Things are getting very dark in Florida, and educators at all levels have found themselves on the frontlines of a reactionary political crusade led by Republican governor Ron DeSantis. “As the new semester began,” Florida-based journalist Michael Sainato recently reported, “teachers throughout Florida were faced with new state laws strictly limiting curricula—prompting schools to remove droves of books from their classrooms and libraries for fear of being in violation of the draconian but opaque new laws. An already-chilling reality gripping the third most populous state is getting even chillier in the wake of controversial legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the Stop Woke Act, which both went into effect in July 2022.” What is it like teaching in DeSantis’s Florida today? For those who haven’t already fled the state or left the profession altogether, what do these sweeping, draconian policy changes translate to on the day-to-day level for educators, and how can we stand in solidarity with them? In this episode, we talk with Philip Belcastro and Brennen Pickett, two public high school English teachers and union members in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the hosts of the PCTA FYRE podcast.
Additional links/info below…
- PCTA FYRE podcast (listen and subscribe)
- Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Kerry Sheridan, WUSF, “Tallahassee Isn’t Asking What Teachers Think. So They Started a Podcast“
- Michael Sainato, The Real News Network, “‘It’s Disrupted All of My Lesson Plans’: Florida Ramps Up Book Bans, Censorship“
- Michael Sainato, The Real News Network, “Florida’s Racist and Anti-LGBTQ Bills Are Already Having a Chilling Effect“
- McKenna Schueler, Orlando Weekly, “All the Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws Being Proposed in Florida — And How You Can Fight Back“
- McKenna Schueler, Orlando Weekly, “‘This Is Our Future’: UCF Students Join Statewide Student Protest of DeSantis’ ‘Dystopian’ Education Policies“
- Ariel Schiller, WTXL Tallahassee, “Senate Bill 256 Would Change Florida’s Unions“
- Fabiola Cineas, Vox, “Ron DeSantis’s War on “Woke” in Florida Schools, Explained“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
Brennen Pickett: My name is Brennan Pickett. I’m a sixth year English teacher in Pinellas County Schools and a St. Pete native. I am currently the FEA director, I serve on the governance board representing Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association over at the Florida Education Association.
Philip Belcastro: My name is Philip Belcastro. I am a third year teacher at Pinellas County Schools. I’m co-chair of Florida’s Young Remarkable Educators along with Brennan Pickett in the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. And I’m also co-host of the PCTA FYRE podcast with Brennan.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So as you guys heard, we’ve got a really important episode for y’all today. I’m really, really grateful to have Brennan and Phil on the show. We are going to be talking about an issue that has been weighing on my mind, and I know it’s been weighing on all of yours if you listen to this show. It’s probably one of the things that we’ve been getting asked about the most, which is, are you going to talk to teachers in Florida right now? Because, I think, as we’ve covered on this show, pretty much throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a lot of ways every interview over the past three years can be considered a COVID interview, or interviews with workers going through the COVID pandemic and how COVID and the societal, economic, and political responses to this world changing event and what those mean for us as working people, what that means for the jobs that we do, how those jobs are changing, whether or not those jobs are going away, so on and so forth.
And I think it’s been pretty clear over the past few seasons that working people have been really up against it in industry after industry. But I think it’s very safe to say that when it comes to education and healthcare, we are not fully prepared for the crisis at hand, nor do I think we as a society have fully appreciated the scale of that crisis, the relentless burnout of our healthcare workers after enduring wave after wave of new COVID variants and changes in CDC policy or local municipal policy, then the vilification that people get from different political corners of society.
And that’s very much true of educators as well, we have asked our educators to do so much. And while we may have championed them as heroes in the early days of the pandemic, as we’ve covered on this show, educators and educational support staff have really become the target of so much political and cultural vitriol over the past few years. They have really been taking the brunt of people’s pent-up frustrations that they don’t know who else to take them out on.
And not only that, but as we’re going to talk about in Florida, which is really the epicenter of this growing reactionary right-wing push to overhaul our educational system that includes attacking organized labor within the education system, furthering the process of privatization and charterfication. But also, as we’ve all been seeing, under Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida passing the Stop Woke Act, the Parental Rights in Education bill, aka the Don’t Say Gay bill, the Curriculum Transparency bill that is causing so many school libraries to withdraw all their books and submit them to this… What else is there to call it? It’s an authoritarian system of review to determine whether or not children’s books meet some arbitrarily set, politically motivated standard for educational appropriateness.
It’s getting really dark in Florida. And just like the anti-gay and anti-trans bills that are proliferating in state Houses around the country, the model that DeSantis and Republicans in Florida are setting is really bleeding out into other states around the country. So this is all of our issue to deal with. And it’s something that I know folks who listen to the show have been wanting us to dig into more in the new season, which is why I’m so grateful to be on the call with Brennan and Philip, two educators in Florida, as you heard, who are going to give us, as best they can, an on the ground view of what it has been like teaching in Ron DeSantis’s Florida, what the day-to-day work of being an educator right now in Florida looks like and how that work is changing, how the relationships between colleagues, or between students, between parents is changing as these dark political forces take hold across the state, and increasingly across the country.
So we are going to dig into all of that over the course of the next 45, 50 minutes or so. And before I jump back and get to know a little more about Brennan and Phillip, I wanted to center everyone by reading a passage from a great piece that we published over at The Real News back in February written by the great labor journalist Michael Sainato about the Florida book bands and these DeSantis-led wars on wokeness, critical race theory, and LGBTQ students, teachers and families. So we’re going to link to this in the show notes if you want to read more about it.
