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A new school year brings fears, uncertainty and optimism for Florida teachers

 Pineview Elementary School
Anna Jones
WFSU Public Media
Pineview Elementary School

This year, much more than in years past, the people charged with taking care of students are under a microscope — and it’s taking a personal, and professional toll on public education.

It’s the first day of school in Leon County and the seniors at Chiles High School are carrying on what’s become a tradition—tee shirts and blue jeans and shorts. They’re smiling and happy. There’s hugs and reconnection with friends. But that excitement though isn’t quite resounding with everyone.

“In the past I used to feel so excited. Especially when you’re a young teacher, any young teacher feels like they can change the world. But when the world is changing around you and what you’ve come to know as a teacher, it can dampen your spirit," says Anthony, a college professor and U.S. History teacher at a Florida high school.

Florida teachers now risk their teaching certifications under new state laws that allow parents to file challenges against them. It’s an environment that’s led to an increase in teacher resignations across the state.

“I think there are a lot of people who want to be teachers, says Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar. " I don’t think there are a lot of people willing to go into a classroom in the environment that’s been created here in the state of Florida.”  

According to a tally by the FEA, there are nearly 7,000 instructor vacancies, and more than 4,000 openings for school support staff.

“There’s just a lot of bad policy in Florida," says Spar, "policy that keeps pay very low. Policy that really disrespects the profession as a whole, that doesn’t allow for teachers to teach the way they know is best, that doesn’t value their educational experience. And that’s why people are walking out of the profession in record numbers.”

The exit from public schools has been fueled by an onslaught of new laws and rules over the past two years that govern what teachers can teach and discuss in their classrooms. The restrictions include a blanket ban on instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-8, a new law that restricts the use of preferred names and pronouns in public schools, another that curbs discussion of hot-button issues like race and discrimination, and further restrictions on access to certain kinds of books and classroom materials. With all the risk…why remain a teacher, at all?

Anthony, the history teacher, chuckles as he tries to explain.

"If that’s the question…I don’t really know," he says, "but I’ll tell you this: no one becomes a teacher to become a millionaire. No one becomes a teacher to make a whole lot of money. you become a teacher because you want to make an impact on the future and on the students in your classroom, man. You want to have a positive effect on the community to which you serve.”

The confusion recently reached a new peak over a disagreement on how to teach Advanced Placement psychology. The course contains lessons on some of the so-called “banned” subjects, like gender identity and sexual orientation. At first, the state told districts to skip that material. But the College Board, which created the course, pushed back and notified the state that the class wouldn’t count if the subjects weren’t taught. Districts across Florida started dropping AP Psychology with just a week left before the start of a new year. Now, Florida’s education officials have backtracked, saying the class can be taught in its entirety. Leon County schools will be offering the class.

“We’re committed to providing our students the course they signed up for, which is Advanced Placement Psychology. We’ve had a bit of a roller coaster ride over the last week over how to go about doing that," says Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

He’s no stranger to the state’s crackdowns, having been the subject of an investigation that was triggered after he expressed his political views in opposition to state leadership.

“All our teachers are on board [with the course]. They’re scared, they’re fearful a parent will lodge a complaint against them and professional practices will launch an investigation into them like they did to me because of my personal views a year ago. But we have reassured them they will not be in this alone.”  

Other districts have dropped AP psychology all together, despite the state’s reassurances.

Meanwhile, there are still more fights. Teachers also enter this school year with a new set of standards on how to teach African American history. It’s the result of Florida’s so-called “STOP WOKE” act which places restrictions on how topics of race, history and discrimination are discussed and taught. Lines in the standards say, enslaved people, “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Black conservatives, liberals, and even Vice President Kamala Harris have called on the governor’s administration to remove the offending language. The state has yet to do so.

Despite it all, Anthony, the history teacher, says he’ll keep on going in his profession…as long as it will keep him.

"You know, I plan to be an educator for as long as I can still be me in the classroom, and produce good citizens in the classroom.” 
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.