Photo: Brian Tietz
Floridian of the Year 2019
The new Florida teacher
Three years into teaching, Jeff Becker is already ‘feeling the weight of the job.’
As a copy machine salesman in his early 20s, Jeff Becker was pulling in nearly six figures. “I was making a ton of money, hand over fist,” he recalls, but there was a problem. “It just wasn’t fun. I hated my job.”
He returned to school and got a master’s degree in elementary and secondary school counseling and became a middle school guidance counselor. A few years later, he landed a position as a video production teacher at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral — a job he loves.
Becker’s school day typically starts around 5:45 a.m. “It’s the only time I get to work on stuff,” he says. When his students arrive at 7 a.m., he lectures for about 10 minutes and then sets them to work on their video projects. Twice a week, the students produce an episode of the Gator News program, covering everything from homecoming to school sports to poetry contests — but it’s not a traditional buttoned-up newscast.
Under Becker’s guidance, students have transformed the program into an edgy, YouTube-friendly show punctuated with flashy graphics and pulsating dance music. Episodes are about six to 10 minutes long, made up of a series of mini segments stacked together. Without the “You- Tube-y” approach, Becker believes other students wouldn’t watch it. Kids today simply aren’t watching TV and broadcast news, he says — they spend all their time on social media.
The show — and Becker — are both getting rave reviews. The Gator News won best newscast at the 2018 Lee County Student Film and Television Awards, and Becker was chosen as Lee County’s Teacher of the Year. He’s also been named State of Florida Digital Educator of the Year.
He says his students come away from his class with more than just camera and editing skills. They learn that they can “reach the world with any message” they want. “Like if homelessness breaks your heart, now you know how to make a whole stinkin’ TV show about that — and you can influence millions of people with the skills you have.”
As chairman of the school’s Career and Technical Education Department, he also gets them thinking about college and the job market. During a recent field trip to Lee Health, a major health care provider in the region, Becker’s students learned about a wide array of professions. Next is a field trip to Full Sail University in Winter Park. The trips are especially important for Title 1 schools like Island Coast. “A lot of these kids, they don’t know what a college looks like. They’ve not been on a college campus,” he says.
Three years into his teaching career, Becker, 37, is also feeling the “weight of the job.” He says he’d love to be able to watch a little Netflix with his wife at night, but after eating dinner and getting his 1-year-old and 4-year-old ready for bed, he’s usually working on lesson plans. “If you’re a teacher and you only worked your contracted hours, your classes would be terrible, and your students would not succeed as a result.”
When he’s not teaching, Becker has a regular “side hustle,” giving motivational talks at teacher and student events. He says it’s the only way to “sock some money away” and not live paycheck to paycheck when you’re making $40,000 to $45,000 a year.
He worries about paying down his student loan debt. It totaled $48,000 in 2011, but on a teacher’s salary he couldn’t afford the $500 suggested monthly payment. He opted for an “income- based” repayment of $250 per month instead, but with interest, his tab has ballooned to $52,000.
Despite the challenges, Becker loves his job. “You’ll hear how hard teaching is, yes, but teaching is also arguably one of the best, most fulfilling careers you can be in.”
The average teacher salary for 10 months in Florida is 88% of what the average wage earner in Florida makes in a year. In many rural Florida counties, the average teacher pay beats that of the average worker. In Miami-Dade, it’s nearly identical, but not so in other large districts.
Florida’s teacher salaries are low compared to teacher pay even in low cost-of-living states. State leaders seem to have gotten the message. The Florida Council of 100, a group of business, academic and civic leaders, this year called for raising teacher pay to be competitive with that in high-performing states and other careers. Florida teacher pays ranks 46th nationally, according to the council.
In a sign of change, the state Department of Education in the last year said it will devote $15.8 million in federal funds — as much as $15,000 in supplements per teacher — to persuade proven teachers to work in D and F schools. The state also cut teacher certification exam fees, dropping the cost of some by $70 and others by nearly $118.
The most far-reaching proposal came in October from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who proposed raising minimum teacher salaries to $47,500. That’s a nearly $10,000 boost and $1,000 from what the average teacher earns now, let alone beginners. It would move Florida to second nationally from 26th in starting teacher pay.
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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