'What is woke math?': In Florida, public school teachers bristle at DeSantis's changes to education

·National Reporter & Producer
·14-min read

If it were not for the dozens of bright-eyed, energetic fourth- and fifth-grade Florida students that Michelle Lucas teaches math and science to each and every day, she’s unsure she would have stuck with her job as a Broward County public school teacher so long.

Historically low pay made more glaring by lingering inflation rates, ever-changing curriculum expectations and new laws restricting what teachers can and cannot talk about in the classroom have led Lucas to consider quitting after nearly three decades on the job.

“The only thing I like is being with the kids and that’s what keeps me here. I’m happy from 8 o’clock to 2 o’clock. It’s the relationships that you build and seeing them learn — that’s amazing,” Lucas, 50, who teaches at Hollywood Hills Elementary School in Hollywood, Fla., told Yahoo News. “But everything else I hate.”

Students wearing backpacks walk up a set of stairs at a school.
Students arrive for the first day of classes in Miami Lakes, Fla., last year. (Getty Images via Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Similar complaints, Lucas said, have become increasingly common among Florida’s 176,000 public school teachers.

“Every change that has been made is to put more work on us without any consideration into the rising prices of everything in the recession,” she said.

Despite a record $21.8 billion state surplus, Florida ranks 48th nationally in terms of teacher pay, with the average teacher salary hovering around $51,000 a year. The state also has a teacher shortage, with nearly 10,000 vacancies. That means substitute teachers are often utilized to fill in the gaps, sometimes filling in for an entire school year. At some Florida public schools, meanwhile, students continue to be taught virtually by teachers from several states away.

To try to make up for the teacher shortage, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this summer signed into law legislation that would allow military veterans with no prior teaching experience the ability to take on classes. He also raised the starting pay for teachers from $40,000 to $47,000 earlier this year in March, bringing up the state’s starting pay from 26th in the nation to ninth. But while DeSantis has been attempting to lure new teachers, his critics say, he has also shown those with experience that they aren’t a top priority.

“I think we saw that [message] throughout the pandemic,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, told Yahoo News. “Yet right now we’re facing the worst teacher staffing shortage we’ve ever seen, at least here in the state of Florida and arguably across this nation. And I think that’s something we should be greatly concerned about.”

Students sit at their desks while a teacher stands at the front of the classroom at a podium.
Students sit spaced apart in Miami Lakes, Fla., last year. (Getty Images via Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Veteran teachers in the state say that employing people who lack teaching experience at a time when their own wages have not continued to rise is tantamount to a slap in the face.

“As a teacher who has been teaching for 25 years, we’re getting sandwiched,” Tracie Overdorff, a middle school STEM teacher in Hillsborough County, told WUSF, a National Public Radio member station in the Tampa Bay area. “So [when] you’re raising the bottom level, the upper levels are getting crunched. And I don’t know if many people know this, but at 25 years, you don’t get anymore pay increases.”

Marlon Greig, a teacher at Earlington Heights Elementary School in Miami, has two siblings on active duty in the military, but admits that he wouldn’t trust them to teach his own children.

“It’s just not fair for someone to come into a classroom unqualified, unprepared to teach and shape young minds,” Greig told Reuters.

A sharp decline among teachers in the overall enthusiasm about the state of the profession, however, isn’t isolated to Florida. Exacerbated by challenges presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, national polls of teachers show a steep drop in levels of overall job satisfaction. According to a June survey by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher’s union in the country, 79% of pre-K-12 teachers were very dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with their overall conditions, nearly double the 45% who expressed dissatisfaction before the pandemic. Teachers surveyed in the poll once again cited increased workload, low pay and a lack of support from parents and school administrators for the decline, and see little evidence of improvement on the horizon.

Eighth grade teacher Maria Leon holds a sign that reads: No teacher left behind.
Eighth grade teacher Maria Leon at a protest for higher wages in Miami in 2006. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lucas, for example, holds a master’s degree and numerous advanced teaching certifications, yet after 28 years teaching, she admits that if she did not have financial help from her husband and her parents, she’s unsure how she would be able to survive off just her salary.

“I still don’t make over $66,000 with all of those things,” she said.

