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labor Florida Teachers Besieged by Draconian Laws

Teachers say they’re feeling more disrespected, unappreciated and under attack than ever before by new laws championed by Governor Ron DeSantis

Carol Cleaver, LaTonya Starks,Brandt Robinson. Florida teachers are feeling anxious, confused and beaten down by DeSanta's laws.,Meggan Haller,Nabil Harb, Zack Whitman, The Guardian

Adam Tritt, a high school English teacher in Palm Bay, Florida, was shocked when his school’s librarian – eager to comply with Florida’s new law restricting “inappropriate” books in schools – removed one-third of the books on his classroom shelves, including a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that was not on her list of approved books.

Vivian Taylor, a seventh-grade teacher in Miami, says she was told to hardly discuss Emmett Till – the 14-year-old victim of one of the US’s most notorious lynchings – in her civics classes because under Florida’s year-old “stop woke” law, “people say you’re not supposed to talk about that because it will make children uncomfortable”.

Carol Cleaver, a middle-school science teacher in Pensacola, says that when LGBTQ+ students who are feeling hopeless or depressed approach her to discuss their emotional troubles, she, different from before, often balks at telling them about a crisis support hotline for young LGBTQ+ people. She fears that if she mentions it, she will get in trouble under the Parental Rights in Education bill (known as the “don’t say gay” law) backed by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.

As the summer holidays approach, Florida teachers are feeling anxious, confused and beaten down by new laws, championed by DeSantis, that limit how issues of race can be taught, what teachers can say about sex, especially about homosexuality, and what books are permitted in schools. In promoting this legislation, DeSantis angered many teachers when he denounced “indoctrination in our schools” and let his press secretary accuse teachers of “grooming” students.

In interviews with the Guardian, Florida teachers said they’re feeling more disrespected, unappreciated and under attack than ever before, worried that they’ll be fired or otherwise punished if they run afoul of the controversial – and often vague – new laws. As a result of these laws and their emboldening parents to challenge and even castigate teachers, many Florida teachers say they’re considering either giving up teaching or finding a teaching job in another state – all when Florida, which ranks 48th among states in teacher pay according to a recent study, is already suffering from a shortage of 5,300 teachers. Florida teachers complain that DeSantis – who is expected to announce plans to run for the Republican presidential nomination – has targeted them as part of a culture war aimed at winning over GOP voters.

“All this is just one more rock on the scale toward leaving,” said Arian Dineen, a middle school teacher in Stuart, 100 miles north of Miami. “I have many friends and colleagues who are genuinely afraid.” Afraid, for instance, of being accused of teaching critical race theory, an esoteric theory about race, rarely taught outside universities, that a DeSantis-backed law bars schools from teaching.

“There are many more important things for the governor to be worrying about,” Dineen added. “We have a housing affordability crisis, a health insurance crisis, a housing insurance crisis. It’s absurd for the governor and legislature to be worried about teachers indoctrinating students on things we don’t even discuss in class.”

In signing the “stop woke” bill, DeSantis said: “No one should be instructed to feel … shamed because of their race. In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools.” When DeSantis signed the “don’t say gay” bill, he said parents “should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as five years old”.

DeSantis’s office did not respond to questions from the Guardian about Florida teachers’ complaints about the new laws.

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Latonya Starks, a fourth-grade teacher in Fort Myers, said there was one big reason keeping her from taking a teaching job in another state: she is waiting for her 17-year-old son to finish high school.

“We’ve seen this chipping away at how people view us as educators,” Starks said. “There’s this supposed woke agenda, and we’re supposedly teaching students to hate themselves because they’re white. All I know is that myself and my colleagues, we present the facts, present true and honest history, but many people are believing what they’re hearing from DeSantis and anyone in his wheelhouse. That’s been really hard. You feel like people are looking at you like you’re doing something not so nice to their kids.”

Starks said that ever since DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill 14 months ago, she’s been anxious and unsure about what to do when pre-teen girls tell her they are having their first menstrual period without fully understanding what was happening to them. Starks fears getting into trouble under the new law, which prohibits teachers from saying anything about sex that is not “age-appropriate”.

“Before I would have explained everything and said, ‘It’s OK, sweetheart. I’ll get you to the clinic,’” Starks said. “Now I feel nervous about what I can and can’t say.”

Brandt Robinson, a high school history teacher in Palm Harbor, north-west of Tampa, still feels the sting from when an activist for the conservative lobbying group Moms for Liberty berated him at a school board meeting, accusing him of teaching critical race theory and “engaging in Marxist indoctrination of our youth”. She also asserted that part of Robinson’s African American history curriculum was “inherently racist”.

“There have been some moments of real anxiety and even some terror,” Robinson said. “The point is intimidation. The point is that we will self-censor and shy away from material. I think all this promotes intolerance and undermines many of the core values of education. Everything we do as teachers to promote critical thinking is undermined by what they are doing. They’re very much modeling the kind of indoctrination that they’re so fast to accuse other people of.”

