Episode 3 Transcript

You’re listening to “Educating from the Heart.” Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

Annual Contract Dilemma

Tina Dunbar, co-host: Thank you for joining us on “Educating from the Heart.” On this episode, we’ll talk about job security or the lack of it for Florida teachers. We’ll also explore why educators have given the state a failing grade for its vaccine distribution. Welcome back, I’m Tina Dunbar with my co-host Luke Flynt. Hi Luke! Happy first episode for 2021.

Luke Flynt, co-host: Happy 2021, Tina. you know, I don’t think a lot of people understand how perilous it is to be a teacher in Florida right now. We’re one of only 3 states in the country where teachers do not have due process: that means they serve as at will employees. And at the end of the school year, their contract can be non-renewed for any reason, or as happens all too often, non-renewed for no reason at all.

Tina: Luke, let’s name it. Senate Bill 736, the Student Success Act. It was the very first bill that Governor Rick Scott signed into law in 2011. It has drastically changed the landscape for teachers. One element of the law that has devastated the teaching force has been the stripping away of the ability for teachers to earn a multi-year renewable employment agreement, known as a Professional Services Contract (PSC). Now I want to be clear. We’re not talking about tenure here, also considered ‘lifelong job protections’ because that never existed for Florida’s K-12 teachers.

Luke: Exactly. But what PSC did do is it ensured job stability and due process, before a teacher could be terminated. And they had to earn their PSC status, and that’s a key word. It took many years and many, many observations by a principal before someone could earn the right to have their PSC. You know, it makes you wonder why Governor Scott and the Florida GOP were so interested in eliminating these job protections, which again can be non-renewed without cause, not even giving a teacher the opportunity to improve.

Tina: Well, if you remember, the rhetoric back when this law was being debated was kind of bizarre. Lawmakers said eliminating job security would help with recruitment and retention. It didn’t make sense to me then and now we have the evidence. It has created a culture of fear, intimidation and increased instability in districts statewide.

In fact, our first guest is an annual contract teacher who has asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. She’s a certified teacher who has taught in Florida for several years and hopes to continue with her career here. We also have two other teachers joining the discussion.

Luke: Yeah. You know, the instability isn’t just bad for teachers and students.

It’s bad for school districts as a whole. So, we will hear from the school district administrator who is doing everything that she can to provide stability while following the letter of the law. We’ll start though by asking our annual contract teacher —who asked to remain anonymous out of fears of reprisal — to help our listeners understand how her job status impacts her work.

Annual contract teacher: You know, you can do a really good job. I feel like a lot of annual contract teachers I’ve talked to feel like they can do a really good job and do everything right. But then, you know, we all make mistakes and, and teachers can’t be perfect. So, I think it’s living with that fear, that, that little mistake that you made in, you know, September might be the reason that you don’t get asked to come back the next year, that you don’t get your renewal on your contract.

So, I do. I live in a little bit of fear that, that I’m not going to have a job the next year. And a lot of times we don’t find out until April or even May. So then, really there’s a lot of fear about trying to find another position quickly. It’s just something, I kind of constantly have in the back of my head thinking about and I think it pushes me to, again, want to be perfect. I don’t feel like I can… like at all, ever, take any small kind of break. Everything has to be on all the time because I’m so concerned about not getting my contract renewed. It’s exhausting. I mean, the mental hoops that I jump through all the time… my brain, it just makes me really, really tired and I don’t really try to be as innovative as I probably could cause I would feel that if someone walked in, it might be seen as a waste of time or that, you know, if it failed… well, that just wasted a whole day of class, you know? And that just… I just feel like there’s a constant tally mark above my head, that tallies up all of the mistakes that I make throughout my teaching year and that, you know, once you get to a certain mark, well, you’re done. Find another job. In reality it’s more complex than that, but it does, it does feel that way a lot of times, and not just to myself, I have a group of annual contract teachers that we all came in at the same time at my school and another school and we all kind of feel that way. It’s taken a mental toll on just who I am as a teacher.