But just to, again, center folks on what we’re talking about today. Michael Sainato writes, “As the new semester began, teachers throughout Florida were faced with new state laws strictly limiting curricula, prompting schools to remove droves of books from their classrooms and libraries for fear of being in violation of the Draconian, but opaque, new laws. An already chilling reality gripping the third most populous state is getting even chillier in the wake of controversial legislation such as the Don’t Say Gay bill and the Stop Woke Act, which both went into effect in July 2022.
“The DeSantis administration rolled out several initiatives in January of 2023 aimed at eliminating broad swaths of the existing curriculum, including banning the teaching of advanced placement or AP African-American studies for high school students throughout Florida. Said initiatives also required public colleges and universities to detail any spending related to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives or critical race theory, including listing any programs, staff, or courses that may qualify.”
So, if it wasn’t clear from my introduction, hopefully that passage from Michael’s piece does make it clear what we’re talking about here. And so, like I said, we’re going to work our way up to where things are now and what this means for educators and students on the ground in Florida.
But Brennan, Phillip, before we get there, before we hop straight into the really heavy stuff, I wanted to get to know a little more about you guys. And on this show, we really like to stretch our legs and dig deep into people’s back stories and get to know how they came to be the people they are, how they came to do the work that they’re doing, all that good stuff. And so, I wanted to see if we could do a shortened version of that, and if you guys could tell us a little more about how you yourselves got into education and what your pathway to becoming full-time educators in Florida was.
Brennen Pickett: My journey started simply as me wanting to be an English teacher who wanted to teach English abroad. I originally taught in Colombia for a year and I was teaching English as a second language there. And what ended up happening was I got home and I needed a job. So my mother-in-law, who’s been a teacher for over 20 years, and my wife, my wife was in the Peace Corps in Colombia, she’s like, well, you guys like doing it out there, why don’t you just teach here? And I was tired of living at my mom’s house, so I applied to Pinellas County Schools. I got myself a job and I was an English teacher. I was thrown right into the classroom midyear, and it was pretty crazy. So that’s how I got into it. And slowly but surely I learned that I actually really liked this gig, and I got to start basically pushing my passions of English literature and writing onto my students. And I really like what I do.
Philip Belcastro: So this is only my third year teaching. But I landed here after a series of nonprofit jobs working within the community here. I started in public housing. I was in AmeriCorps for a summer teaching in an elementary school here in the South side of St. Pete. And that was my first foray into education. After that, I worked with a couple of other nonprofits and I got a gig teaching what is essentially the Florida equivalent of a health course, they call it Hope down here, and I got to do that all over Pinellas County. So I went to many of the high schools here in Pinellas.
And through that I knew, having been in St. Petersburg High School, where I currently teach, that there was something special about that particular school. I really liked the demographics of students, how well mixed it was, how it had very affluent children as well as kids who were from lower income areas, how it was very mixed with Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. And I really liked the atmosphere and the culture of the staff there, the staff and administration. So there was something special about that school, and I knew that if I ever had the opportunity to become an English teacher, which I knew was always down the pipeline with my English degree, at that time I was using my English degree for lots of different adjacent things, like media and advertising stuff too, and along with this nonprofit gig, media coordinator, that that’s a school I wanted to be at.
So actually, during the pandemic an opportunity became available, and I tell this story a lot, but the amount of time between me clicking the submit button on my job application and accepting the job from the principal was 11 hours.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.
Philip Belcastro: So it was a very quick turnaround time. That’s how desperate they were during the pandemic.
So I wasn’t afraid of high schoolers, teenagers, they can be a tough crowd. But I’m a musician by nature. I’ve done lots of performance work, so I knew I could take it just as much as I could dish it out. So that’s how I ended up with my own classroom with my name above the door.
And I am very content in the profession. I really enjoy it. I love the performative nature of it. I love being able to educate and share knowledge and some of the things that I love with students, and obviously they share so much stuff with me too. I feel so in tune with music and video games and movies and TV shows now because it’s a back and forth. So I genuinely love the gig of teaching.
Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s talk about that for a second. Again, before we get to Ron DeSantis and these new changes targeted at K-12 and higher education, as well as teachers’ unions specifically and organized labor in general in the state. Let’s talk about those qualities of the job that attracted you and what the work has been like. Because this is something that I’ve heard you guys talking to fellow educators about on your podcast, the PCTA FYRE podcast, which everyone should go check out. We’ve linked to that in the show notes, including their Patreon. So if you want to support Brennan and Philip, go check out their show, go support them on Patreon, you guys know the drill.
But I know that y’all have talked to other educators about how even before COVID there were still a lot of longstanding issues with our public education system. It’s not for nothing that before the “strike waves” of the past couple years, really the biggest mobilizations on the labor front were teacher strikes, or the Red for Ed strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia, Arizona, California. And then, even before that, the famous Chicago Teachers Union strike about 10 years ago.
And those strikes were really born out of this dire need to address the longstanding systemic disinvestment in our public education system and our teachers and our students and our staff. And that was leading to a lot of burnout. It was leading to people fleeing the profession. So it’s always that mixed bag. There’s so many things that we love so much about teaching. I miss teaching. Hell, it’s the one thing about higher education that I do miss. But it’s balancing that with all this other stuff.
