Beth Rosenberg has taught roomfuls of elementary students for more than 30 years, and nothing seems to take the shine off of her enthusiasm for her chosen profession.

Not even the criticisms of those who assail teachers as overpaid and under-worked.

Teachers "know what we do, and we know how valuable it is, and we know how hard we work," said Rosenberg, who teaches fourth grade at Eshleman Elementary School in the Penn Manor School District.

Rosenberg is described by those who know her as a dedicated and respected educator. But her once widely respected profession has come under fire - from taxpayers who contend that teachers are too generously compensated, and from conservatives who are pushing for more school choice.

"Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?" was the headline of a recent New York Times article, which noted the characterization of teachers in the public discourse as "glorified baby sitters."

The much-publicized documentary film, "Waiting for 'Superman,' " blamed teachers, and particularly, teachers' unions, for failing schools.

As the battle raged in Wisconsin over collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public-sector employees, a pundit on a Fox business show dismissed teaching as a "part-time job," claiming that teachers are "done at 2:30 in the afternoon and they don't work summers."

This inspired Jon Stewart, on "The Daily Show," to deliver an ironic lecture about the "greed" of teachers. Stewart feigned dismay over their "special textbooks with all the answers in them," and the "shiny red apples" they get every day.

Jane Bray, dean of the School of Education at Millersville University, said many teachers feel demoralized by the teacher-bashing. "Teachers feel like they're being kicked around," she said.

Across the country, public officials have sought to reduce budget deficits by turning their sights on teacher salaries and benefits.

Republican state Rep. Scott Boyd, of West Lampeter Township, recently introduced legislation that would make it easier for school districts to furlough teachers, without regard to seniority, for economic reasons.

And Gov. Tom Corbett, who's seeking significant cuts in education spending, has asked public school employees to accept a pay freeze next year.

Last week, Hempfield School District teachers voted overwhelmingly to take a pay freeze, the first in the state to do so. And the Pennsylvania State Education Association called on all PSEA locals to consider doing the same.

"Did the teachers' union do it out of the kindness of their heart, or did they see the writing on the chalkboard?" asked one skeptical poster on TalkBack, the online forum of Lancaster Newspapers Inc.

Chuck Trupe, a former Eastern Lancaster County School District school board member, said "classroom teachers have my full support and respect. The vast majority of them work extremely hard and are teaching for the right reasons."

But taxpayers are faced with huge property tax bills, and they see teachers getting salary and benefit packages that are superior to their own, he said. "Bottom line in all of this is that the taxpayers are looking for a level of fairness."

Visible and near

Unlike other, more distant objects of taxpayer wrath - Wall Street bankers, for instance, or Washington politicians - teachers are visible and near.

In times such as these, when people are struggling financially, they look at teachers and other public employees, whose salaries are funded by tax dollars, and say, " 'Wait a minute, you're not suffering as much as we are,' " said Brenda Becker, superintendent of the Hempfield School District.

Teachers have been able to depend on yearly raises, relatively low-cost health coverage, and state-mandated pensions, while many other workers have seen their pensions dwindle, and their wages and benefits decline.

Becker said, "truly, I understand why there is a lot of anger" over school taxes. She said she thinks there needs to be a "total system overhaul" of the way public schools are funded.

Michael Leichliter, superintendent of Penn Manor School District, said he would like for there to be a "civil, public discourse" about teacher compensation and benefits.

"What we need is discussion and debate and consensus on what the needs in 2011 are, and how our laws need to change to make the system fairer," Leichliter said. "Demonizing teachers is not fair. It works well in 30-second sound bites, but it's not the answer."

And educators "can't really fight back," said Becker, of Hempfield, noting that to answer with the same fervor as critics "would be considered unprofessional."

Becker said some of the teacher-bashing is being fomented by champions of school choice, who want to use public money for private education. So they focus on bad teachers, and, in Pennsylvania, on "the small number of schools that aren't working," she said.

If a school was showing a pattern of not producing, "I would be the first in line to say, 'Shut that school down,' " she said, adding that it is unfair, however, to depict all public schools in a negative light, when most schools, particularly in Lancaster County, are performing well.

Conservative reaction

Nathan Benefield, director of policy research at the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, which advocates for school choice, countered that "even in the good public schools, you have students who are not being served."

Teacher-bashing doesn't make for "a healthy debate," he said. But when people read stories about, for instance, the suburban Philadelphia teacher who called her students "lazy whiners" in her blog, good teachers get lumped in with the bad.

Becker said she thinks the vilification of public schoolteachers has been difficult for many. "I think that many of them do understand that they are wearing targets on their backs right now, and that frustrates them because many of them are working harder than they've ever worked before."

Bray, of Millersville University, said that the pressures on teachers have "skyrocketed" in recent years.

