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Between the coronavirus pandemic, staffing shortages, and legislative initiatives, it has been a particularly difficult time for some teachers. We asked some about their biggest challenges, and we're sharing what they had to say, in their own words.

New Florida education laws about gender identity put teachers in a tough spot

Ashlee Highfill, a social studies teacher, wears glasses and smiles at the camera in her classroom
courtesy Ashlee Highfill
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Ashlee Highfill teaches social studies, and has concerns about how Florida's new laws will impact children

After a state legislative session that produced a series of new laws regarding education, WUSF is airing teachers' voices, in their own words, about what they see as their main challenges.

Florida's new Parental Rights in Education law says it seeks to bolster the role of parents to make decisions about how their children are raised.

It bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade — and prohibits instruction that is not "age appropriate." It also requires school districts to notify parents if a school makes any changes to how it treats a child regarding their mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.

Here's what some teachers in the Tampa Bay area told us about the law that critics call "Don't Say Gay."

"I'm Ashlee Highfill. I teach middle school social studies in Tampa at a magnet school. I feel like, personally, that they're made-up problems for a political agenda. I understand there being concern, especially with young students, in the ways in which those topics (gender identity and sexual orientation) might be approached. I'm not comfortable with the intentional, vague language in the legislation that would make it very easy for something as simple as a picture book with a family that has two dads or has two moms, potentially, you know, causing a teacher to lose their job or their teaching certificate by simply having inclusive materials in their classrooms.

"I'm concerned about the vagueness because students that come from those households at that young age, how are they supposed to navigate that situation? The message it sends to them is that something's wrong with their family. And I don't understand the purpose of making children feel that way, or even making families in the LGBTQ community feel like they don't belong in public schools or that something is wrong with them. I don't like that mentality at all."

Teacher Tracie Overdorff wears headphones against a virtual forest background
courtesy Tracie Overdorff
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Tracie Overdorff teaches middle school science in Hillsborough County

"My name is Tracie Overdorff. I teach at a public charter school in Hillsborough County. I teach middle school and I teach an elective called STEM. LGBTQ rights don't come up a lot in STEM in my classroom. But that also concerns, I think, any teacher when that particular law is coming into effect about you're not talking about gender. When students write you — gosh, it happened today. I got a note from a student preferring different pronouns, or specifying their pronouns, which would be different than assigned at birth and a different name other than their given name. And I was like, okay, I have to go to my administration. What do I do with this? Because this is now a law, how do I go about this?"

"My name is Oren Shahar. I work at classical preparatory school in Spring Hill in Pasco County and I teach seventh and eighth grade science. I think with a lot of these bills that have recently been passed, the government's been looking at problems that don't necessarily exist at the moment and trying to preemptively stop them, whether they actually need to be stopped or not.

"One of the things that I've seen in a lot of the things that I've read and heard, such as on the radio, is that CRT is not currently being taught in K through 12 schools. And that with what's known as the 'Don't Say Gay bill,' that it's targeting K through either second or third grade, where none of this is being taught. It's not something I've ever taught in my time teaching kindergarten, first and second.

"So it sounds like they're trying to preemptively stop something that they think will be an issue in the future, or maybe that they think is an issue currently, but isn't. Like, it's a very big difference between being a state-mandated reporter for when someone else is trying to harm the child than it is to being to being a mandated reporter back to the parents, when their child is telling you something in confidence. And they're trying to make themselves feel better, more confident, more accepted. When you know that by reporting that to their parents, it might have a completely opposite effect. So it's an uncomfortable situation that I don't want to be in."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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