I was wondering if you guys could tell us a little bit more about what that job has entailed for you, and what sorts of issues were you seeing or you’ve heard about that were plaguing the profession before COVID-19 hit and before Ron DeSantis became governor in Florida?
Brennen Pickett: So unfortunately, I don’t think Florida will be joining the rest of the country when it comes to striking. What happened in Florida in 1968 was that we were the first state to go on strike, and then slowly, very quickly rather, they took away that right from us as a right-to-work state and gave us collective bargaining as a gimme.
Florida, since I’ve been in this profession for six years now, I taught before COVID and I’m now teaching currently. One of the biggest issues that continues to follow us has always been pay, always been our salaries, and has always been the hardest part about retaining teachers. Florida currently has 48th lowest pay on average according to the National Education Association. And no matter how many times Ron DeSantis wants to tell us that he’s been raising salaries, he’s raised the starting salaries only. We’re seeing more and more of a crunch now from the older generations to the newer generations. For example, as a sixth year educator, I only make about $2,000 more than someone who starts today.
That was always the first main issue that kept people out. And what I continue to see, and this happened before COVID, where you would get an educator into the classroom and they would get almost zero support, which continues to happen to this day, and they would walk out within a week. I remember my second year of teaching, we had an English classroom that had four different English teachers walk out within a couple of weeks, until eventually you find someone who’s dumb enough to stay.
What keeps me here is the fact that it’s something I actually do enjoy, and a lot of states, like Florida, are really banking on teacher passion in this job. Unfortunately, they’re running out of those people, and it doesn’t matter how many times they want to raise the starting wages, the point is you can’t make a career out of this. Yes, you get the pension, but how long can you stay in the same tax bracket for the rest of your life until things really start changing?
Philip Belcastro: I was in classrooms before the pandemic, but I didn’t have my own, like I said. So my experience getting into this was… It’s a bit unusual to say, and I know it’s not a common experience, but beginning teaching in the middle of the pandemic, getting hired within 11 hours of clicking submit, at that time, I was actually working for the city of St. Pete, and for me, the salary of a starting teacher was attractive. It was like one and a half times more than I was making as a city employee. And it was more in line with my degree field and my passions, because dealing with the humanities and the arts and writing and literature and all these sorts of things was a little bit in my interests than what I was doing with the city, but I still loved what I was doing with the city. So it was just an attractive beginning salary, like what Pickett said.
Starting that way, though, was very interesting because it was the best and the worst time. It was the best because we focused on only the most important things. We were focusing on the kids and making sure that the kids were getting everything that they needed. And we were able to do that because we only had 15 desks in a room. We only had 15 face-to-face students. We had room to move around. We were able to make that many copies for whatever we had to do. We were able to give that amount of attention to that amount of students that was required.
Teaching online, virtually, over Teams and over Canvas and stuff wasn’t particularly difficult for me. I’m pretty tech-savvy myself. For the entirety of my college career we used Canvas, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was capable of and what it ought to be able to do. So even though Canvas, the online learning platform that this district uses, was new to the district and new to the students, me and Pickett had both used that when we went to school together at USF St. Pete. So I knew exactly what it should be doing. So that wasn’t particularly difficult.
Now, what happened was “after” the pandemic, once we shifted back to normal school and we had all almost 2,000 kids on our campus, 35 desks in our room, and now we have new administrative tasks, we have new meetings to go to, we have new paperwork to fill out, we have half as much time to devote to twice as many students, now that we’re in regular school mode I’m realizing the differences, the disparity, the lacking in certain areas that we are just not equipped for. We do not have the support for it. We do not have the time for it.
And going back to salaries, what was an attractive salary for me three years ago, now with the rate of inflation, particularly in this city, in the Tampa Bay area, it’s astronomical. I feel I’m pretty much back to where I was three years ago. And, like Pickett said, you cannot build a career, you cannot build a family or buy a home with this salary plus the amount of extra work off the clock and the frustration and the time-consuming… Especially us as ELA teachers, language arts teachers, we don’t give tests on Scantrons. We don’t give multiple choice tests. We have to read every word of every essay that comes across our desk. It is time-consuming, and we absolutely have to do it off the clock, outside of contract time. Now we’ve got twice as many students as we did when I started in the pandemic. The salary-to-time consumption and the salary-to-inflation is no longer working. It’s no longer worth it. So that’s part of what’s leading me to think about leaving the profession, seriously.
Maximillian Alvarez: And it’s so heartbreaking, because I’ve heard similar stories from so many good and dedicated educators from around the damn country. I remember about a year and a half ago I was in Wisconsin filming for The Real News and In These Times, and we were looking at the state of public sector workers, particularly teachers, 10 years after the devastating passage of Act 10 under Republican governor Scott Walker, which really took a battering ram to unions, really scapegoated public sector workers at a time when people were hurting from the recession, and used that politics of pitting working people against one another to ram through some really draconian, anti-organized labor laws. Eventually, a couple years later, turning Wisconsin into a right-to-work state.
And the result has been very similar to what y’all described. I talked to educators in rural parts of the country, to Madison who were saying, yeah, we love our students, we love our schools, we love our colleagues. But the workload is unmanageable, the number of students that we are juggling is unmanageable. Some of us don’t even have an office, we’re running between buildings.
But also that question of retention, how do you retain educators? How do you convince people to not just work at the school, but to plant roots there, to make a life there, to be part of the community and educate generations of children, soon to be adults, who come out of that community? Because that’s what a lot of these educators that I spoke with in Wisconsin wanted to do, but they were like, financially we can’t make it work, so I’m going to have to go to a new district, or I’m just going to have to leave the profession. That is such a slow boiling, catastrophic effect, I think, on our society, on our children, on our communities that’s really hard to appraise.