This month, students are taking Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, which are intended to measure student achievement, in accordance with No Child Left Behind.

Most teachers welcomed the accountability that No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002, brought to education, but the high-stakes testing required by the law has been stressful for students and teachers alike, Bray said.

Moreover, the mainstreaming of students with special needs - though "a good thing," in Bray's view - has meant that regular-education teachers now must try to meet the needs of students whose abilities may vary greatly.

And special education teachers face an array of challenges, Bray said, noting that their paperwork load is ongoing and complicated and critical in ensuring their students' needs are met. And the protocols they have to follow are complex and often changing.

Monitoring progress

Cathy Cieslinski, an instructional support teacher at Hempfield's Centerville Elementary School, said that she and the other teachers there constantly monitor, and document, the progress of their students.

Instruction - and intervention, when needed - is driven by data, and collecting such data means that teachers do a great deal of paperwork, she said.

That paperwork generally gets done outside of school hours, because her "day is so wrapped around working with students and teachers and parents," she said.

Not only are teachers seeking to teach everyone from English-language learners to gifted students to students on the autism spectrum, but they are dealing with students who have to "overcome some very unbelievable difficulties ... having nothing to do with the books and learning," said Bray, of Millersville.

"Unfortunately in today's society, many students bring emotional and relational baggage to school with them each day," said Jeff Brenneman, a mathematics teacher at Hempfield High School, in an e-mail. "Often times, they look to teachers for a listening ear ... or a word of encouragement. We are not just called to challenge the motivated, but also to motivate those who face significant challenges outside of our school walls."

Becker said that "most teachers are good employees who go way above and beyond," to help their students. She said she thinks it's unfair when "educators are painted very broadly as being greedy."

She and other school administrators said that teachers not only are using their own money to buy classroom supplies, but they know teachers who have purchased school supplies for children in need - or who have discreetly paid the fees of students who wanted to play school sports.

And they said that their teachers, and other school personnel, collect money and goods for families who need everything from furniture to clothing to toiletries to heating fuel.

Leslie Rice, a mathematics teacher at Hempfield's Centerville Middle School, has been teaching for 20 years, but before she became a teacher, she worked as a data processing manager for a bank. With a college degree in math, she said she could be making more money in the private sector.

"Teaching is not a profession you go into for the money," Rice said, noting that she is a teacher because she takes joy in "seeing that little light go on," when a child figures out something he's been struggling to learn.

Cieslinski, of Centerville Elementary, said, "I don't think you can be in the profession today, unless you really have a passion for it."

Benefield, of the Commonwealth Foundation, said he thinks most teachers are "dedicated to their job." And he said he thinks that most teachers, though not all, put in long hours during the school year.

He said he doesn't consider teaching a part-time job - but because of summer vacation, he would describe it as a "part-of-the-year job."

Bray said she wishes the "naysayers of the teaching profession" could see how many teachers attend the Summer Institutes - graduate-level education courses - held at Millersville.

"The summer is the time when we go to school," Leslie Rice said.

The summer is not only when teachers do coursework - it's also when curriculum gets written, Bray said.

Penn Manor teacher Beth Rosenberg said she chooses to be in her classroom, getting it ready for the school year, by early August. "You can't just walk in on the first day of school," she said.

And once school starts, she said, she doesn't have "any free time until June."

Her work - doing lesson plans, grading papers, preparing report cards - often spills into her evenings and weekends.

When students are in the classroom, "You pretty much always have to be on," Rosenberg said.

A teacher's day doesn't allow for coffee breaks, or even more than one or two bathroom breaks. "You plan your bathroom breaks for when your kids are at specials," she said, noting that the job is "never-ending."

Hempfield's Jeff Brenneman said that many of his colleagues arrive at school more than an hour and a half before the school day starts. And many evenings, he noted, "after my own three children are tucked into bed, I take out school work at home and spend hours at night and during the weekends grading projects and tests, preparing for the next day of instruction, or reading school e-mails."

Brenneman said teachers "give up planning periods, flex periods, or lunch time to assist students with make-up work and to help students who need additional support. Teaching is a full-time job that requires a great deal of work beyond the school day."

Still, he said, the rewards of the job make up for its demands. "There is nothing professionally that gives me more satisfaction than convincing students that, with a little hard work and determination, they are capable of dreaming bigger or rising to a higher level of understanding, accomplishment, or success than they thought previously possible," he said.

Beth Rosenberg said she recently told a high school volunteer in her classroom that if he wanted to go into teaching, " 'Be prepared for it to be all-consuming. It's a lot of hard work. And if you're not willing to put in a lot of hard work, you shouldn't do it.' "

Suzanne Cassidy is a staff writer for the Sunday News. Her e-mail address is scassidy@lnpnews.com.