Tina: I’ve heard some annual contract (AC) teachers express concerns about talking with administrators about specific student needs. All educators should feel free to advocate for their students. Do teachers need due process when standing up for themselves and their students?

Annual contract teacher: I won’t say that I feel completely silenced, but it does add another layer, a weight that comes with knowing that you feel strongly enough that you should go talk to your principal or another administrator about advocating for your students in your classroom. But knowing that maybe it’s not going to be received in the best way.

There’s like kind of that weight of, well, what if this makes them view me badly? I don’t know if maybe I should just keep silent. Maybe I’ll just wait and see if it gets better. And I have found myself pushing a lot of things to the side because I don’t want to be either that teacher that’s annoying. That’s always in their office. I don’t want to be that cause I don’t want to be seen as a nuisance because who wants to keep around the teacher that’s annoying or nuisance but also I don’t want to be the difficult teacher. I think that’s kind of what it does to being on annual contract – you want to avoid labels. If you’re going to give me a label, then I hope it’s that I’m, you know, the workhorse, not that I am the troubled teacher.

Luke: This is Luke. I’m wondering if, if you could. Maybe provide a specific instance or two, if you can think of one of something where you have had that internal struggle? A situation where you knew you needed to advocate, but there was also that fear of maybe not wanting, as you said, to get on the principal’s bad side or to be labeled as a complainer.

Annual contract teacher: Yes. I can think of one specifically and it’s not just at my school. I think it’s kind of a county-wide policy that’s developing, which is the idea of giving 50’s versus the zeros.

So even if a student doesn’t turn in anything, still give them a 50, or if they do one thing on that, like write their name, give them a 50, which started in elementary school, and it’s kind of working its way up through middle and some of high school. I was among the teachers that wanted to push back on that, but I never did because I felt like I wasn’t in a secure enough place to say anything, even though I felt strongly about them getting credit for not doing any work, that it wasn’t going to help them in the long run. You know, I thought I knew what was best for my students, and I felt strongly about something, but I still sat back and didn’t say anything. Even though other teachers did. They said plenty. I did not join in on that because I felt like I was in a more rocky, precarious situation than they were.

Tina: I understand. Thank you so much for your honesty. We now have a few more teachers joining our conversation. Victoria Smith is the president of the Citrus County Education Association (CCEA). From Lee County, we have Kevin Daly. He’s the president of the Teachers Association of Lee County (TALC). And with him is Dr. Angela Pruitt an administrator in Lee County schools. Thank you for joining us. It’s been a decade since Senate Bill 736 passed. It’s the law that banned continuing contracts and instituted annual contracts as the law of the land.

By now the instructional staff in most Florida districts must be primarily annual contract teachers. I believe I heard statewide average of about 60%. How has this transition impacted the teaching profession and has it curbed the educator shortage?

Vicki Smith, CCEA President & teacher: We’re a small county. So, when you look at our teacher shortage, our teacher shortage is 17 vacancies.

That seems small, but it really isn’t. We only have a little over, we have a 1,124 approximately teachers. So that many is quite a bit of vacancies. What the problem is though is then you’re looking at – 13 out of those 17 is classroom by the way – so that’s approximately 234 students that are being impacted.

So, it’s not just so much the teachers, with those vacancies, it’s the students that are hurting because of it. Because now you have full-time substitutes in. I’m a high school teacher. I teach geometry. So, when I have a student that had a substitute full-time substitute in algebra for the whole year or even half of the year, and then they come into my class, they’re now struggling in math because they don’t have that foundation of algebra. So, having the annual contract is not very productive in keeping teachers.

Kevin Daly You know, when you look at schools, they’re not only buildings, they’re communities. I think the best thing for these school communities is stability. I know my daughters are lucky enough to actually have the same third grade teacher when they went through elementary school and he’s still there. He had been there a long time before they ever had him. The idea that there’s this reliability and the same staff and they build relationship with children and families and across communities and across the county and beyond the school walls, it’s so important for the school to be a place of stability in the community because that stable workforce in the schools produces stable communities. I’ve heard from teachers who say the bank is kind of hesitant on giving me a mortgage because they understand I’m an annual contract teacher and there there’s record turnover and it really hasn’t solved the teacher shortage. And so, I think it’s time to reconsider the idea that everybody on an annual contract teacher.

