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‘We are in this alone:' Sarasota teachers say classrooms are political battlegrounds

WFLA Tampa logo WFLA Tampa 8/10/2022 Sam Sachs
‘We are in this alone:' Sarasota teachers say classrooms are political battlegrounds © Provided by WFLA Tampa ‘We are in this alone:' Sarasota teachers say classrooms are political battlegrounds

SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) - A new survey of Sarasota County teachers reveals some of them believe “culture wars” in Florida are turning classrooms and school board meetings into battlegrounds over history, politics, and ideology.

According to a survey brief provided by political action committee “We The Parents,” questions for the county’s teachers were focused on how they feel about new state legislation, the Parents’ Rights movement, qualification and trust of School Board members, and when to leave their jobs or stay.

Of the 2,200 teachers living in Sarasota County, 351 responded to the survey.

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There were 13 survey questions, with the last one open-ended for teachers to discuss their feelings in the current educational and political climate. Overall, the survey responses said schools have turned into political minefields, and morale among educators in the county had fallen.

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Most of the respondents in the survey have taught for at least 10 years. More than half of those surveyed said they had “considered leaving the teaching profession or moving to a different state as a result of the culture wars or recent legislation.”

Close to 80% of the respondents said recent legislation and state intervention have had a negative impact on student outcomes and performance metrics.

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In response to lowered achievement outcomes, Florida chose to pass legislation that switches education to progress monitoring from standardized testing and assessments, with the aim of more communication and involvement of parents to help students learn.

Roughly 85% of the survey respondents said the legislature and state government‘s actions have made their jobs harder. A slightly smaller portion (77%) said the Parents’ Rights movement has led to negative developments for teachers.

Divisions across the various questions show Sarasota teachers are not a bloc. However, 88% said that they believed public education was under attack and 72% said Florida’s current education policies were not “pro public school.”

An overwhelming 92% of teachers who took the survey said it was important for school board candidates to “have actual education experience to guide them” when making decisions for the school district. 79% said that current school board members in the county do not respect or understand the job the teachers are doing.

The biggest gauge of teacher morale was the open-ended question: “What do you most want the public to know about the impact of the culture wars on your ability to do your job?”

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About a third of respondents skipped answering the comment question. The answers that were submitted were detailed, and at times pessimistic.

“It seems like I am not trusted as a professional,” one said in response. “Rather than dealing with issues in a cooperative manner, it seems combative and aggressive. Educators are not enemies.”

More directly, the current climate was described in one line by another teacher.

“Teachers are NOT the enemy!” said a survey respondent.

The answers were anonymously submitted, focused on how changes to state education policy and curriculum under the current legislature. Some teachers said Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers had made their jobs harder.

“I think that the governor and some members of our school board are attempting to force their conservative beliefs into public education. They are so worried about indoctrinating of children by teachers, but what they are pushing is in my opinion their own indoctrination of their beliefs,” one teacher said. “I am a parent of a child in school, and I do believe parents need to be heard and that some issues need to be resolved when teachers are acting inappropriately, however, the parents’ rights movement has made so many false accusations and everything we do is now scrutinized to the point that many children are coming to school with an anti-teacher attitude instilled in them by their parents.”

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Another said, “This job is so stressful and overwhelming. I think if I only worked my contracted hours, only fulfilled my contractual duties, and only used the resources provided for me…I would be extremely ineffective, disrespected, unsuccessful, and probably jobless. It also should be said that even being the ‘highest paid county in the state,’ we are still struggling financially and forced to work other jobs during the school year and summer…that is with a Master’s degree too.”

Concerns by the teachers who gave comments to ‘We The Parents’ also focused on how new curriculum and policy choices in Florida had impacted their ability to teach. They said the focus on parental rights in education decisions had affected how teachers are treated and what they’re able to discuss with students.

“It will result in students not being able to check out a book (middle school) in the library without parent approval. [Each time a book is checked out] I will no longer engage in student questions or concerns that do not adhere specifically to the content,” one teacher wrote. “The students will be subject to more of a memorize and repeat type of instruction. Students will lose teachable moments and discussions (debate) that often utilizes a deeper understanding and analysis than typical curriculum.”

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Concerns by state lawmakers over indoctrination of students and various ideologies has also, according to one teacher, had made schools and education too political, at the expense of improving educational quality and working conditions for educators.

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“We spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with legislative mandates that have nothing to do with improving student learning. I can’t use an amazing lesson that I find one weekday night unless it’s disclosed to and signed off on by 115 parents. It simply stifles teacher creativity and demoralizes the profession,” one teacher said.

Another respondent, however, was supportive of the changes, saying teachers should just focus on academics and not their personal beliefs.

“The supposed ‘culture wars’ are only occurring because some percentage of teachers have chosen to push their personal ideologies in their classrooms (most of these ideologies are left/’progressive’ leaning. To the degree that teachers continue to insist on this, the current administration will push back,” the teacher said in their response. “This may be seen as an attack by some, but it is seen as a defense of parental rights and the basics of education by others.”

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Others said the changes, and increasingly political parental involvement, were exacerbating the teacher shortage in Florida.

  • “Many educators are leaving the profession and considering early retirement. There is now a massive teacher shortage,” one teacher wrote. “The difficult and often negative work environment and poor pay do little to attract educated professionals to the profession.”
  • “There’s a shortage of over 9,000 teachers in FLORIDA,” said another. “That alone shows you that teachers are leaving the profession because we are not respected and need support from our government and our school board.”
  • “There are too many expectations, not enough time to complete everything, and the culture wars just add to the stress of the job making me question if the job is really worth the hassle.”
  • “I love that parents are involved in their child’s education; however, the parents in Sarasota County have gone far and beyond to attack the public school and teachers. I feel stressed daily in my classroom that I will be reported by a parent. Parents send threatening and disrespectful emails as well as being the same in public. I wonder why I am still in the education field when I feel constantly under attack from the governor, parents, and students. I have looked for other professions but too afraid to get out.”
  • “Keep political groups and political driven parents' involvement out of our district offices and let teachers and administrators do their job.”
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One said they would simply leave their jobs due to “insufficient pay” and increased stress. Another said the idea that teachers were teaching sexually inappropriate content was a lie.

  • “I’m leaving the profession after this school year. The pay is insufficient, and the stress increases every year. After this year I will be vested in the Florida pension plan (FRS?), so I’m done after that. I work a second job and all kinds of extra stuff at the school just to get by, and I’m never caught up on my bills. Add to that the fact that I can’t talk about so many important issues without fear of being publicly ‘outed,’ and I’m done. I’m an English teacher. I teach logic, argumentation, etc., and you really think I’m not going to talk about the impacts of racism, homophobia, etc. on this country? I am doing the kids a disservice every time I avoid a controversial topic.”
  • “Putting out a false narrative that suggests we are teaching sexually inappropriate content, teaching students to be racist, and that certain books should be banned from all students based on the beliefs of a small group of parents takes the focus away from providing the supports that our students and schools actually need.”

The new curriculum in Florida has reprioritized lessons to focus on civic knowledge and an understanding of the history of how the U.S. government was founded and designed. However, criticism for the education system was not restricted to just Florida, but expanded to U.S. Congress as well.

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“It’s not so much the culture, but the legislature both State and Federal that has no idea of how badly our education system is FAILING our children. They just don’t care,” one respondent wrote.

Even with new curriculum, new training, and more resources to come from the state’s new budget allocations, teachers in the survey said they do not feel supported, by parents or administrative staff.

“Parents verbally abusing teachers and getting away with it, no support from administrators,” one Sarasota said in response to the We The Parents survey. “We are in this alone.”

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