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Between the coronavirus pandemic, staffing shortages, and legislative initiatives, it has been a particularly difficult time for some teachers. We asked some about their biggest challenges, and we're sharing what they had to say, in their own words.

Tallahassee isn't asking what teachers think. So they started a podcast

Podcasting teachers Philip Belcastro and Brennen Pickett sit at a kitchen table in front of microphones as they record
Ramsey Aziz
High school English teachers Philip Belcastro (left) and Brennen Pickett sit at Belcastro's kitchen table to record an episode of their podcast.

The idea for the PCTA FYRE podcast, out weekly on Spotify, arose due to the vast amount of legislative changes in Florida affecting teacher pay, class sizes, curriculum and more.

Overworked and underpaid, public school teachers in Florida are dealing with a slew of new laws restricting what can and cannot be taught, not to mention large class sizes, staff shortages, threats to unions, and more standardized testing than ever before.

A pair of high school English teachers has decided to tackle these issues in a new weekly podcast.

The hosts are two millennials, both in their 30s, both English teachers at St. Petersburg High School.

"I'm constantly thinking about what's going on in Tallahassee," said co-host Brennen Pickett, a native Floridian who has been teaching for six years.

Pickett added that his wife came up with the idea for the podcast because all the legislative changes pouring out of the state capitol were causing an "existential crisis" for him, and talking about it might help.

His co-host is Philip Belcastro, who grew up in Long Island, New York, and is in his third year of teaching in Florida.

"What are educators most concerned about? It really is just everything! I mean we haven't gotten a win in really anything," said Belcastro, who happened to have the necessary podcasting gear on hand already.

It's titled PCTA's FYRE podcast, in a nod to the local union, the Pinellas Classified Teachers Association, of which the hosts are active members, and FYRE stands for Florida's Young Remarkable Educators.

Four teachers sit around a table covered in a red and white checkered tablecloth, with microphones in front of them.
Ramsey Aziz
Each week, other teachers join the podcast to talk about issues

Their first show in January began with the duo asking fellow teachers what it was like to go to a school board meeting, a day after the district banned a Toni Morrison novel, The Bluest Eye, from county high schools.

"When I first got there my fight or flight instinct was immediately triggered," said Anna Margiotta, a chemistry teacher at St. Petersburg High.

"I entered the parking lot and saw two people holding a 'Thank you, DeSantis' flag and another person holding a sign that had lots of things on it, but it essentially said 'Stop grooming our kids.'

"And I'm a non-binary teacher in Florida so that was not fun to see. And then, overall impressions — it was very stressful to be there, anxiety-inducing, but also, like, boring and infuriating," Margiotta said.

"I always find it quite eye-opening too, just how much some people just despise teachers. Like the grooming stuff. You see that, you're like, wait, I heard about this, but wow," said Pickett.

"That was like kind of my whole thing, when I spoke. I was like, Wait a minute. What?" said Belcastro.

"So I texted one of my friends about the grooming sign and she said, 'Our local barbers don't deserve that,' " said another guest teacher, Kelsey Donegan, inciting giggles from the others around the table.

They laugh, because they have to. Every week on the podcast, they tackle tough issues, like a bill called HB 1 moving through the state legislature that aims to vastly expand private school vouchers.

"I personally think that with the voucher program, that looks like it's probably going to get passed," said Lee Bryant, a recent guest on the podcast who has been teaching social studies for 28 years.

"The public school systems are going to be less funded and less funded and less funded, to the point of possible collapse. And we will see what happened in other places, like in New Orleans, after [Hurricane] Katrina. And in Chile, where the public school systems ceased to exist, and it is all privatized. Then they realize that the privatization doesn't work. And they're going to have to rebuild the public school system again, which is going to be very expensive," said Bryant.

Brennen Pickett wears headphones and speaks into an orange microphone
Ramsey Aziz
Co-host Brennen Pickett said what's happening at the state capitol is always on his mind, and his wife gave him the idea to start podcast to talk about it.

Lifting income limits so that anyone can apply for school vouchers for private school will siphon off $4 billion from the annual funding for public schools statewide, public school advocates have warned.

The plan will also send more students who need services that private schools may not provide, into already crowded public school classrooms, Belcastro said, recalling how one mother at a school board meeting recently spoke about how her child was rejected from private school because they had diabetes and the school did not want the risk or liability.

"Public school is going to take all of these kids," said Belcastro.

"So if you're giving public schools all of these kids that have special needs, or additional needs, and our class sizes are getting bigger, and bigger and bigger, and our instructional staff and support staff is getting fewer and fewer and fewer, you're literally setting up the dominoes," Belcastro added.

"That's just kind of a system that they're getting ready to build. And we see it because we work in this every day."

Another topic on the podcast: standardized testing.

"It's destroyed our schools and I would say it has destroyed our schools, because it takes up so much time," said English teacher Shannon Vincent in a recent podcast episode.

"In 2012, my Center for Gifted Studies English 1 honors students were able to read eight books in a year. I'm sorry, nine. By 2017, we were down to two," she said.

Discussing complicated issues without easy solutions, the co-hosts inject a steady dose of humor into their conversations, which are also peppered with pop culture references to Beavis and Butthead, and the J.R.R. Tolkien series, The Lord of the Rings.

"You can pick any battle — the Battle of Five Armies, the Battle of Helm's Deep — but you know, we kind of feel that way. That we are in a bit of a situation where our backs are up against the walls," said Belcastro.

He hopes that letting people know the teachers' perspective, will encourage more people to speak up in support of public schools and vote accordingly.

Belcastro said he does not fear retaliation for being vocal.

"I rent, I don't have a family or a significant other or anything like that. So, for me, I don't really have anything to lose. I might as well stand up, right?

"Another phrase that we kind of hear, just among our group of people is [it's better to] die on your feet than live on your knees. Just go out swinging," said Belcastro.

"Almost every single thing being pushed out by Tallahassee has me having fever dreams," said Pickett. "The idea that I'm going to possibly lose my union and lose my contract — that bothers me a lot."

Both Belcastro and Pickett say they are considering leaving Florida to teach elsewhere, but they haven't yet.

"I don't know if I'm going to be sticking around much longer but also I just think if I don't say anything and don't at least try, then what am I going to tell people later on? That I just gave up? " Pickett asked.

"I feel like this is kind of like a last stand."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.