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On May 31, a school board meeting in Hernando County, Florida, made national news when more than 600 hundred people showed up and the meeting lasted until 2:30 a.m. The county had moved the meeting to the high school auditorium to accommodate a large crowd. Fearing violence, it had installed metal detectors and called in police, sheriff’s deputies and a SWAT team.

Kathleen Gates, a retired teacher who had taught for many years at Brooksville Elementary School in the Hernando County School District, described preparing for that school board meeting as if she were going into battle.

Before she left her house that evening, she printed out her will and put it on the table, along with a letter to her family. “I really did not expect to make it home,” she said during a recent conference on teaching difficult topics in the current partisan political environment, particularly in Florida.

The controversy in the rural county just north of Tampa started when a newly elected school board member, backed by the conservative Moms for Liberty group, reported a fifth-grade teacher for showing “Strange World,” a Disney movie with a gay character, in class. While the district had already closed its investigation into the teacher, the school board meeting that spring evening would decide the fate of Superintendent John Stratton, whom Moms for Liberty wanted removed.

While the meeting was heated on both sides, a majority of students, educators and parents who spoke voiced support for Stratton and the school district. Eventually, and unexpectedly, the school board voted to keep him on as superintendent.

“A rural red county in Florida stood up to Moms for Liberty and said ‘no,’” Gates recounted.

Gates was one of four Florida educators to share their recent experiences teaching in the state at the “Freedom to Teach: Confronting Complex Themes in Contested Spaces” conference, hosted by Flagler College in St. Augustine.

Originally designed as an academic conference to share research, the event brought together Florida K-12 and college teachers and students, national journalists and professionals from libraries and museums whose work focuses on history and civics. They discussed how Florida’s political climate, including recent state laws that limit school discussions of race, gender and sexuality, has affected teaching and learning on the ground.

Brandt Robinson, a history teacher from Dunedin High School in Florida, described how, during the 2021-22 school year, a student in his African-American history class dropped out three days in. Robinson later found out that the student’s mother had enrolled him in the class to get a copy of the course syllabus. She filed an appeal with the school board seeking to remove the textbooks in Robinson’s class, accusing him of teaching the concept of critical race theory and saying his course was aligned with The New York Times’ 1619 Project, both of which are now banned by the state’s board of education.

While her appeal was rejected, Robinson said, the parent filed a formal records request for all his class materials and course documents. She then went before the school board accusing Robinson of indoctrinating students with Marxist ideas, he said.

Robinson noted that these events took place even before Florida’s recent laws went into effect. He said incidents like this arose in part because of a white racial backlash in response to the mass protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Robinson, who is also the union representative for the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said it’s fallen to the state’s educators to be the “the kindest, most decent, but the most fierce and most credible people in the room” at school board meetings and other public events.

One of Robinson’s fellow panelists at the conference, Hayley McCulloch, a U.S. history teacher from Lee County, said many of the day-to-day obstacles teachers face in her district can be linked to what she called the conservative “assault on public education.” Among the challenges facing the district – one of the last places in the country to integrate public schools – is a shortage of nearly 200 teachers that has forced students to miss a lot of learning time.

“We’re being attacked as professionals and intellectuals,” she said, adding that changes to the state’s curriculum and standards on history and civics education have removed any freedom teachers have in the classroom to shape how and what they can teach.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has argued that the education laws are necessary to give parents more control over their children’s learning. He has said of the state law limiting discussions of gender that parents “should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.” In signing the law curbing discussions of race, DeSantis said, “There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”

Sara Pierce, an assistant principal at Hollywood Hills High School in one of Florida’s more progressive counties, Broward, said that it falls on school administrators to make sure their teachers feel safe in their classrooms.

Teachers “need to have creative freedom and to able to design their curriculum and feel confident in their skill sets,” she said. Even in a blue county such as Broward, she said it has been tough to navigate the state’s new laws.

“If we take care of the teachers, then the teachers are free to then turn around and do their job, which is to take care of the children,” she said.

This story about Florida teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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