But I think if you spend any time talking to folks who work in education, you can definitely sense it’s there. And I wanted to ask, before we move on from that point, if y’all could say a little bit about what this looks like from the student side, because I know that, especially during COVID, you saw it on every major news network: it was all about learning loss. It was about what’s going on with K-12 students and the impact that COVID school closures were going to have, and all that stuff. Of course, those things were at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but obviously it was very rarely the students themselves that we were hearing from. It was people always speaking on behalf of the students. So I wanted to ask, as educators who spend time with students every day, what’s your sense of how students are doing throughout all of this?
Brennen Pickett: I don’t think it’s crazy for me to say that this country has never truly valued education. And what happened during the COVID crisis was that students, I think, finally decided they just don’t care. It was already there before COVID, but when it happened and when we put them into the classrooms through these Zoom calls and this blended teaching, nothing truly mattered anymore. Everyone was cheating, no one cared if they got caught. And all we turned into were people who input grades. And if we didn’t give them an A, we had to defend ourselves.
In the very beginning you mentioned that educators were frontline workers and we were being championed. I never felt championed during the COVID years in Florida. In fact, I was terrified and so were my students. I thought I was going to get a disease that was going to definitely either disable me or kill me.
And when Ron DeSantis pushed us into the classroom, that was just when all hell broke loose. Yes, we had smaller class sizes. I was used to classes of 36 before COVID, and it dropped down to, I think I had my lowest class down below 10 students. That’s great. But I still have rosters of 30 because the rest of them were online. Was I truly reaching them? No. Their cameras were off, they weren’t communicating with me. Sometimes they didn’t even show up. So all I was really doing, what I felt like, and it took a lot of meaning out of the job for me, was I was just the person to take attendance, say this person signed onto a Zoom call, and then if they fill out a worksheet I could just put in an A, and that’s going to count as a high school credit saying they are ready for the workforce.
It’s just getting worse and worse and worse. And it’s getting to the point where we have to start thinking why do we go to the school, essentially, in my opinion. I don’t think Florida values education whatsoever anymore after the COVID years. We’re truly at a loss. So as far as learning losses went, I think we just lost the focus on education altogether.
Philip Belcastro: I agree with what Brennan just said, that we need to rethink, why are we doing this? We do have compulsory education in this country, and we’ve had it for a really long time. Now, with the changes that we’ve seen since the pandemic, we’re at a reckoning with ourselves. We’re thinking, well, what could education be? What could education look like? I would disagree on the point that, say, this country has never cared about education. I think we’ve been on a downward slope since probably the 1960s, though, with a lot of policies and changes that were made at that time that our parents and grandparents were the ones mostly affected, and now we’re seeing the outcome of that.
And on top of all that, I feel it’s very interesting and ironic that a lot of the conservative talking points about building community and the degradation of traditional values and families, what me and Brennan are trying to is trying to build a family, trying to retain our values, trying to stay in our communities, and we are being pushed further and further out because we cannot afford to be part of our community. We cannot afford to serve our community. Right now where I live is right across the street from the high school. And I love being able to walk to football games, being able to walk to music performances. I love being able to visit my students when they’re working or run into them at the gym or at the park or something like that. Being actively involved in my community and my students seeing that I’m a real person and me seeing that they are out in the world being good people and reflecting what we teach in the classroom and reflecting all of those values, that is extremely important to me. So the idea that anything that teachers do or anything that is being done to the education system is intentionally trying to hurt that is extremely offensive and just categorically wrong.
So what we are seeing now in the classroom is a complete atrophy of education and of students, because they have spent a lot of time inside the box with virtual learning with nobody really sure how to use it. And like I mentioned, I am a technophile. I do like technology. I think using it in the classroom is a fantastic idea, and I use it every chance that I can get. The problem that we’re seeing, though, especially here, is that teachers are being replaced with technology. It’s been done to math classes for years. It’s been done to economics classes.
We have a teacher who’s been teaching almost 30 years in our school, and he is a full-time computer monitor at this point. He administers a program over a computer to a room full of 40 or 50 kids or whatever it is. He used to be an economics teacher, he used to be a social studies teacher. And we’re seeing that happen now to the social sciences. We’re seeing that happen to language arts, that they’re using programs that these budget cutters and administrators and school districts and people at the state level think can do our job just as good as we can.
And like I had said, ironically, it’s deteriorating the actual fabric of what a community is. It is deteriorating what students think that they’re capable of, and we are seeing the results of that. We do have complete apathy, and it’s driving good people away, because if the students don’t care about things, if they don’t see the value in learning or participating in anything at this point, what can we do? How many fun activities can you create for maybe 2% of your students to actually care about?