Dr. Angela Pruitt: You know, as we move forward, I think there needs to be some kind of avenue that allows districts to offer that if that’s what they choose to do because it would give a sense of security for our teachers. I mean, how great would it be if we could say, “Well, listen, we will guarantee your employment for X number of years.”

Luke: I think Kevin was spot on when he said that the Legislature created this problem and it is incumbent upon them to solve it by doing away way with this legislation.

But I know in Lee County, you’re not just waiting for the Legislature to do the right thing, that you’re taking steps in Lee in order to provide a sense of stability, to the extent possible.

Dr. Angela Pruitt: Teachers are the most important asset and as we all know that the thing that makes the difference in the success of the student. And so, we tell principals they’re not allowed to release a teacher without… there’s a certain checklist that they have to follow. There’s things they have to do. There’s support they have to provide. There’s coaching they have to provide. There’s a whole checklist of things that they have to do before they’re allowed to release someone.

Kevin Daly: The language is set up because I know the law says, there can’t be any assumption of reappointment or any guarantee, but it certainly lays the groundwork to say that, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, the expectation is — and there’s a job there — the expectation is you’re going to be reappointed.

Tina: I still hear stories of effective and highly effective teachers being dismissed. How has your local dealing with that?

Kevin Daly: If that situation exists, we have teachers who are able to appeal their non-reappointment to the district and then be placed at another school because part of the conversation I’m starting to have with Dr. Pruitt these days is not around probationary releases, but around probationary transfers. Maybe there are a great high school math teacher, but not necessarily a really good middle school, math teacher – no reason to have them struggling in middle school. The idea of probationary transfers for that first year and getting people the support they need.

Dr. Angela Pruitt: We all know that somebody can be at a school and they’re just not good at supporting or providing guidance for new teachers. And so, I think it’s our responsibility as a district to make sure that we’ve done everything we can do to help the teacher to be successful.

My advice would be give us the flexibility, give us local control relative to what we want to offer to the people that work in our district. That’s what I would want. Give me local control.

Tina: So most annual contract teachers received a huge pay hike this year and while I’m sure you’re all grateful, I do have to ask you, is it enough? I mean, is it enough to cover the cost of not securing multi-year employment for Florida’s certified teachers?

Annual contract teacher: Probably no amount of money that you could put on the table right now would make me feel better than being given a multi-year contract, because it would allow a little bit of breathing room, and some room for innovation.

I think there’s a lot of educators, at least the ones that I’ve talked to, again that are [on an] Annual Contract that feel that way. Money is nice, but it’s not loyal. It doesn’t buy loyalty. And I do feel loyal to my school, but I don’t feel as much loyalty back because I don’t know if they’re going to want to keep me around next year or not, because it’s always changing.

Luke: That was a powerful statement about employee loyalty. Legislators have often justified their actions by saying that our schools need to be run more like businesses, but no business would survive without a stable workforce. Right now, almost 70% of Lee County teachers are on an annual contract, which is slightly higher than the state average.

Tina: Wow. That is very high. As a parent, I’m concerned about district instability and teachers being afraid to advocate for themselves and their students. That’s a problem. But I’m impressed by the collaboration between the union and the school district. They’ve found an innovative approach to retaining and growing the workforce, which ultimately helps students and the community.

Luke: And we didn’t even have time to mention the “Grow Your Own Program”, which cultivates interest in a teaching career long before students graduate high school. The district continues to invest in the community by offering scholarships to get new educators to commit to teaching in the district once they get their degree.

You know, Kevin really said it the best: the Lee County school district is the community.

Tina: You’re right. It’s a great model on how unions and school districts can work together to solve common problems. It also addresses why it’s important for school employees to have the ability to belong to a membership organization or a union if they choose. In this case, highly effective and effective certified teachers are not guaranteed a job, but the union has made sure they have some safeguards.

