WHEN Dee Dee Noonan decided to become a teacher, salary wasn't an issue: She was in eighth grade. Even with her first teaching job, she didn't consider the pay. ``I loved teaching, I wanted to be a teacher, and - by golly - that's what I was going to do,'' she says.
But today, as Florida's teacher of the year, Mrs. Noonan sees higher salaries as one of many sure-fire ways to improve the nation's education system.
``If we're going to attract the best and the brightest,'' says Mrs. Noonan in an interview at Gulf Breeze High School, ``you're going to have to pay them competitive entry salaries.''
The social-studies teacher goes on to say that salaries and benefits have improved in the past five years but are still not satisfactory. Teachers have been given ``all this additional responsibility,'' she says - the nation's problems have become the schools' problems.
Noonan should know. She's been at the pulse of the high school classroom for 15 years, starting in her hometown of Huntsville, Ala., moving on to Las Vegas, Nev., where she married and had her two children (now 6 and 9), then settling in Florida.
Florida is often considered a magnifying glass for the nation - grappling with explosive population, drugs, immigration, poverty, racial tensions, teacher shortages. It has some of the nation's highest dropout, crime, and teenage-pregnancy rates.
These problems have always been present, says Noonan, but ``we haven't had them in the numbers the we have now.'' And it follows that because of those numbers, the role of schools has changed ``drastically.''
``Schools aren't supposed to provide you with just an academic education - they're also supposed to provide you with a social education and a moral education,'' says Noonan, who holds a master's degree in school curriculum.
Noonan points to courses in sex education, drug education, and AIDS education. Now gun education will be taught in elementary schools because of the high number of accidents involving children and firearms. ``We're also taking a look at dealing with crack cocaine babies on top of all this,'' she says.
Like many educators, Noonan stresses the importance of reaching disadvantaged or ``at-risk'' children. This nip-it-in-the-bud attitude translates into support programs for young children.
Noonan also advocates national teacher certification and a restructuring of the teacher-education system. ``Get rid of the dinosaurs,'' she exclaims - the ``outdated'' colleges of education that ``don't teach you how to deal with these problems.''
EVEN children not considered at-risk are under a lot of pressure, Noonan says. For example, a child with both parents living at home is likely to come home to an empty house because both parents work. ``That gives kids an awful lot of time to do things maybe they shouldn't be doing. ... So the schools are starting to pick up the slack.''
``[Children] are bombarded with technology,'' she continues, ``all these outside influences encourage them to do the very things that we're trying to keep them away from.''
She also worries that students are being driven by the allure of the dollar. More than ever, they're holding down after-school jobs for spending money. Many say they want careers in business, not science, math, or education.
Are parents falling short? No, says Noonan, ``many don't know how to get involved.'' Parents' attitudes and expectations count for a lot, she says, and it's up to schools and communities to work together to involve parents.
Involvement is something close to Noonan's heart. In the words of her principal, Richard Mancini, ``She goes to great lengths to bring history alive to her students,'' and ``goes way out of her way in terms of her involvement with students in and out of school.''
Noonan speaks of herself as being research-oriented and field-oriented. She takes her law classes on field trips to courts and even maximum-security prisons.
Last January she took a group of students to Washington for a first-hand view of the government and to witness the inauguration. Some got to speak with the president and several cabinet members. Recalling the tears she saw in some students' eyes during the ceremony, Noonan considers the trip one of the most meaningful experiences she's had as a teacher.
``We do a lot of activities outside of school, and I really make a point to get to know my kids - it's important to me,'' says Noonan, who also heads the school's yearbook project.
She likes to know their families, their aspirations. ``It helps me understand them and deal with them better in the classroom,'' she says, adding ``I think that's why all teachers should try to have this type of relationship with their kids.''