For Spar, the steep decline of teaching satisfaction in Florida is reflective of the state majority conservative leadership’s priorities.

“What we’ve seen since 2010 is that the pay for experienced teachers has gone down, and very dramatically, in these last three and a half years under our current governor,” he said.

To hear supporters of DeSantis tell it, however, the education landscape in Florida has never been better. On Friday, the governor celebrated the state’s No. 1 ranking for “overall education freedom” from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“Florida lawmakers set a high standard for academic transparency and rejecting critical race theory’s pernicious ideas in 2022,” the Heritage Foundation said in its report. “State officials approved a proposal that prohibits teachers and administrators from compelling students to affirm the prejudiced ideas of critical race theory.”

At an event touting Florida’s No. 1 ranking, DeSantis highlighted the state’s decision to forgo COVID-19 restrictions that impacted other states.

“When other states were locking people down and keeping their kids out of school, we made sure kids were in school because we put their well-being before politics,” DeSantis said at the report card launch. “While states like California, New York and Illinois that denied in-person education to their children are now suffering from plummeting educational outcomes, Florida’s schoolchildren are thriving because we invest in our students and we empower parents to decide what learning environment is best for their kids.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters from a podium, with a state flag in the background along with a large sign that reads: Don't tread on Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a campaign stop in Geneva, Fla., last month. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But DeSantis has not been content with flouting federal COVID guidelines and has pursued a legislative agenda that seeks to restrict what can be discussed in the classroom.

In late March, DeSantis signed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill into law. Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the legislation prohibits teachers from leading classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade and leaves room to ban such discussions for other grades unless they are deemed “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

A staunch advocate of the new law, DeSantis has often said that it will allow students to “get an education, not an indoctrination.”

It’s been a sticking point for Democrats in the state and elsewhere who believe the bill’s loose language will lead to teachers playing it overly safe in the classroom when talking about important issues for fear of being sued or fired.

“The bill’s intentionally vague language leaves teachers afraid to talk to their students and opens up school districts to costly and frivolous litigation from those seeking to exclude LGBTQ people from any grade level,” state Rep. Carlos Smith, a Democrat, told the Associated Press.

Smith, who is gay, added, “Even worse, #DontSayGay sends a hateful message to our most vulnerable youth who simply need our support.”

President Biden has pushed back against the legislation.

“Every student deserves to feel safe and welcome in the classroom,” Biden tweeted shortly after the bill became law. “Our LGBTQI+ youth deserve to be affirmed and accepted just as they are. My Administration will continue to fight for dignity and opportunity for every student and family — in Florida and around the country.”

Protesters in Miami holding signs, one of which reads: My identity is more permanent than you job.
Protesters in Miami in March after the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In April, DeSantis also signed the “Stop Woke Act” into law, which the governor’s office said in a statement was designed “to take on both corporate wokeness and Critical Race Theory in schools.” It prohibits teaching that one ethnic group is inherently racist or should feel guilty for the actions committed in the past by others. Last month, however, a Florida judge ruled that law was unconstitutional.

“If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case,” Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a 44-page ruling. “But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents.”

The governor’s office did not respond to several Yahoo News requests for comment for this article. The governor himself has maintained that challenges to the Stop Woke Act will be appealed and that the legislation is ultimately likely to be reinstated.

In some parts of Florida, books that mention racism, gender identity, sexism or any kind of oppression have also recently been banned in schools. It’s a trend led by Republican elected officials that is not limited to Florida. Lawmakers from 36 states have introduced at least 137 bills in 2022 that seek to restrict teaching on topics ranging from gender to race and sexual identity, according a report by PEN America, a free speech group. That sum is a 150% increase from 2021, with most of the restrictions targeting teaching about race.

A teacher and students at their desks as information is displayed on a large screen at the front of a classroom.
A teacher instructs students during the first day of classes in Florida on Aug. 23, 2021. (Getty Images via Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Florida public school teachers who reject the premises behind the state’s new laws and book bans, say their already demanding work has only become much more so.

“These new policies that have been put into place by people that are not educators have simply made it harder for a teacher to do their job,” Kent Cooper, a high school science teacher who has spent the last eight years at Palm Bay Magnet High in Melbourne, told Yahoo News. “Politicians are making policy about subject matter that they know nothing about.”

