No room to call their own

Floaters: Teachers cart supplies to wherever there's enough space to teach students at overcrowded schools.

April 12, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

John Burghardt and Layne Restrick are professional nomads.

Every morning, they pack the tools of their work - pencils, folders, papers and books - onto metal carts and ply the crowded halls of Edgewood High School, where he teaches math and she English.

Floating teachers, as they're called, are among the growing number of Maryland teachers without a classroom, who carry lessons to students in backpacks, carts and wheeled suitcases.

They are a byproduct of rapid growth in suburban counties where school enrollments have swelled past capacity. When more teachers are hired to decrease classes to the state's preferred size of 25 students, they often outnumber classrooms.

So some use rooms whose teachers are away for a period or two for other duties.

"It's a challenge to try to keep stuff from disappearing and keep track of where I'm going. It's difficult for my students," Restrick, 23, said, adding that she keeps a small blue-glass lamp on her desk, which sits in the back of another teacher's classroom.

"If the blue light's on, I'm here," she said.

According to administrators, in Harford County as many as eight dozen teachers in the secondary schools are floaters. While several schools have one or two, others may have almost two dozen. Some choose floaters by putting volunteers' names in a hat; others leave the choice to department heads.

In the crowded schools of other fast-growing counties, floaters' numbers are also expanding. In Calvert and Carroll, where new high schools have opened recently or will open next year, dozens of teachers are on the move.

"You've got to fight the crowds, you've got to be to your class on time - and you've got to be prepared, and Katy-bar-the-door, it's got to be done," said Ron Laczkowski, an assistant principal at North Carroll High.

While floating teachers help reduce class sizes, little is known about whether such fluidity affects students. Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said he knows of no research on the subject.

But Donald Pyles, Carroll County's director of middle schools, said using floating teachers in middle schools is "not very desirable."

"Kids don't feel they have a home base, and in middle school, that's important," Pyles said.

Although secondary schools generally have some floating teachers - specialized courses are only taught to a small number of students - teachers still have an expectation that they should have a place to call home during the school day.

"They have things around them that they use for instruction," Pyles said, "certain kinds of maps, certain kinds of demonstration things, their files."

But David Volrath, Harford's director of secondary instruction, said having teachers cloistered in their classrooms has drawbacks, too.

"It allows people to become isolated and parochial," Volrath said, adding that having secondary teachers grouped into department offices, similar to a college setting, allows them more opportunity to share ideas.

The county's newly rebuilt Aberdeen High, set to open in the fall, is designed around the college concept of floating teachers, Volrath said. "Very few of the rooms are `owned' by teachers," he said.

For example, five teachers might share seven social studies classrooms, he said, allowing them to organize materials to keep in the classrooms and share responsibilities for decorating rooms - often an out-of-pocket expense.

Unless a teacher discusses floating, parents often aren't aware it's happening, said Deb Merlock, a vice president with the Harford County Council of PTAs, whose children attend Edgewood schools.

But when a student needs to check work or make up missed assignments, the trouble with floaters can quickly become apparent, said Laurie Sweeney, whose children attend Bel Air middle and high schools.

"The problem is trying to track them down," Sweeney said. "You never know where to find them."

In Calvert County, school officials also have been unable to keep up with the burgeoning demand for instructional space, despite installing trailers on many campuses.

All of the county's three high schools have between a dozen and two dozen teachers floating, said Robert Dredger, principal of Huntingtown High School, which is set to open this fall. "Floating is just a way of life here at this point," he said.

As unappealing as floating is to some teachers, he said, the alternative is no better.

"There's a way to solve floating - you just don't hire as many teachers," Dredger said. "Then class sizes are 35 instead of 25. But teachers, I don't think, would vote for that, or any informed educator."

Dredger said that when Huntingtown opens it could alleviate the need for many floating teachers - at least in the short term, he said.

Built to handle 1,500 students, the school's enrollment is projected to be 100 students beyond capacity within a year of opening.

"We'll probably all float again," he said. "That's just the way it goes in Calvert County."

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