And then, they’re not oblivious to this state of the world. Some of them we know listen to our podcast. We don’t talk about it in the classroom, but some of them have said, and we talk about current events in my class. They know that the world is in rough shape. And on top of that they’ve got the physical evidence that they’ve got classrooms with no teachers in them, or they’ve got classes that have been taught by six different people over a year. And they know that, oh, what happened to Ms. So-and-so? What happened to Mr. So-and-so? Well, they left, they quit. So we know that you really liked them and that person wanted to be in the classroom with you, but they quit. So they’re not oblivious. They are internalizing all of this. And now what we’re seeing is the external ramifications of all of those things.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and that brings us, terrifyingly, to these seismic changes that have been going on in Florida. And I think it’s important to connect those two points, because yeah, man, Jesus, I genuinely can only imagine what my sense of the world would be if I was in high school right now and trying to make sense of the world that I am preparing to enter and what my education would mean to me in this context. And it really does stop me in my tracks and break my heart to think about just how different of an outlook I had on the world when I was in high school, not so long ago, less than 20 years ago. I graduated in 2005. But the world still seemed open. It still seemed like my pathway to a future that I wanted to make for myself was open. It was possible if I just worked hard enough, if I went to the best schools, did the most extracurriculars, took the most AP classes, all that stuff.
And it’s like, in that time, what’s happened? A financial meltdown of the global economy that has led to gilded age levels of wealth inequality, the continued destruction of our shared planet, and the absolute refusal of the people in power on the government side, on the industry side, and governments and states around the world, predominantly in the developed West, doing absolutely nothing to halt the onslaught of climate catastrophe. And I know that this is something that the younger generation is very well clued into, and so they’re actively watching their parents’ generations destroy the planet and do nothing to stop it.
So that’s got to have an effect as well, to say nothing of seeing their older siblings or uncles and aunts having rushed into a meat grinder of a higher education system that has saddled entire generations with debt that we’ll never be able to pay off while cost of living goes up, quality of life goes down. People are working longer and harder, but struggling more and more to make ends meet. And then you got COVID on top of that. And we saw a lot of good in each other during COVID, but we also saw the worst of each other over the past three years. And you don’t unsee those things. You don’t unsee the ways that people treated flight attendants or baristas or educators. You don’t just put that back in the box and return to normal.
And so, as a young mind absorbing all of this and seeing just how nasty and vicious and violent of a world they inhabit and that the adults and the older generations have bequeathed to them, it’s like, how do you have anything but a depressed outlook on what the point of your education is or what you’re going to do with your life after you get out of school?
And yet, I turn on the TV and I hear, oh, students are apathetic, or, they’re not learning as much because their teachers are too woke, or we’re not religious enough. Everyone needs to go back to church or start saying prayers in schools again. It has nothing to do with the fact that students are now packed in classrooms that are twice as big as they used to be with teachers who don’t even make it through a full year because they get burnt out, or the turnover is so high. It’s like we try so hard to identify everything but the real problems at hand.
And that’s where a lot of this DeSantis, Republican stuff is coming from, because we have all these other deep systemic issues that require deep reflection as a society and real substantive systemic investment to fix. Now that I think about it, I’m barely even scratching the surface. It was less than a year ago that Uvalde, Texas happened. How could you be a student watching shit like that and not feel like your society doesn’t give a damn about you and your life? I would really press everyone listening to this, every parent, every grandparent, everyone who thinks that they know better what to do about this situation, stop and think about what message we are sending to our children about how much we value their lives and how much of a society they’re going to have to inherit when they reach adulthood.
But anyway, I guess I haven’t spoken out loud about this in a while, so that all just came rushing out of me. I apologize, guys. But I wanted to, in that vein, really, let’s drive into the heart of darkness here. Let’s bring in the changes under Ron DeSantis into this conversation, because in many ways we’ve been talking about everything leading up to that, and DeSantis assumed the governorship in January of 2019, so this is three years ago. I was wondering if you could each talk a bit about… We do this on the show a lot, we really like to get to know, okay, what does a typical week look like for you doing the job that you do? Just, for folks who’ve never worked as an educator, tell us what that looks like.
I was wondering if we could start there and if you could then talk about how you started to notice changes in that work or in the culture, in the vibe, as these successive legislative changes have taken effect in Florida under the auspices of Ron DeSantis as governor?
Brennen Pickett: So, a typical week for me as an English teacher, I currently teach AP language and composition as well as an English 2 course. Every morning I get up at 5:00 AM. I get to work at 6:00 AM and I sit down and I try to grade about five to 10 essays that my students have written so I can give them back some timely feedback. School starts at 7:25, I don’t get paid for that hour. I then work, I do my lessons. During my planning period I try to maybe plan out the week as far as I can go, as far as the school year goes. I try to fit in as much as I can in that 40 minutes. Then I continue my work day. And 1:55 hits, I usually have to go to some kind of meeting, sometimes the 504, sometimes an IEP. So this depends on the day, it could be a staff meeting.
I’m also a lead teacher for a program at our school. So sometimes I have to plan PLCs. And then at 2:35 I’m allowed to go home. And I get home around 3:00, 3:30, and rinse and repeat. I do that every single day. I don’t miss a beat. I do get to school every single day at 6:00 AM and I do grade, because if I don’t do that, then I have to do it outside of contract hours at my home. So there are weekends where I do have to grade papers. There are weekends where I have to plan, I have to spend a Sunday evening with my wife who’s also a teacher, and we sit down on the couch and we do plans together.
What I started to notice with Ron DeSantis when he first became governor was immediately during, actually, the 2018 campaign when his opponent, Andrew Gillen, suggested that teachers should make $50,000. Now, at the time, I was so elated, I was ecstatic. I was losing my mind, like I said, because at the time I was making $43,000 in 2018. And I was telling myself, this is groundbreaking if he could raise starting wages to $50,000. Of course, Ron DeSantis’s immediate rebuttal was, no, we should pay them $47,500. So immediately I already had this idea of Ron as not truly being for teachers. It was always some kind of political game where one person says this and he would rebuttal and give something a little bit smaller every single time. But that didn’t bother me because $47,500 was enough for the time, and I had a union. I had a union that collectively bargained, and we could get that up over the years.
