Frustration with the school district has no place in teacher Larry Hickman's Lakewood Ranch High classroom

kbergen@bradenton.comNovember 25, 2012 

MANATEE

Larry Hickman dons an Afro wig, aviator sunglasses and a peace sign necklace as he moves effortlessly from lab station to lab station in his marine biology classroom. He guides two students who had botched an experiment comparing the density of freshwater and saltwater. He holds up molecules -- Styrofoam balls and toothpicks -- and asks students what bonds with what.

Here's what Hickman's students don't know about the enthusiastic teacher of their honors marine science class, the man who has no problem representing the 1970s for Lakewood Ranch High School's homecoming spirit week.

He's 56 and makes $41,000. That's a few thousand more than the district's starting salary of $38,500 and several thousand less than he made before two salary cuts in the past five years. He tutors students in a hospital

homebound program for extra cash.

Sometimes, because of budget cuts, Hickman dips into his own pocket to buy supplies for his science labs or equipment for the aquariums that line his classroom. He doesn't mind. It's what teachers do, he says.

And since 2011, his fate as a teacher is determined by a new evaluation system based on state mandates that judge Hickman as an effective or ineffective teacher.

This evaluation depends more than ever on how his students perform on standardized tests, and it uses a statistical model to predict what students should score on FCAT tests based on their previous test scores and a few other factors.

But that model can't predict if students will skip his class or refuse to participate. And there are no standardized tests for marine biology, so Hickman's evaluation is tied to how well his students perform on core curriculum tests that focus on reading and math -- two subjects he doesn't teach.

This system already determines whether Hickman can keep a job he has had for 13 years. Soon, it could decide his salary.

And it's complicated.

"It's safe to say most teachers don't understand it," said Manatee Education Association business agent Bruce Proud, who helped draft the document with a committee after the state called for rapid implementation of new standards in December 2010. "Nor do administrators."

Hickman is one of many teachers who struggle with the changes. Like other teachers, he loves his job, but its future is less certain. And he believes that administrators who earn more than him are failing to lead the district. The combination, Hickman says, can be infuriating.

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Hickman was nervous. A small part of him wondered if he might lose his high school teaching job for what he was about to say.

The thought of losing his job over something so simple -- speaking his mind -- would later strike him as absurd. But that's what happens when you've lost faith in the system that supports you, he says now. You can start to question everything.

Hickman didn't sound nervous on the night of the Sept. 24 school board meeting, when he strode up the center aisle to speak during public comments. Instead, his voice was angry, controlled and direct.

He spoke about the night that then-superintendent Tim McGonegal resigned over a budget deficit caused by district overspending in the millions. The school board had scrambled at that Sept. 10 meeting, unsure of what to do.

He spoke of irony -- explaining that teachers are held to "unfeasible" evaluation systems while incompetence at the top goes unchecked.

"If I delivered a lesson plan like you delivered your job that night, I would be rated as a highly ineffective teacher," Hickman said. "We have lost all confidence in you and the county office."

Then he delivered a pointed message to those who, he said, have failed to adopt a balanced budget:

"Draft your resignation letter and turn it in tomorrow."

Then he turned and walked out the door.

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This year, Hickman watched district administrators fail to budget for $11.3 million in expenses during the 2011-12 school year. He watched a superintendent -- who knew about the shortfall for at least a month before telling the public -- resign in a letter read aloud by the board chairman at a school board meeting. And he watched school board members adopt an erroneous budget.

Hickman wants to do his job well; he has to do his job well. And he wants everyone in the district to do their job well.

"Who's evaluating them? What higher standards are they being held to?" Hickman said. "If they were, would we have the fiasco that's going on now?"

Hickman says teachers can't afford to stumble and keep their jobs. And Proud says the stakes have grown higher.

Today, teachers are observed more often and then classified according to four categories of effectiveness, he said. Their evaluations are divided into two parts: school-based evaluations and student learning, a standard mostly defined by standardized testing.

But when teachers like Hickman don't have a standardized test that correlates to what they teach, their personal success depends on factors out of their control.

"At this point we are looking at a schoolwide score, which is based on reading and math scores," Proud said. "But there are very few teachers that have a direct correlation to those."

Hickman might be evaluated based on his students' end-of-course test results for general biology, a class he occasionally teaches in addition to his marine-specific course.

How does that come together in the final evaluation?

"No clue," Hickman says.

And, as Hickman points out, tenure and experience mean little under the new system.

As of 2011, all new teachers are on an annual contract. Those previously tenured keep their old contracts, but they still have to be deemed "effective" or better to ensure their contract is renewed.

Teachers can choose to give up their tenure to receive merit pay and an annual contract. But it is not clear how the state or district would pay for those increases because no specific revenue source has been identified.

The new system requires more electronic paperwork for administrators, who also are required to observe teachers more. More responsibility falls on teachers to collect evidence, such as student records or assessments, to prove they are good teachers.

All of that requires time that teachers aren't directing toward their classrooms.

"It's becoming harder and harder to be a teacher," Hickman said. "We've got more paperwork. It's not just teaching your subject. There are not enough hours in the day to do all the things you need to do."

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But Hickman doesn't stop loving his job. Teaching, he says, doesn't stop being rewarding.

And frustration at the system never enters Hickman's classroom.

"You stay upbeat and positive in front of your kids and for your kids," he says.

Hickman acts a little goofy as a teacher, and his teenage students clearly respond to that.

"All right, we're going scuba diving," he tells his students. They all don their safety goggles.

A girl in a toga and headband has to adjust her Spirit Week costume to complete a lab comparing boiling points of alcohol, freshwater and saltwater.

"You are messing up my goddess look," she says as she rolls up her sleeves and adjusts her headband to accommodate her goggles. But she never lets go of her thermometer, as Hickman has instructed, and she ends up guiding her lab partners.

Hickman makes sure the group is on its way, and then moves on. He reigns calm here in the classroom.

Lakewood Ranch High School Principal Linda Nesselhauf has heard people say there is a morale problem among teachers. But she doesn't see it.

"How do I measure morale on campus when everybody shows up eager and ready to do their job?" she says. "Education is something that everyone thinks they know. But there are different ways at looking at it."

Hickman understands that. While trust in the county administration has suffered greatly, he sees an upside: an even tighter collaboration with his Lakewood Ranch school family.

Several teachers in the district thanked him for speaking out at the September meeting. Last year, he stood outside the district administration building with 300 teachers to protest a retroactive pay cut. Teachers have become his family; they are his closest friends.

And his students still fuel his energy; they amaze him every day.

"It's the satisfaction, the look in their faces, having them ask you questions," Hickman says. "I'm helping them see their direction and dreams in life."

In the meantime, Hickman hopes for things big and small. For a few extra dollars for some advanced equipment for water testing. For the community to turn its focus from school board blunders and into the classroom. For a student's -- or teacher's -- worth not to be determined so much by a standardized test.

He smiles as he sits at a desk and looks around his empty classroom at humming aquariums and aquatic posters.

"What do teachers want?" Hickman says. "Just let us teach."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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