Cooper resigned from his teaching position in July because of what he called “unreasonable” expectations. He is set to start teaching at a charter school and hopes to be rid of the pressures of the DeSantis administration and the public school bureaucracy.

“What is woke math? I don’t know and I’m sure they don’t even know, but math books have been taken away from schools because of this,” Cooper said, adding that the policy affects the small libraries teachers spend their own money on to buy books for students to explore a wide range of topics. “We always preach to the students that you have to read to succeed. Now they’re taking that away.”

Students wearing backpacks sit at picnic tables outside a school.
Students outside a Miami Lakes school in August of last year. (Getty Images via Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Another 24-year-old male middle school teacher for the Palm Beach School District, who agreed to speak to Yahoo News under condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from his school or state government, expressed how different this school year has been.

“Teaching and interacting with students has made a complete 180 for me this school year, as I identify as a gay male,” the teacher told Yahoo News. “So the governor’s hurtful legislation has directly affected my day-to-day at work. Last year, I had a pride flag in my classroom. I regularly spoke about my boyfriend of three years, and I helped many students who felt open enough to discuss with me some confusing thoughts they had been having, and I helped them talk through them with the guidance counselor.

“Now, I do not share a single thing about my personal life besides hobbies and favorite things,” he added. “My students and I do not discuss what we did over the weekend. When they ask about my romantic interest I have to shut them down and squash the conversation, so my students do not feel as easily connected to me as my students did last year.”

Students wearing masks inside a classroom sit at their desks.
DeSantis in March signed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits teachers from leading classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade. (Getty Images via Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

But not all Florida residents believe the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is a bad thing for schools and the students. Charlotte Joyce, a Duval County School Board member, proposed a resolution in May stating that the board “unequivocally supports” the bill.

“These parents entrust their children to us every single day,” Joyce told Politico. “That the school district is knowingly socially transitioning students at school without parents’ knowledge, I really wanted that to come out.”

The anonymous teacher, however, feels like he has to walk on eggshells in the classroom and is unsure of what could be deemed out of bounds.

“I am one angry student away from a legal battle since all it takes is them wanting to tell their parent I said anything at all about my being gay, even if it is a lie, and they can report me to the state,” he said. “I get too little money and deal with too much stress as a teacher to have to deal with this added stress of making sure I do not have a single student that outright dislikes me.”

Despite the growing challenges for public school teachers, a majority of Americans remain sharply divided on Florida’s controversial bills. A Politico/Morning Consult poll published in March found that 50% of respondents supported “banning the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade” while 34% opposed.

The same poll showed residents also split over the teaching of critical race theory — an educational movement that aims to contextualize recent and historical events in a framework of systemic racism — with 40% supportive of a ban, and 43% opposed to it.

LGBTQ activists hold signs that read: We are permanent, and People over politics.
LGBTQ activists in front of state Sen. Ileana Garcia’s office after the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in March. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The seemingly widening disconnect between experienced public school teachers who want students to learn about the good, bad and the ugly about the world seems to be in stark contrast to DeSantis and his supporters.

“The purpose of our school system is to educate kids, not to indoctrinate kids,” DeSantis said Friday and at other points this year. “You do not distort American history to try to advance your current ideological agenda.”

The reality, some Florida teachers say, is much more complex.

“Part of what makes [school] a safe positive environment is the development of trust between the teacher and the students,” Cooper said. “I teach high school students and they’re at the age where they’re beginning to question the world around them, and sometimes even a science teacher gets questions that are not related to the subject they teach. As for me, I feel compelled to try to answer it honestly, and these new policies make me have pause about doing so.

“I have had students of color ask me why white people treat them badly or look at them differently. I’ve had those hard conversations, in which I tried to explain that not all white people think the way others do and those that are that way do it out of fear, as they do not know and that creates fear,” he said. “I have wept with them when we saw what was done to George Floyd. I’ve had gay and transgender students ask the same questions, and I’ve had the same hard conversations on that as well after the Pulse nightclub incident. They come to me, maybe because they trust me and hope that I can give them some guidance to help them make sense of it. Even if it makes no sense at all. Now with these policies, how do I have those conversations without fear of punishment or losing my certification?”

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images, Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images