We’re going to take a break for a quick message. We’ll return in a moment.

A Shot in the Arm

Luke: We already know that teaching can be a high-stress job. As we just heard about the daily stress and anxiety that so many of our annual contract teachers endure and there is tons of research on school employees who struggle with feeling overwhelmed and disrespected. We’re not surprised to recognize working through the uncertainty of the pandemic has impacted morale.

In fact, a recent survey by Ed Week, a national publication that follows education trends, shows that teacher morale is at its lowest point ever.

Tina: Well Luke, we’re entering the second semester of the 2021 school year with a large number of students returning to in-person learning, a skyrocketing COVID positivity rate, and the possibility of more sporadic quarantines in schools statewide.

Since the school year started, the state health department has identified tens of thousands of infections in public and private schools involving students and staff. Since the virus is spreading so quickly, the White House Coronavirus Task Force has specifically recommended, requiring weekly testing for Florida’s K-12 teachers.

The good news is a vaccine is insight, but only a shot in the arm can ease concerns.

Luke: Joining us now from Brevard County are Traci Stiles, a high school math teacher with over a decade of experience and Anthony Colucci, a National Board Certified Teacher with 15 years of experience at the elementary level who currently serves as president of the Brevard Federation of Teachers (BFT).

Tina: As you know, right now, some states have already started vaccinating their school employees. Others are making plans. The CDC has recognized that teachers are frontline workers who should receive the shot, but that is not happening here in the state of Florida. How do you feel about that?

Anthony Colucci: Well, our teachers are essential workers, and if we want to continue to have our schools opening and having fewer quarantines for students and teachers, we need to get shots into our teachers, arms, those who want a vaccination, as soon as possible. So, our teachers, uh, many of our teachers are anxious to get their vaccine and are ready to go. As soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Tina: How do you feel Traci?

Traci Stiles, teacher I just looked up the cdc.gov the CDC recommendations yesterday when I was asked to talk here and that’s when it really hit me—we were skipped over and that does not make me very happy. I would definitely have liked to have been vaccinated or at least given the option to go. I mean, I fear, I fear catching it and I fear bringing it home to my child. I mean, I don’t understand why teachers, don’t, why he (Gov. DeSantis) doesn’t think teachers qualify. We are essential workers, kids are sick and they pass stuff through and you catch it from the kids or what it is. And with this COVID-19, it’s scary because it affects so many people in so many different ways and it could be very negatively. And, you know, just in the way it’s so contagious, I wish, you know, we should get that shot just to keep ourselves and our families safe. And that way we can keep the schools up and running appropriately as well.

Anthony Colucci: And I would add to that, that the CDC really thought out the distribution plan. They didn’t just come up with that on the fly. There was an intensive, uh, research done and decision-making in order to come up with this plan and he, Governor DeSantis, chose to just look at death rates—rather than looking at death rates, as well as keeping our society functioning and rolling as we needed to be. We need our students learning, and he’s putting that in jeopardy by skipping over teachers and staff. And ultimately we see that when he didn’t follow the CDC guidelines, we have a failed rollout plan that has been a disaster. When we have elderly people waiting outside overnight in the cold to get a vaccine, when we have folks who are over 65 and older calling endlessly over and over and over again, trying to schedule an appointment, and ultimately some of them giving up because they’re having no success. It should be obvious to all Floridians that Governor DeSantis, uh, had no plan and didn’t follow the plan that he was giving. And this is not beneficial for any of us.

Luke: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s interesting, Anthony, um, that you said vaccinate teachers who want to be vaccinated, in order to keep society running. School districts are one of the largest, if not the largest employers in most counties. I mean, so in a very real sense, you know. If we want the economy to thrive, if we want all of the things that Governor DeSantis says he wants, putting aside to the importance of in-person instruction, it’s good for communities when teachers are safe.

