LAND O’LAKES — A sense of excitement permeated Sanders Memorial Elementary School as teachers and staff returned to campus, refreshed after a two-month summer break.
Amid the enthusiasm of getting classrooms ready, they couldn’t escape the political reality permeating Florida’s public schools as the first day of classes approached. Contentious new laws relating to the instruction of sex and gender, the provision of health services and the selection of books took effect July 1.
The Pasco County school district wanted to ensure faculty and staff had the information they would need to meet the latest expectations. So for an hour last Wednesday (and more to come), the discussion came to Sanders Memorial.
For many teachers, the day’s main takeaway was that the laws weren’t needed.
They said they were less bothered by the the new rules than the fact that educators across Florida are having to defend against accusations that they have an agenda to undermine families and debase children.
“This is why teachers are leaving,” said first-grade teacher Julie Forsting, a 32-year educator who contemplated retiring in the spring. “What saddens me is that (state officials) don’t treat us as professionals and think we would do this naturally, and that we have to be told.”
She said she stuck around because she still loves teaching, students and her colleagues, including a supportive principal.
Fellow first-grade teacher Jessica Bauer, who sat beside Forsting during the session, said the new laws might stir passions, but a look at the specifics caused her little consternation.
Teachers already spend time reviewing their classroom libraries to make sure the materials are age appropriate, she said. They haven’t taught about sex and gender in kindergarten through third grade, and don’t plan to.
They also know how to keep students focused on lessons without inserting opinions or getting sidetracked by any number of things that children might blurt out, she added. “Ask your parent” moments are routine, no law required, according to Bauer and others at the training.
“As a teacher, you’re always being mindful of what you say and how you say it,” Bauer said. “And kids bring up things all the time that you can’t talk about.... We know how to direct them.”
As the review session began, many of the classroom teachers and specialists indicated they hadn’t paid much attention to the ins and outs of the new laws prior to receiving copies.
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They did, however, know the gist of what Pasco County school district leaders have been calling “The Sevens” — House bills 7, 1467 and 1557. The state was warning them to watch what they teach and take greater care in what they allow students to read.
If parents have questions or concerns, the school and district administrations have processes in place to find resolutions, assistant principal Kim Hedgspeth told the group. Meanwhile, she suggested, teachers should go about their normal business, understanding academic standards, discussing problems with colleagues, and remaining objective.
“We don’t have an agenda,” said Hedgspeth, who led the session. “It’s just being thoughtful about what we already have.”
The teachers acknowledged their limited concerns about the laws’ impact are based on past experiences and hypotheticals about the future. Things might sound manageable now, but could change as the school year progresses.
That in mind, they asked a few questions — some of them pointed — about how to handle certain issues.
Some wanted to know if they have to remove all the social studies materials they use outside of textbooks, given the new rules on how to teach African American history. The law mandates presenting the topics, but not in a way that would make students feel responsibility for the past.
It also calls for more stories of inspiration and positive messages about the nation.
That got a “yes and no” from Hedgspeth, who said the district is working to provide several approved supplemental materials sites that teachers can use. She cautioned against using items that are not aligned to state standards, but added there are plenty of good ones available.
“You don’t have to wipe out everything you already use,” principal Jason Petry added. “If you are following the standards, you’re good.... And 99.9% of our stuff is standards-based.”
Petry also told teachers not to freak out about their classroom libraries, after a kindergarten teacher asked what to do if a parent makes demands about any books.
Tell them there is a procedure to file a challenge, Petry answered. Don’t immediately give in, as no single parent controls the environment for the entire class.
Don’t defensively lash out at being questioned, either, he added.
Petry and several others said they considered the new laws an opening to create improved and new partnerships with parents, who already play an active role at Sanders. Many on the staff noted they’re parents, too, so they see both sides of most situations.
The effort must include transparency, Petry said, so people see the school isn’t hiding anything, despite some of the high flying rhetoric.
“We always talk about how we want parents to get more involved,” he said. “And yeah, it’s going to involve some tough discussions.”
Bottom line, Hedgspeth told the staff not to worry — they’ll have no problems meeting the requirements if they act as professionally as usual.
“We have your backs,” she said.
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