetings. Zepp says there's been a real push to bring in all available points of view. The project was thrown a curveball over the past month when a new governor assembled an education policy transition team to make its recommendations.

"We're actually bringing together that governor's transition team recommendations, the U.S.D.O.E. Race to the Top' we're bringing all this together so that folks can see the facts first and we have our State of the State'. This is what's being talked about, this is what was in the transition papers. That's why, for the last three days, I haven't slept because we took out the previous governor's work and their task force and put in the new transition. So that was what was actually discussed here today, some of these recommendations."

All of this comes together February first. That's when the United Way of Florida hosts an "empowering effective teachers" summit at St. Petersburg College in Largo "We can actually drill it down into a white paper about the voices of Florida on education. How we can empower communities for student success and that report will actually be published the day after the event. That will be then be shared by advocates with legislators, with local (and) state policy makers, so that they can truly see a cross-bred of conversation that has been happening over the past year and will continue. We're going to continue to have these. That won't be the end of the conversation."

Can't get to Largo on the first? Zepp says the summit meeting will be online starting at one o'clock eastern time. The United Way of Florida web site has more information and the links to take part in the summit virtually.