Then COVID hit, and he pushed us all into the classroom, and I was terrified, my students were terrified. But after all, we were solving the learning gains. And Ron likes to brag about how he saved Florida’s schools because he pushed us all into the classrooms, even though every single teacher was saying no. But that wasn’t a big deal, I just put my head down, I kept on working.
Then something changed because we had a governor’s race recently with Charlie Chris. He was a governor before, and he is a moderate, he’s a Democrat, Republican guy. But one thing that Charlie always did was he always backed teachers. And the union stood behind him, so I stood behind him, and he’s also from St. Pete’s so I had some hometown love for him. And we all backed him, and he lost really, really bad. It was a landslide. Ron DeSantis won. And the first thing I felt Ron DeSantis made sure he did was to silence all of the opposition that had come out against him.
So in a way, if we’re sitting here in 2023, I really feel like he’s almost bullying teachers because we backed the wrong guy in a race, and that’s where we are today. We’re seeing all this new legislation coming out to specifically target teachers’ unions and to kill teachers’ unions. And he won’t admit it, but I’m pretty sure it’s because we backed the wrong guy.
Philip Belcastro: My day-to-day experience is similar to Brennan’s simply because we both are English teachers. To give a little bit of perspective on a couple of things, though, I definitely don’t get there as early as he does. He is easily one of the first cars in the parking lot every morning. But as a relatively new teacher getting into this and being more active, doing what we’re doing now and starting the podcast, I think something people don’t fully realize, especially maybe some of those people who are taking a punitive approach to educators, is the amount of training required and the amount of classes and meetings and professionalism that actually goes into this gig.
So my degree is in English professional writing. It’s not actually in education. So in order to get a professional educator’s license here in the state of Florida, I had to take five additional college courses on my own time with my own money. I had to take the equivalent of 300 hours of ESOL, English for Speakers of Other Languages, to have the endorsement to be able to teach children who English is not their first language, and that’s on top of all the regular meetings and stuff as well.
So my day is similar. I get up at 5:00 AM. I get to school, I try to hit around 6:30, and then I do a lot of prep work. In the morning time, I’m fortunate enough to be able to do prep work on my planning period. Often I stay quite late at school. I think the latest I stay regularly is probably about 4:00, 4:30, and I do some work on weekends. Sunday nights is, for me, tightening the nuts and bolts to get things ready for Monday morning.
But another thing to put into perspective is the class that I teach is called AICE General Paper. It’s from Cambridge International, so it’s another international certification program similar to IB. The way that I explain it is that it exists somewhere between AP classes and IB classes. Part of that gig is it’s an overlay curriculum, I guess, on what we were already doing as an English 3 class. We have additional flexibility with our content and our curriculum and how we teach things. So it’s a little bit less rigid than AP, but it does still have these international qualifications which allow for things, specifically like talking about gender and race and poverty and racism. So that is baked into the AICE General Paper class. I didn’t put it there.
Part of the reason I was selected for this course is because that’s how my English 3 class was already. Prior to some of these new DeSantis things, I was teaching my books in order. I like to go in chronological order in my class. I was doing The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I was doing A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, I did Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I ended with Miles Morales: Spider-Man by… Oh my God, what’s his last name? Jason… Oh, shoot, I can’t remember his last name. But he has since been targeted by this rally against CRT. Jason Reynolds is his name. So those were books that I normally taught.
Now, I teach what they call one prep. If anybody listening doesn’t understand what that means, one prep means one class. So I teach the same course six times a day, which is very convenient for me and my musician background because it’s like getting up and playing the same set at six different times. That is almost unheard of. Many teachers have three, four, some have even five preps, meaning that they teach five separate courses throughout a day.
Despite all of our problems, despite all of our complications here, again, playing to the virtues of our particular school, our particular site, my particular situation and place of privilege is that I only have to teach one course all day, just six different times. I do get to use my planning periods, so when I give assignments, it’s the same across the board. When I grade, it’s across the board. When I plan, it’s across the board. That is me specifically, and I know that it’s a miracle that it has happened to me. And it’s not lost on me, so that’s why I use my opportunity and my voice to speak out for teachers who do have four and five and six preps, who have more things to do than I do.
Going back to this new version of DeSantis Florida and DeSantis education in the classrooms. I do remember, during the pandemic, people banging pots and pans and everybody saying, teachers are heroes! It was cool. It felt nice to be a part of something that was appreciated. There was one time I walked into the grocery store and a man came in and he tapped me on the shoulder, he’d followed me in. He said, was that you just got out of the car that has the teacher’s bumper sticker? And I have a bumper sticker that says, “I love public schools,” or something like that. And I said, oh, yeah. And of course, I don’t know where this is going necessarily. And he says, I just want to say thank you. What you guys do, it’s incredible. It’s just amazing what you guys do. And he was telling me he taught in New York for 30 years and all this, and that was nice.
Fast-forward, this was only a month ago, two months ago, we have people outside of the school board building protesting against teachers. That’s how far we’ve come. I had a person chasing me into the grocery store to thank me, and now I go to a regular school board meeting, and there’s people outside with signs that are anti-teacher, they’re anti-school. To say it’s dystopian sounds like an exaggeration, but I just never imagined I would see people coming out against teachers. It sounds insane.