Anthony Colucci: Absolutely. We saw what happened over this spring when we were forced into quarantine and schools closed down and we saw that the parents meant in many cases were, uh, unable to go to work because there was nobody at home to watch your children, or were forced with a difficult decision of, of leaving their children at home and going to work. So, what was prepared (by the CDC) was a common sense rollout. And what DeSantis did was a nightmare that it’s not benefiting any of us.

Tina: Now, he’s saying that teachers should wait for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which is still in trial and maybe approved soon. We don’t know it’s that one time shot rather than the double dose, but we don’t know when that’s going to be available. This sounds more like politics over, uh, health and safety.

Anthony Colucci: It sounds like DeSantis is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Right? He wants the economy up and functioning. He wants to give the vaccine to elderly folks who make up 4.5 million voters in Florida, but ultimately what he’s really doing is he’s putting our teachers and our staff and our students at risk in order to garner votes.

Tina: Traci, what are you doing to better protect yourself at school now, knowing that the positivity rate is increasing?

Traci Stiles: I’m definitely wearing my N-95 mask. I have positioned my classroom to where my desk is at least six feet away from the nearest row of students. I have rearranged all my testing. I do not hand out very many paper and pencil tests anymore, most of it is done online for every student. And….

Tina: Is it more difficult to teach in person under these current circumstances?

Traci Stiles: It is more difficult to teach in person. I feel that a lot of my teaching is facial expressions. I mean, I teach math, but I still make faces. And I, you know, I sit there and look at them when they get it right and I have to really kind of reflect that and I have to verbalize more. I feel like I have to speak louder because I have this mask on my face and I feel like they can’t hear me, you know? Sometimes it’s, it is hard to breathe. And if the air conditioning is not working properly in the room, it’s really uncomfortable with the mask on. I usually will teach from the front of the room at the board and or sometimes I’ll stand at my desk and I’ll just project what I’m writing so they can see that. But the students prefer me standing right in front of them and getting all up in personal and kind of in their faces. They prefer that. They pay attention better when I’m like that. So, I alternate between lessons as far as where I’m teaching in my classroom. And then I, I try to walk around a little bit, but even then I’m like, okay, you’ve been coughing. So, I’m staying away from you. (laughter)

Luke: As we record this in early January, um, we know that the state has really threatened, you know, with financial penalties districts, if they do not return as many students as possible to in-person instruction. So, have you seen an uptick in students returning?

Traci Stiles: Um, in my classroom, I’ve kept everything uniform for the kids that were online, as well as the ones in the room. So, for them to come from online into my classroom, it’s a very easy switch. Right now I have not seen a huge uptick and change of whatever the kids have been quarantined. I’ve had quite a few go out on quarantine last week, and so they’re gone and then next week we’re changing semesters. So I’ll get a whole new group of students. I have looked ahead to see about how many I had on e-learning versus in person. And it looks like coming in my trig and analysis of function classes are about 50/50. It’s a little less than that. Like, I have more in the room than I have online, but then the honors Algebra II class—that class—I have 30 kids and I literally have six of them right now, marked as e-learning. So that would be a class with 24 students in the room and six online.

Anthony Colucci: One of the major concerns that Traci touched on is, especially at our high schools, we have students flip-flopping modalities, flip-flopping from brick and mortar to e-learning on a daily basis in some, some cases, um, a block by block basis, and that’s become a real frustration for teachers, as well as, students who are out on legitimate quarantines, who are switching from brick and mortar to e-learning. So I was talking to a group of secondary teachers about the return of more students to brick and mortar. And, um, it, it almost doesn’t even matter because there’s been so much turnover amongst these students anyways, they’re like, well, I got four coming in, but I got six on quarantine. So, you know, it, it, it’s not potentially making a huge difference in, in our secondary schools. But that was something that we tried to, uh, work on in negotiations with the district was to stop these students from concerns about a student flip-flopping frequently. Um, the administrator would contact the parent and attempt to work on the issue, but it seems to be a bigger problem in secondary schools where uh, kids are driving themselves and playing sports and so on

Tina: Do you believe that this vaccine is the first step to a cure of returning to normal and school?