Robinson, who has a master’s in American history and helps develop curriculum and train teachers, said some social studies teachers have told him they’re so afraid that they have modified some lessons. “In the past, they might have had a student read a slave narrative or read aloud from primary sources about slavery, but they might not now.”

The reason: they fear being accused of making students uncomfortable. Florida’s “stop woke” law prohibits teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin”. Florida requires that educators teach about slavery in many history and social studies classes, but many teachers say the new law has caused them to balk at teaching about Jim Crow, lynchings or the horrors of slavery for fear of being accused of making white students feel uncomfortable.

“The legislation says students shall not be made to feel guilt, anguish or discomfort because of their race or heritage,” Robinson said. “Whoever taught a lesson and said, ‘White kids, how are you feeling?’ When has a teacher ever done that?”

Teaching about the slave ship Amistad and about slaves dying and being thrown overboard “will make you uncomfortable”, Robinson added. “But what teacher will say, ‘Let’s talk about how that might make white kids feel uncomfortable?’ That’s beyond ludicrous.”

“I don’t tell my kids what to think,” Robinson said. “I tell them, ‘I love you if you’re a Democrat. I love you if you’re a Republican. I love you if you’re an independent. It’s not my job to tell you what to think. It’s my job to help you become a better thinker.’”

For 15 years, Robinson has had a personal library in his classroom with hundreds of books. “They’re there as a model of interest in books – world history, African American history, American history, classics,” Robinson said. “Now I have to worry that if a student uses a book, someone might say the book is an example of critical race theory, and I’ll face a possible third-degree felony.”

Many teachers complain that Florida’s 67 counties have different and often conflicting standards on which books are to be removed from schools. For nearly a year, Duval county removed a biography of Roberto Clemente, a pioneering Afro-Puerto Rican baseball star who faced discrimination. DeSantis and his education commissioner overruled that decision and ordered the book restored. DeSantis said there is no book banning in Florida, and his education commission, Edwin Diaz Jr, said the hubbub about the Clemente book was “fake news”.

Florida law calls for removing pornographic and inappropriate materials, and among the books removed from high schools have been Slaughterhouse Five, The Kite Runner, Forever by Judy Blume, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (in which a father rapes a daughter). Schools have banned many books about gays. Such moves even make these books unavailable to advanced placement students taking college-level English courses. Several counties have banned And Tango Makes Three, an illustrated children’s book about two male penguins in New York’s Central Park that raise a baby penguin together.

“The books’ being banned have added a whole other level of vitriol and hostility against teachers,” said Cleaver, the Pensacola science teacher.

She said teachers are often unsure where the lines are about what they can and can’t say about race and sex. The “don’t say gay” law bars any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity before fourth grade, and from fourth grade on such instruction must be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” in “accordance with state standards”. Unsure what is appropriate for what age, Cleaver said: “The governor leaves a lot of room for interpretation in these laws, and a lot of people are fearful that they may accidentally break the law.” In April, a state board expanded Don’t Say Gay, banning lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades fourth through twelve unless they’re mandated by state standards or are part of reproductive health lessons that students can opt out of taking.

Cleaver said the parents she deals with directly “are wonderful and supportive”, but she finds school board meetings “very disheartening”. “A lot of the people who speak there don’t even have children in our school system and are saying – these are direct quotes – that we teachers are disgusting.”

Dineen, the middle school teacher in Stuart, said teachers face attacks from many sides – the governor, legislature, principals and parents. “The problem is it feels like nowhere is safe,” she said. “It feels like you can be reported by anyone at any time. It feels very much like 1984 or the McCarthy era [of the 1950s]. You don’t know who to trust.”

Dineen added: “They are trying to attract teachers to Florida because of a huge number of vacant positions, yet they disrespect us at every turn. It’s quite self-defeating.”

Cleaver also notes an erosion of trust and respect, fueled in part by DeSantis’s attacking educators who opposed in-class teaching during the pandemic’s early months. “Am I not being trusted after 19 years of teaching, after being elected teacher of the year?” Cleaver said. “I help write curriculum for the entire school district. Why am I suddenly being considered untrustworthy? Why is the Florida legislature obsessing over books about penguins when they have to solve the teacher shortage crisis and the mental health crisis affecting so many students left as orphans by the pandemic?”

Cleaver is gay and says that adds “a little extra anxiety for me”. “I’m not allowed to talk about anything gay, but I’m teaching a roomful of kids that are hyper-aware of the LGBTQ+ community and have a billion questions,” she said. “How am I supposed to answer? Am I supposed to pretend that gay people don’t exist? These students have constant access to cellphones, computers and the internet, and they have real misconceptions and real questions that I would like to answer. But I may risk my career by responding. I’m becoming afraid of being honest with my students. I don’t like that.”

With a master’s degree and 19 years of experience, Cleaver makes $48,000 a year, just $500 more than the statewide minimum for teachers and $37,000 less than – 44% less than – a friend of hers who teaches outside Pittsburgh.

