With his approval ratings anemic, Rick Scott launched a "listening tour" this week — and found himself in Orlando on Thursday, sitting in a circle of small chairs with eight elementary-school teachers.
His goal: to listen.
Only first, he wanted to talk.
Scott would get to the teachers' concerns soon enough. But first he wanted to tell them about the challenges he faces as governor — as well as his commitment to public education.
Anyone who doubted him could just read the sign that the governor's staff had placed above his head: "PROMISE KEPT, $1 BILLION for EDUCATION."
The sign made no mention of the $1.3 billion Scott had cut the year before.
It was a bit like a mugger stealing $40 from your purse — and then seeking praise for returning $30.
Still, I applaud Scott for actually getting his hands dirty.
For the first nine months of his tenure, he treated public schools as if they were radioactive. He stayed far away from the campuses and the teachers inside whose take-home pay had been cut.
But now Scott says he's ready to listen. And the teachers at Fern Creek Elementary, just north of downtown Orlando, were ready to talk.
If they had a unified message, it was: We do so much more than teach.
And they do.
Most of Fern Creek's students come from poor families.
Teacher Roxanne Schreffler talked about dealing with 5-year-olds who come to school hungry, or were born to drug-addicted parents. Some kids suffer from bipolar disorder. Others are afraid to go home when the last bell rings.
Schreffler loves to teach but said she must act as a social worker before she can get to academia. And that she doesn't have enough help to do it all. "I know what I'm doing," Schreffler said. "And the kids did well. But they could have done so much better."
Scott listened. And nodded.
Other teachers talked about wasting time on bureaucratic paperwork and trying to satisfy a convoluted mass of expectations — as many as 61 different criteria upon which they are graded.
The governor perked up at that point, saying he agreed that expectations should be conveyed in easy-to-understand metrics. He suggested no more than five.
The teachers nodded back. All agreed: Accountability is needed, but the current system is flawed.
They also found common ground when it came to parental expectations. Both Scott and the teachers wanted more of it.
Scott was less sympathetic to complaints of budget cuts, low salaries and nonexistent raises.
He told the teachers that everyone asks him for more money. And he's right. What Scott didn't say, however, was that some of those who ask him for more money get it — especially big business.
Last year, when Scott proposed record cuts to public schools, he also proposed $333 million in new tax breaks for corporations — and talked of ultimately giving breaks totaling $2 billion.
Beyond money, many teachers said they simply wanted respect. They said they worked 50- and 60-hour weeks — and loved doing it for the kids — but that it was demoralizing to have state leaders treat them more like punching bags than valued professionals.
Scott said he understood — and that he wants to do better.
The big question is: How?
The governor repeatedly said he was listening. Never once did he say he would act. Or how. And that's what matters.
I credit Rick Scott for stepping into the classrooms. And he will reap similar accolades from other pundits and parents around the state — along with coveted photo ops of him standing with teachers and reading to children.
But I know eight teachers who will be watching closely to see whether action begins when the listening tour ends.
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