Anthony Colucci: I certainly see that to be the case. There’s still some questions as to how well the vaccine will prevent the transmission of COVID-19. However, it seems that if you have less teachers and staff and potentially students demonstrating symptoms, they’re not sneezing, they’re not coughing that their spread is going to be reduced as well. So, it’s tough to say whether teachers are getting it at school or they’re getting it elsewhere, but especially with our, older students are secondary students, there’s good indication that they’re spreading COVID-19 on similar, um, levels as adults. And unfortunately, in Brevard County, we lost our first teacher to COVID, uh, about a month or so ago. And she was a secondary teacher. I actually just talked to one of her good friends the other day, who once again, explained this was a teacher who was trying to be cautious. She was not going a lot of places after school. She was going to the grocery store and going to work. And her biggest fear was that she was going to bring home COVID-19 to her mother who lived with her. And it appears that’s exactly what happened because her mother died of COVID about a day before she did. So in a situation like that, can we say for sure if it happened, that the transmission happened at school? No, but is it likely, it was likely that that transmission happened at school. That’s why we need every precaution in place. You know, we need to be concerned about the, the social distancing, the contact tracing the protective equipment we needed all in place and we need to be confident with it. And I’d certainly think as more students return, it’s going to be harder to guarantee, um, good social distancing. There’s some classes where there is proper social distancing. um, but those classes are going to be few and far between as students return. So that’s why as essential workers teachers need to have that vaccine available to them. If they want to take it.

Luke: One issue that we’ve already discussed is that Governor DeSantis has ignored the CDC recommendations and not put teachers where the federal government says they should be in line. A separate issue is distribution. Um, even if Governor DeSantis said teachers are first in line right now, people are struggling to get it, right? Even the people who qualify are struggling to get it. Um, I saw, um, some information yesterday that suggested only one third of all of the vaccines in Florida have actually been distributed. I’m wondering if it might make sense to use schools and as a distribution site, because you could then not only ensure that the essential workers, the teachers get vaccinated, it’s an opportunity to educate the community. Um, and it provides an infrastructure because every single county has schools, right? So it’s a built-in possible infrastructure in a way to get more vaccines to more people quickly. Any thoughts either of you have on that?

Anthony Colucci: Well, one, meme I saw recently said they should have put a team of elementary teachers who’s in charge of the car loop in charge of the vaccine distribution. (laughter) It would have went much smoother. So I certainly think there there’s truth to that. But yeah, a logical way to distribute the vaccine would have been school-by-school basis. Here in our district, they already do that with the flu shot. They will come out to school. They’ll set up as calendar, come out, just schools, administer the flu shot, easy peasy, well-organized you, you know, your time, you know your date. And it gets done at our 90+sites and provider and County. So, it certainly seems like a better approach than the hap-hazard free for all that’s occurred up to this point.

Tina: The state has added more distribution sites but working educators over age 65 are still struggling to get the vaccine on their own. So several school districts have started partnering with their county health departments to offer a limited number of doses to eligible educators here in Tallahassee. The Leon County Classroom Teachers association recently offered shot to their members.

Luke: You know that’s a really great idea. And another example of how unions help their members in times of need. But, as always, there’s another complication. The state is running dangerously low on its supply of vaccinations. Our state surgeon general has issued a request to the federal government to boost the number of doses of the next shipment. We’ll see. But there is hope on the horizon. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine may soon hand to the FDA for approval and be available shortly for distribution.

Tina: That’s our show. I want to thank our guests and our listeners. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. Don’t forget to check our show notes page for additional information, and please encourage your friends to subscribe at www.feaweb.org/podcast.

Luke: We’d love to read your email. Send your feedback, ideas and suggestions to heart@floridaea.org. That email address again is heart@floridaea.org. Or you can send a voicemail by calling 850-201-3384. That’s 850-201-3384. We hope to hear from you.

Tina: Join us for our next episode. Until you tune in again, keep Educating From the Heart.

Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA president Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit www.feaweb.org/podcast.

*Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education, staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.

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