2019 News Stories

Education in Action Luncheon sparks conversations about the teaching profession

by Jessenia Rivera

Students, teachers, and educational leaders gathered at the Florida State Fairgrounds for the 17th annual Education in Action Luncheon, an event hosted by the USF College of Education. 

Under the theme “Transforming the Teaching Profession,” keynote speaker Paul Burns, Ed.D., deputy chancellor for educator quality at the Florida Department of Education, and a group of panelists addressed several issues being faced by the education profession today. To begin the presentation, Dr. Burns asked the audience a question he believes every person in education should be thinking about — a question he admitted he wrestles with.

“How can we situate colleges, universities, schools, districts and the Florida Department of  Education to work collaboratively (and in partnership) to create the 21st century teacher?” Dr. Burns asked. 

Throughout his presentation, Dr. Burns shared several findings based on research he’s studied and conducted on the topic. His research shows there is an increase in the amount of teachers serving in Florida classrooms despite a high annual turnover in the profession. His findings also showed that the state will need to add an additional 8,500 full-time teachers in the next six years, a number that surprised many attendees in the audience. 

“We know it’s clear that teachers and leaders are the number one and number two factors that impact student learning in a school,” Dr. Burns said. “So, my challenge today for us is to start thinking about how we can transform teacher preparation.” 

While presenting data that shows a low level of diversity of individuals working in education, Dr. Burns shared an observation he was “struck by” while visiting various schools on Florida’s east coast. He said he was happy to see schools that had specific career pathways available to students, such as fire, law and engineering academies, but the fact that there were no teaching academies in the region disappointed him. 

“Schools are the economic engines for some communities,” Dr. Burns said. “It’s time to elevate how important the work is of a teacher.” 

Following his speech was a group of panelists who further explored topics related to the theme by answering questions that were submitted by audience members. Panelists included Michael Grego, Ed.D., Superintendent for Pinellas County Schools; Kurt Browning, Superintendent for Pasco County Schools and Jeff Eakins, Superintendent for Hillsborough County Public Schools. 

Dr. Robert Knoeppel, professor and dean of the College of Education, moderated conversations as panelists took turns sharing their thoughts and ideas. 

Eakins, who has served as superintendent since 2015, said having educators who build relationships with their students is pivotal in today’s classrooms. 

“Ultimately we want to get results from our students,” Eakins said. “And you’re not gonna get results until you understand what makes them tick.” 

As the discussion explored what students need to thrive in the classroom, Dr. Burns emphasized the need for clinical experiences. 

“When I first started teaching, I wasn’t that good my first or second year,” Dr. Burns said. “It took some practice and working with high quality teachers. So, I really think it’s an art and a science, but a part of that science is practice.” 

Dr. Grego discussed an issue that hinders future educators’ efforts towards preparing to enter the classroom. From the focus groups he’s organized, Dr. Grego said he observed most teachers entering the field feeling uncomfortable in executing what’s required of them.

“We have elementary teachers who have taken a few courses in science and math and are then expected to teach the Florida standard,” Dr. Grego said. “There’s a gap in terms of the content knowledge, and we need to work together to figure out how to close that gap.” 

As questions from the audience rolled in, the issue of teacher shortages was also brought to light. 

Browning expressed how this had been a huge problem in Pasco County Schools, but through the efforts of his team, he has been able to lower the number of vacancies by the hundreds. After identifying root causes, Browning said his district was able to approach the issue with a clearer lens. 

“We revamped our entire hiring process. We’ve done more job fairs, both instructional and not instructional. We’ve also had to bump up our sub salary,” Browning said. 

When speaking on the impact open teaching positions have had in his county, Eakins mentioned how the day-to-day responsibilities of teachers and administrators shifts when classes need to be covered.

“(Instructional) coaches and mentors are now having to go into classrooms to make sure our students have the very best educators in front of them,” Eakins said. “Everybody’s work in our district changes and becomes more complex when we have vacancies in our classrooms.”

When talking about bridging the gap to fill spots in classrooms and prepare effective teachers, the panelists agreed that strengthening community partnerships is necessary. With regard to hiring, Browning mentioned opening opportunities for staff in schools who are not teachers could also make a difference. 

“Improving the pipeline for non-instructional staff who want to come into the instructional side through a weekend or a night program is critical,” Browning said. “I think there are folks out there that will be great teachers.” 

As conversations came to a close, it became evident that there are many answers to how leaders in education can better prepare the teachers of today and tomorrow. Nevertheless, Eakins words served to further affirm that change is carried out when all join forces. 

“We don’t do anything alone in this profession,” Eakins said. “It has to be side-by-side.”