Tampa Bay area teachers ask: How many more teachers will leave Florida like we are?

Art teacher in a school classroom with students
Teacher and students. By Drazen Zigic via iStock for WMNF News.

Guest editorial for WMNF News by Philip Belcastro

My wife and I are both teachers. She teaches in Hillsborough and I teach in Pinellas. Recently we invited former and current students to a nearby coffee shop to meet up one last time and say our goodbyes before we leave Florida and move to Pennsylvania where we will continue working as professional educators in Philadelphia public schools.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with such an open invitation to an informal event, but nearly 30 of our combined students all came to say goodbye — more than I could have ever expected or hoped for. Suddenly this small coffee shop in Ybor was full of grads, recent grads, and soon-to-be grads in their teens and early twenties, all meeting and sharing stories and life updates from across Tampa Bay and Florida. It was an incredibly joyous reunion for everyone, even though we were all there to say goodbye.

As the room buzzed with enthusiastic young students, I quietly wondered to myself how many other teachers across Florida this year and in the next will be having similar goodbye parties? How many more teachers will leave the state? How many teachers will leave the profession? How many more dedicated, passionate professionals like us will say enough is enough?

Our students came from all over to say goodbye not because of our test scores, our standards-aligned lesson plans, our posted learning targets, or our evaluations. They came to see their teachers – they are going to miss real-life human beings that had an impact on their lives. We know because they tell us.

Florida has made it a priority to devalue and undermine public education by using public money to fund private schools through HB 1, by handicapping our worker’s rights and labor unions with SB 256, and by allowing extremist politics from Tallahassee to dictate in local communities and classrooms through the Individual Freedom Act. Florida pays teachers so poorly, we are now the 50th lowest paid on average in the entire nation during an inflation crisis. Professional educators with college degrees, Master’s degrees, and PhDs cannot afford to live here. And why would they? The Brain Drain has already begun. In the coming years, Florida can expect to lose even more public school teachers and professors to states where education is a priority and the profession is respected.

Public education is certainly not perfect anywhere. Florida is not the only place where chronic absenteeism is a problem, or where discipline for students is not enforced. We are not the only place where schools are underfunded, administration is overwhelmed, and the district has too many redundant positions and titles with overly inflated salaries. We are not the only place to emphasize year-round standardized testing in place of necessary social-emotional learning through music, the arts, and the humanities. Florida is not the only place to break class-size laws by eliminating standard courses and replacing them all with “elective” accelerated core classes like AP and AICE. These class sizes are not restricted though they are the only choice for students, including those in intensive reading, and ESOL. Florida is not the only place where schools have lost control over cellphones in the classroom and students routinely use them to instigate and film fights, buy and sell illegal items on campus, bully each other, and cheat on exams. Florida is not the only place where teachers are forced to automatically pass special education and non-English speaking students in efforts to boost graduation rates, pass rates, GPAs and school grades. And Florida is not the only place where teachers and administrators are asked not to speak up at school board meetings, in what is clearly a violation of ethics and trust from leadership. We’re asked not to support our students while begging for more support, and more empathy and respect.

However, we are the only place that is actively messaging, actively signaling to educators, “don’t come here, we don’t want you.” If you are teaching in Florida, leave.

I think of all those students that came out to see my wife and I. They might not be aware of all the problems with Florida’s public education, but they certainly know some of them very well. And in the moment when I thought about how many other teachers will be leaving, I knew none of that matters to the kids. Because what matters is that a person they know, who cared for them and still cares for them, a person who was kind and thoughtful and funny, creative, insightful, calming, inspiring, and a brightly shining positive adult influence is leaving.

Knowing that goodbyes like this are happening all across the state, and the country should be a national embarrassment. The deep hollowing-out of education in America should be one of our greatest shames. Money alone isn’t going to fix what is happening – it’s going to take more effort and hard work, more attention, and more time from the remaining dedicated professionals to make this work again. Teachers are not a commodity and students are not a manufactured good. There is no standardized test or data to measure the heartbreak when we say goodbye.

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