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Florida teachers face extra pressure as the school year starts with new laws

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's back-to-school time in Florida, and while the students may be excited, their teachers, principals and other administrators may not be. That's because this year, much more than in years past, the people charged with taking care of those kids are under a microscope. And as WFSU's Lynn Hatter found, that scrutiny is taking a personal and professional toll on public education.

(CROSSTALK)

LYNN HATTER, BYLINE: 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 - black tees and blue jeans and shorts. They're smiling, happy. There's hugs and reconnection with friends. That excitement, though, isn't quite resounding with everyone.

ANTHONY: In the past, I used to feel so excited because, you know, when you're - especially when you're a young teacher, any young teacher feel like they could change the world. But when the world is changing around you and what you come to know as a teacher, it does kind of dampen your spirit.

HATTER: Anthony is a college professor and teaches history at a Florida high school. We're not using his full name or where he teaches because he's concerned he could be targeted for his views. 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.

ANDREW SPAR: I don't think there are a lot of people who are willing to go into a classroom in the environment that's been created here in the state of Florida.

HATTER: According to Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar, there are nearly 7,000 instructor vacancies and more than 4,000 openings for school support staff. Spar says some of that is due to the new laws.

SPAR: There's just a lot of bad policy in Florida - 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 so that's why people are walking out of the profession in record numbers.

HATTER: Those policies include restrictions on preferred names and pronouns, discussion of race and discrimination, access to certain kinds of books and classroom materials and so-called banned subjects like gender identity and sexual orientation, which most recently led some districts to drop AP Psychology, which includes those topics, despite the state saying it's OK.

ROCKY HANNA: We are committed to providing our students the course they signed up for, which is Advanced Placement Psychology. We've had a little bit of a roller coaster ride over the last week about how to go about doing that.

HATTER: Rocky Hanna is no stranger to the state's crackdowns. As Leon County school superintendent, he was the subject of an investigation last year triggered by his open criticism of state education law.

HANNA: All of our teachers are on board. You know, they're scared. They're fearful that a parent is going to lodge a complaint and that 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 that they will not be in this alone.

HATTER: With all the risk, why remain a teacher at all?

ANTHONY: (Laughter) I don't - so if that's the question, I don't (laughter) really know.

HATTER: That's Anthony again, the history teacher.

ANTHONY: But you know what? 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.

HATTER: And he's still looking forward to helping his students learn and grow. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Hatter in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.