So now, I still very much want to teach Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a woman’s coming of age story. And Zora is a Florida writer, she happens to be Black, but she’s now on the list of things that we got to walk on eggshells around. This is a Florida writer, it’s a story that does include elements of racism, yes, so does To Kill a Mockingbird, so does Shakespeare, so does all of the stuff that we do. It’s a language arts class. So now with this rhetoric that’s coming out at the state level, it’s just, I don’t know what my job is anymore. I was teaching kids how to experience life through literature and how to live through the experience of others and see perspectives through others. That’s what literature is, that’s what art is. And now I’m not sure what I’m doing.
And to cap it all off, how I said that it’s very ironic to me that some of these conservative and right-leaning talking points, they’re working against themselves. Here I am, little old me in my little old classroom, and I’ve got so much big government interfering with my job. I’m getting directives from not just the school board but the state level, and it’s playing so much politics with my day-to-day that I just don’t know what I do here anymore. I feel very much like I’m being puppeted or like I’m being toyed with, and that is not the job I signed up for. I signed up to educate children and watch them grow. I signed up to give kids the high school experience I did not have. And now I’ve got a lot of big government meddling in what I do day-to-day, right down to which books I read.
Brennen Pickett: Something that I noticed during this DeSantis administration would be, for example, there’s another CRT that they don’t talk about a whole lot, and it’s called Culturally Relevant Teaching. And we were actually mandated by the district to take these courses to learn how to culturally connect with our students in a way that gets them engaged with the content we’re trying to teach. And I bought into it. I actually really enjoyed it. I felt, personally, it might have been one of the best mandatory trainings I’ve ever been to in our district. And some of the things I started doing with this culturally relevant teaching idea was I was trying to introduce literature that might be relevant to what’s happening in real life. So, stupid of me, but also I felt kind of cool of me maybe, was during the Black Lives Matter movement when George Floyd, when he died on camera, I was trying to teach James Baldwin.
And I remember it was 2020. Philip had just started teaching, and I was introducing Sonny’s Blues. It’s a short story that I really connect to, personally. So I felt, with the times happening, and also how I felt about the short story, I was going to read it in my class and we were going to have some Socratic seminars, which is where you sit in a circle and you have a book talk and you talk about ideas.
Now, I never said the words Black Lives Matter. I never said that, but because this was a book written by James Baldwin who’s a known civil rights activist, some of the students started talking about the Black Lives Matter protests that were happening in St. Petersburg at the time. And I didn’t shut it down, I let them talk about it. And some student in that class got offended by the conversation, and went home and told his parents that I was teaching them Black Lives Matter.
And the next morning I had an administrator banging on my door at 6:20 in the morning demanding to see my lesson plans and asking me if I’m teaching the standards correctly and scrutinizing what I was doing. And that really pissed me off. And I had never ever felt that way about the job. And that was my fourth year of teaching. And I immediately felt that, and I felt, and I still feel this way, that is because Ron DeSantis, and at the time Donald Trump, had emboldened these parents to speak out based on their viewpoints and not even communicate with me about what was really going on in the classroom. It’s no longer trust the teacher, it’s make sure a teacher’s teaching the propaganda I want to make sure my child’s consuming. And that’s the only thing I felt was pretty relevant to what Phillip was saying.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, I think I really appreciate you guys sharing this. And I’m just seething, frankly, over here, shaking with rage, shaking my head the whole damn time. And I know I got to let you both go in a minute. And I want us to finish off by talking about what resistance there is, what, maybe, the unions are doing, or can do, what labor can do to push back against this, what we can all do. Jesus, if you support your teachers, if you support educators, if you support workers against these attacks, show up to those school board meetings. We mentioned it before that my man, Tevita Uhatafe from the Transport Workers Union had a really great speech about this at Labor Notes last year where he said, if you’re a union member, you go to those school board meetings and you say, I stand by my teachers. I don’t care if you’ve just come off your shift, but we need people there counteracting these extreme voices. We need to actually support one another because of the dark shit that we’re all talking about here.
So I want us to end on what is happening and what can folks listening to this do to show support for you all and your fellow educators in Florida. But I guess, before we get there, I just wanted to broaden this portion of the conversation and ask if you had anything else to share from what you’re hearing from other colleagues or other districts about how… Because we’ve been reading so much about this, and it’s hard to wrap your head around all the different changes that are taking place. But what about the Don’t Say Gay bill or the Parental Rights in Education bill, as it’s formally called, or the Stop Woke Act, we’ve been talking about this just now, or this curriculum transparency shit where every book in the library has to be reviewed according to these ridiculous curricular standards set by Big Brother government?
I was wondering if we could say a bit more for folks who are around the country reading about this different shit what else you’re hearing or seeing yourselves about how these different education policy changes, what they’re translating to for you and your fellow educators and your students, and even those changing relationships with parents?
Brennen Pickett: I just want to remind everyone that elections have consequences. Florida let this happen, and now we’re facing the repercussions of parent scrutiny and extremist involvement. I’m proud of my union. I’m proud of the teachers who have been going to school board meetings with me and speaking about this, and I’m proud of the parents who have been standing by us. And what every single school district in the state of Florida and in this country needs to be doing is getting the community involved with what happens in their schools. And that’s usually the critique you’ll hear from the DeSantis branch, that’s the same critique you hear from the Moms for Liberty, is that they want to have parental rights.
