Giving education a push Teaching: Crowded schools have turned teachers into "floaters" who roam from room to room. Their home bases are carts stacked high with educational materials.

February 22, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

These teachers have nicknames like "bag lady" and "teacher on wheels." Their classrooms sometimes crash into students, or each other, in the hallways.

In the Baltimore area and around the nation, they are officially called "floaters," teachers who roam from room to room when schools are too crowded for them to have their own.

Instead, their home base is a cart, stacked with books, calculators, pencil sharpeners, video cameras, posters, lost-and-found items, hall passes, sometimes even test tubes and microscopes -- as much as they can push.

"It's like living out of a suitcase -- you're always packing and unpacking," said Norah Storey, a teacher at Deer Park Middle and Magnet School in Randallstown, where 20 of 87 teachers are floating this year.

Middle and high schools have traditionally floated a small number of teachers to maximize space during teachers' off-periods.

But as enrollments explode and schools add specialized programs, large-scale floating has become a necessity. At some schools, more than a quarter of the staff are without rooms.

The problem is repeated in pockets throughout the region, though districts don't keep countywide statistics. At Anne Arundel County's North County High, for example, 19 of 96 teachers float; at Carroll County's Liberty Heights High, seven of 78 float.

Baltimore County, poised for a major school construction program in the next few years, posts some of the largest numbers of floaters: 40 of 128 teachers at Perry Hall High, 18 of 76 at Franklin High and 26 of 96 at Dulaney High, though about 10 Dulaney teachers float for reasons other than crowding.

Beyond the disorganization and physical exhaustion, educators are most troubled by the impact on learning. Teachers say that time is wasted setting up and packing up, and children who need extra help have trouble finding their teacher after class.

Some floaters have even shifted their teaching styles and abandoned innovative hands-on techniques because they can't cart around the needed materials, can't write on someone else's blackboard and can't rearrange children's desks to fit their own lessons.

Leslie Charles, a social studies teacher at Deer Park Middle, now uses more of the lecture approach, rather than forming groups to work on projects such as puzzles featuring countries.

A way of life

Floating is a way of life for performing arts teacher and second-year floater Andrea Hartman, who demonstrates remarkable good humor about her plight.

"My teacher friends say they can tell the kind of day I'm having by the way I push my cart. If I'm upright, it's a good day. If I'm crouched down, it's not a wonderful day. The worst is when I'm dragging it behind me."

Hartman pushes a three-tiered metal cart stacked with materials that reach as high as her 5-foot-1 inch frame: a boombox, extension cord, videotapes, bongo drums, notebooks, a bucket and sponge, electric stapler, play scripts and clown hats.

"I need a truck," said the admitted pack rat, negotiating the hallway on her way to lunch duty Wednesday.

"The only disadvantage to having a cart this big is sometimes the kids are shorter and if you get in the hall too late, you encounter kids you can't see, little speed bumps."

Floaters such as Hartman devise their own systems to stay afloat. On her cart is a bicycle horn that makes a funny noise.

" 'Excuse me please' doesn't work," she said.

Rolling into comedy

Baltimore County cart lore is rich with amusing stories: teachers losing their carts after pupils, often eager to help, volunteered to wheel them. Teachers taking the wrong cart by accident. Floaters who had to push carts outside, across the grass, and lift them up steps into trailer-classrooms. The music floater at Franklin Middle whose piano had to be pushed from room to room.

At Deer Park Middle, some of the shortest floaters disappear behind books and papers piled high, giving the appearance of a cart moving on its own. And there are the cart wars: two floaters trying to pass each other in the hallway.

"Usually the person with the biggest cart wins," Hartman said. "I'm usually the biggest."

Most students, having lived with floaters so long, see nothing unusual about it.

"They get in your way in the hallway," said Deer Park student Shannon Simpson, 13, with a shrug. "Sometimes they crash into students when you're not looking. They get on your nerves.

"One of my teachers forgets stuff a lot -- tests, papers. We won't be able to get them until the next day because she doesn't have them on her cart."

Sean Quinn, 13, is more sympathetic. "I have no problem with floating teachers. They don't hit me and I don't hit them."

Floaters with carts might complain, but they are lucky to have carts. At Franklin Middle, floaters can't push carts because the building has five levels and no elevators.

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