Teachers wanted: How politics has infiltrated Florida classrooms

Words by Mallory Pace


School is back in session for Florida students, but as the state faces another year with a short staff of teachers, both school and alarm bells are ringing. 


Florida’s teacher shortage dates back to 2016 when the Florida Education Association first counted 2,400 open teaching positions. By 2021, that number more than doubled and continued to grow the next year with just over 6,000 “missing” teachers. Counties across the state are desperately seeking to lessen these numbers, including Duval County, which experienced its hardest hit last year. In July 2022, the county reported roughly 500 vacancies for certified teachers — double what it saw in 2020. However, this year sees a slight sign of improvement with 351 unfilled school-based certificated positions, according to Duval County Public Schools (DCPS). 


A combination of factors are at fault for the statewide shortage, and it’s a tale as old as time — teachers are overworked and underpaid. Duval County recently approved a 2.5% increase of base wage for starting teachers, making it now roughly $48,700. A win, certainly, but the fundamental challenges of teaching don’t go away with a pay increase. Although the county’s new starting salary exceeds the standard “livable wage” for a single adult with no children, it’s still not ideal considering the amount of work that goes into teaching. Most public school teachers might agree that they aren’t teaching a 20-student classroom, filled with brats and divas, for eight hours a day as administration breathes down their necks all for the big payday. It’s typically not the money that makes someone want to become a teacher: it’s their love for it — and it’s a damn shame that some have to work two jobs or struggle financially with the weight of the next generation on their backs. 


Then the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed practically everything, especially school. Teachers and students were forced behind a screen, limiting interaction. Going back to “normalcy” was difficult for a lot of people, and public schools felt that shift. Some experts claim that the pandemic exacerbated a preexisting and long-standing shortage of teachers. 


A report from the Economic Policy Institute claims “the shortage is not a function of an inadequate number of qualified teachers in the U.S. economy. Simply, there are too few qualified teachers willing to work at current compensation levels given the increasingly stressful environment facing teachers.” 


Teachers are always walking across a tightrope, but the pandemic gave many the extra push to jump ship. 


On top of the stress and lack of financial security teachers deal with is a new wave of politics washing over the classroom. It started back in March 2022 when Gov. Ron DeSantis passed the Parental Rights in Education bill or as opponents have dubbed it, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This banned public school teachers from instructing or discussing topics like gender identity, preferred pronouns and sexual orientation in the classroom, which was recently expanded to grades K-12. Then the Stop W.O.K.E. Act was passed in April 2022, which prohibits teaching certain concepts related to race like Critical Race Theory and numerous other vaguely described topics. It aims to ban teaching lessons or having discussions that would make students feel “guilt or anguish” for their race. Teachers caught breaking either law could face termination or risk suspension of their teaching license. The Stop W.O.K.E. Act was challenged in several lawsuits, including one by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which sued the state on behalf of students and educators. Although the state is unable to enforce the Stop W.O.K.E. Act at this time, the thought of such a law is scary enough. 


Then there are the book bans. In July 2022, DeSantis signed a new law requiring all library books to be reviewed by a certified media specialist. The county’s website lists 19 books as “not-approved,” but other reports claim that many more are currently inaccessible while the district works to “review” them. Many schools and teachers allegedly removed an abundance of books out of fear and panic that they would be accused of violating the law, for which the penalty is a felony charge.


A fifth grade English Language Arts teacher in Duval County, who preferred to remain anonymous, told “Folio” that when schools were first instructed to remove or cover classroom books as they went “under review,” she felt confused and devastated for her students. 


“Teaching students how to read is one thing, but teaching them to love reading is another,” she said. “If you can teach a child to see the value in reading, then you have given them the power to learn anything.”


Although the aim of these laws is supposed to give parents more say in what their children are taught in school, it ultimately takes away what it means to be a teacher.


“Feeling like you cannot be trusted to judge what is appropriate and inappropriate in your classroom is discouraging,” she said. “Why would we want to work in a profession that undermines our expertise and takes away our autonomy?”


After placing so many rules, restrictions and penalties on teachers, it’s no wonder they’ve had enough. The job description is changing, and if so many teachers are leaving, where does that leave aspiring ones? Jordan Clark, a junior at the University of North Florida studying elementary education feels the stress of her future career. In the back of her mind, Clark knew she had a passion for teaching but ultimately decided to enter the university as a double major in criminal justice and psychology. But as she entered her sophomore year, Clark made the decision to listen to her heart and switched to education. She was first apprehensive about teaching because of the salary and stress, which Clark still has concerns about, but it’s hard to put a price on passion. While she knows she made the right decision, she still has worries about what’s to come. 


“Teaching, to me, means giving kids the opportunity to think outside the box and grow their mindset, not just in school, but outside of school,” Clark said. “It’s giving them a quality learning experience … making sure kids have a place to express themselves and also learn at the same time.”


When these laws were first being introduced, Clark was entering her field training at a local elementary school, where she saw firsthand what was happening in the classrooms. She helped her mentor teacher remove certain books from her classroom library and was told that if some of these books remained on the shelves, it could result in being charged with a criminal misdemeanor. 


“It definitely put a damper on teachers’ perspectives and my perspective because I feel like now going into teaching, I’m fearful of overstepping, or quite honestly, parents can sue teachers for any of this, if you overstep,” said Clark.


Some worry that these new laws and rules could potentially push out qualified teachers or restrict the state’s ability to attract and retain them. According to a recent report by the “U.S. News & World Report,” Florida ranks No. 1 in higher education and No. 14 in pre-K-12 education. However, the limited number of metrics used to determine the rankings, like graduation rates, cost of tuition and debt at graduation, have been heavily debated and some claim the findings are misleading, according to an ABC Action News article. Nevertheless, Florida appears to be a good state for education, but will these new laws impact that?


There’s a certain level of academic freedom that allows teachers to provide meaningful, quality education, but it’s hard to do so with their hands tied. Clark said it’s sad how teachers don’t have the freedom to teach the way they were taught or in a way that is welcoming to all students.


“I feel like too many people want to have an opinion on how to teach and they didn’t go to school for it,” Clark said. “To put it quite frankly, I think teachers are being micromanaged in a way that is pushing a lot of teachers out of the field.”


Clark said that despite all of this, Florida is her home and she plans to stay and “have a voice” in trying to get education back to a place “that isn’t so oppressive.” 


“I think teachers leaving Florida isn’t necessarily the right answer. I think that we should stay and try to let our voices be heard,” Clark said.


As for the future of teaching in Florida, who’s to say? Salary-wise, the trend seems to be moving upward. Politically? There’s worry. The Florida Department of Education’s 2022-2023 Critical Shortage Areas Report indicates the state’s teacher education programs are graduating roughly a third of the positions needed in the classrooms. Even though teaching isn’t the most glamorous job, it’s one that society could not function without. Developing children need the type of interaction found in a classroom. and teachers need the freedom and trust to do their jobs without politics getting in the way. What’s the saying? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it? After all, there are plenty of other things the state could be spending its energy on fixing, like affordable housing and racially-motivated violence to start. 


Just let teachers teach.