But to take the words of a fellow union member of mine is that our classrooms have always been open. They’ve always been open. And when we let these people run what is going on, what you’re going to continue to see now, especially in Florida, is you’re going to see more books get banned. We just banned The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison in Pinellas County Schools. They’re looking at banning more books. They’re looking at banning A Clockwork Orange, they’re looking at banning so much more, and it’s all in the name of teaching the same religious dogma that they’re trying to push onto teachers.
I’m currently in a civics excellency course with the state of Florida. Instead of paying teachers more, Ron DeSantis decided that he was going to put money aside to make sure he can reeducate all his teachers in what civics looks like. I took it because it was $3,000, and my wife’s a teacher, she’s taking it with me, so together, that’s $6,000. It’s a one-time stipend. We’re about a quarter through, and every single lesson ends with some kind of religious lesson about how this country was founded on Christianity and how the only thing that’s really influenced America is Scottish enlightenment and Anglo-Saxon learning and the Bible. Every single thing goes back to the Bible.
A lot of the guys are from this college called, I think, Hillsdale, which if you look them up is a conservative think tank, and of course the state of Florida bought it, and now they’re packaging it, and now they’re highly encouraging, through money, of course, that Florida educators take it and incorporate this into their lessons.
So to sum it all up is we need to keep this activism going on. Recently we had a school board meeting in my district where we were capable of rallying 56 speakers for educators. And what ended up happening was these Moms For Liberty that continued to go to these meetings and speak their drivel, they walked out, one of them spoke. We outnumbered them. And when you outnumber them, they finally go away. But they don’t go away forever, so you’ve got to keep it up.
Philip Belcastro: To speak a little bit about other parts of the country and our colleagues, I myself had two virtual job interviews this past week in the Bend-La Pine School District in Oregon. And both interviews, one of their final questions was something along the lines of, what does diversity and inclusion in the classroom look like to you? How important is it to you? And on both occasions, as I said, well, have you seen the news out of Florida lately? And they both kind of had a head slapping moment. They said, oh geez, I forgot. It just didn’t occur to me that’s why you would be leaving. And I said, yeah, it’s extremely important. So I can’t do what we do, I can’t do educating.
And I told one of them, the principal of Bend High School, I said, I have an email in my inbox right now that is giving the instructions on how to pull books from my shelves, how to inventory and potentially pull books off of my classroom shelves. And this principal on the other side of the country says, you saying that made it real for me. I just got chills thinking of that. And I said, yeah, that’s going on down here.
Now, what me and Brandon are doing with the FYRE podcast, Max, you said you graduated in 2005. So did I. I know the Fire is Florida’s Young Remarkable Educators, I’m aging myself out of the young part of that [Max laughs], so I’m just the available educator at this point. But part of what we’re doing with the podcast is we’re trying to collect these voices. Yes, we know that we’re St. Pete-centric right now because we live near each other. We do try to rope in as many Pinellas people. We went across the bay and we grabbed some Hillsborough and Tampa people. We are trying to elevate as much of this as possible.
My own personal directive to myself is stir the pot. And it’s no secret. I tell my students this, and I love to remind the school board of this. The students are our boss. The superintendent is not our boss, the principal is not our boss, the school board, the governor, the secretary of education, they are not our boss. I see the boss every single day. I talk to the boss. So the students are our boss, and there’s a lot more of them than there are of the politicians. There’s a lot more parents, there’s a lot more grandparents. And every one of those parents, every one of those grandparents, all of these people know people who are blue collar, who are laborers. So no matter where you fall politically, there’s a lot more of us than there are the people who are making these decisions for us.
So if we’re going to create anything resembling a unified labor front, we do need to get your aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews who are post office workers, who are sanitation workers, who are linemen, who are firefighters, who are police. We need all of these people to say, if we want any sort of community, if we want any sense of community, if I want my kids, if I want my grandkids to have their teachers for a long time and to know who they are and to respect them, if we want any of this to work, if we want to maintain any of the nice things that we have left, we have to protect some of these public institutions. Degrading them and letting them get degraded to the point that people are looking at it like it’s not worth saving…
I don’t think public education is not worth saving. I’m a product of public education. Pickett’s a product of public education. All of our students, the people that we come to serve every day who are our bosses, they are products of public education. I don’t think it’s all for naught, I think it is worth saving. So if all of these people are going to walk arm-in-arm lock step, and we’re going to go to school board meetings and we’re going to go to capitals and we’re going to vote with our communities in mind, we need to do it together. That’s the only way this is going to work, that’s the only way it ever has worked, and it has worked in the past. This isn’t a recent development.
So if we can go back and get some of those history books that some of these states want to throw in the trash and look at some of these examples of things that have worked in the past, they do. But we need to do it together, and we can’t have this infighting within labor saying that just because the police and the firefighters have stronger unions, well, they’re not going to help protect teachers. Listen, if the school burns down, I hope the fire department shows up. If there’s any kind of active threat situation, I want that police officer who’s working at the school, that’s my coworker, I want him there, or her there. That’s important to us. So we all work together. We’re all part of the same community.
So elevating our voices, anybody who’s listening, if you’re in a school district, and you feel comfortable and you feel safe doing what we are doing, starting a podcast, or helping organize people to go to school board meetings, we have to elevate the voices because this is the time. I remember the pots and pans banging. My friends who are EMS, my friends who are nurses, they remember the pots and pans banging, and people are starting to forget. We can’t let them forget how important it is.