Teaching in north-west Florida near the Alabama border, Cleaver says: “If you go across the state line, you will make $14,000 more per year. A lot of people are looking at that opportunity. Florida is literally in a situation where Alabama looks better.”

Ladara Royal, an African American teacher and graduation coach at Lake Buena Vista high school in Orlando, says the new laws often discourage probing discussions of important, challenging topics. “It’s hard for us as educators to speak up on certain issues that we used to be free to speak on – about equality and equity,” he said. “We are concerned that if we speak up about certain things, we will be on an open firing range.”

Royal said colleagues have been told to downplay how much Black Americans suffered during slavery. “Unfortunately, America does not have a great history on race. Its lands were taken from native Americans. There was economic oppression in the South, Jim Crow and then the civil rights movement,” Royal said. “To be educators, we must tell the truth.”

Vivian Taylor, the teacher who faces limits teaching about Emmett Till, agreed with Royal. “You’re told you’re not supposed to teach certain things because it might make students feel bad. When you’re teaching about the civil rights movement, you need to show videos of what happened on the bridge in Selma and teach about Medgar Evers and the four Birmingham schoolgirls. That upsets children. The idea behind the stupid Stop Woke Act is you’re not supposed to address these kinds of things because children will feel bad. It treats them like they’re snowflakes.”

Mayade Ersoff, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Miami, said: “I never expected a law that would take away a teacher’s right to fully teach the truth and to whitewash Black history.”

Royal said the new laws are going to cause a “mass exodus of teachers of all races, especially minority teachers”. He added, “They are not going to want to stand in front of the classroom and teach what’s coming down the pike.”

Michael Woods, a special education high school teacher in Palm Beach county who is gay, remembers having a miserable experience as a high school student. He was bullied and alienated and had a 2.0 grade point average. But in college he thrived and had a 3.89 GPA. “In college, I was allowed to be me,” Woods said. “I felt protected.”

“In my 29 years of teaching, my number one goal has always been to provide safe spaces to kids,” Woods said.

He criticized the “don’t say gay” law for being vague. “It says you can only teach topics that are age-appropriate. What does that mean? I’ve been doing my job for nearly 30 years. I choose appropriate classroom materials. Now they say if you teach something not appropriate or a parent disagrees with you, it all comes under the rubric of parents’ rights. All this is essentially a solution in search of a problem that didn’t exist.”

Woods told of a colleague who had a student doing a project involving Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Woods said his colleague worried he might get punished if he told the student Ride was a lesbian. “Our job is to create safe spaces, and for a lot of young people, the best way to do that is to let them know there are people just like them, successful people just like them,” Woods said. “We could talk about how Ride was a marginalized person, and kids get inspired by that.”

Woods said he, until recently, kept 500 of his own books in his classroom, books he often lent to his students. But under Florida’s new laws, school officials told him he needed to scan certain information from each book to determine which ones are on the approved list. Not wanting to scan 500 books and fearing he could get in trouble and face felony charges, Woods boxed up all the books and no longer lends them to students.

“Our governor accuses us of trying to indoctrinate,” Woods said. “The only thing I want to indoctrinate kids about is to bring a pencil and go to class.”

Woods worries that the new laws will make gay students feel intimidated and bullied the way he was in high school. “We’re really doing massive damage to kids when we try to limit pronouns and they can’t wear rainbow shirts and stickers and you can’t fly pride flags,” he said. “It really comes down to: are the kids not going to feel accepted or are they going to feel protected the way I felt in college?”

Upset that Florida’s outspoken teachers’ union strongly opposed the new laws and often backs Democratic candidates, DeSantis signed a bill into law last Tuesday that aims to weaken the teachers’ union and other public-employee unions.

The law’s anti-union provisions don’t cover police, firefighter and correction officer unions, which are far more likely to support Republicans.) The legislation prohibits most unions representing government employees from having dues money deducted directly from workers’ paychecks; those unions will need another mechanism to collect dues. The new law is expected to reduce the flow of dues money into union treasuries, weakening these unions’ clout both in bargaining and in politics. In another provision aimed at weakening unions, the legislation calls for decertifying public-sector unions and barring them from bargaining if fewer than 60% of a bargaining unit’s members agree to pay union dues.

DeSantis maintains that the legislation is good for educators, but the new law’s provisions have angered many teachers who see great value in having a union. Cleaver said: “In my county, we’ve already had two teachers be accused of indoctrinating students. Our union is fighting like hell for them.” Cleaver added, “Just like Disney, the teachers union is being punished for speaking out against [DeSantis’] harmful agenda.”

Starks, the teacher in Fort Myers, said: “If I don’t have a union, I’m not going to teach in this state. I’m in my union for protection. I’m in my union because we should have a collective voice for all the big things and the little things.”

DeSantis and his supporters are highlighting the idea of making Florida a blueprint for America, but many teachers dread the idea. “That terrifies me,” said Dineen, the middle school science teacher. “I don’t want the rest of the United States to be Florida. This is not the direction we should be going in the 21st century.”


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