Janet Allen comes from a long line of educators. Her mother taught fourth grade, her father high school English. Her sister is a college professor and her brother was a teaching assistant before earning his MD.
“It’s sort of in my DNA,” says Allen, a national board-certified teacher rated “highly effective” during her time in the Sarasota County Schools district.
But this fall, for the first time in 16 years, Allen is not spending days in the classroom and nights grading papers. Last month – on the first day of the current academic year – Allen resigned from Venice High School, where she had taught Advanced Placement and Honors English since 2015.
“I didn’t quit until the last day for any other reason than hope,” Allen says. “Hope that something might change.”
Abruptly, she excuses herself to find some tissues.
“I might cry here,” Allen says apologetically. “It’s like a breakup. A very long, drawn-out breakup.”
Allen is among the teachers who felt so vilified, undermined and threatened by the legislative reforms instituted by Gov. Ron DeSantis that they chose to leave their jobs. The restrictions have not only hamstrung teachers, Allen says, but are harming students by undermining trust and depriving them of the education necessary to compete on a national level.
Allen, who recently shared her decision to leave with the blog Scary Mommy, says that in an effort to rile up his base for votes, DeSantis is "using the teachers and students as kindling and they are getting burned.”
“Education is about understanding as many different possibilities and perspectives as you can," Allen says. You don’t have to agree with any of them. But to be exclusive with what kids learn is doing them such a great disservice.”
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Allen began teaching in 2006 at an impoverished high school on Chicago’s north side with a largely minority and immigrant population. Her masters’ training at the University of Illinois at Chicago instilled a creative and experiential approach – for example, instead of a traditional report, Allen would ask students to create a commercial or a board game for the book they’d read – that proved highly successful.
When Allen and her husband moved to Florida in 2015 to be closer to her parents before the birth of their daughter, she was delighted to be hired at Venice High, a school where “nothing was dripping, I could use as much paper as I wanted – and there was air conditioning!”
The school seemed equally thrilled to have Allen. She says administrators often brought observers to her classroom to “show me off,” and that she was encouraged to “do my own thing."
“I always branded myself as ‘teaching beyond the test,’” she says. “That I would teach critical thinking and that reading was not just for information, but interpretation. To get students to do something they didn’t think they could do and have it be a memorable thing for the rest of their lives . . . that’s the essence of learning.”
But Allen said she also “always treated my students as if their parents were in the room with me, as though anything was being recorded. I treated them with respect.”
When Allen discovered LGBTQ students at Venice High were being bullied, she volunteered to sponsor the school’s first GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance). From her years in Chicago, Allen knew that “sometimes the only place a kid feels safe is at school.” Almost immediately, she detected a shift.
“Whereas before I’d been seen as an asset,” Allen says, “now I was being seen as a liability.”
After the pandemic began – ostensibly for “practical reasons” -- Allen says she was instructed to “get everyone on the same page” with standardized assessments. Last year administrations warned that teachers who taught anything outside of the pre-approved syllabus would not be “protected.” As mandates from the state increased and her autonomy dwindled, Allen struggled to maintain her standards.
Allen says she was pressured to change grades and forced to defend herself against lies spread when she became the GSA sponsor. She also says parental complaints were accepted without investigation, and that she was never asked for her side of the story in any conflict.
Allen had always gone above and beyond in her job, but now the stress, long hours and contentious atmosphere were taking a toll on her health and family.
The final straw came last spring when Allen says she was ordered to remove several books from her classroom shelves. One was Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a book Allen says changed her life after her own sophomore English teacher gave it to her when she was bored.
“Maybe for some people it doesn’t seem like such a big thing to just take it off the shelf,” Allen says. “But for me it became ‘How much can I take? How much can I be a part of something where I’m sacrificing my entire teaching philosophy? If this is happening, what’s next?’”
Allen says that when even fellow teachers urged her to stop teaching certain material for fear of parental reprisal, she had nowhere left to turn for support.
“The message I got was that if I continued to be true to myself and teach the truth about literature and historical context, to allow kids to pick books that interested them and reflected their own lives or explored other cultures and experiences, to not tell on kids who prefer different pronouns, that it would only continue to make life harder for those around me,” she says. “Which would only make me feel even more unwelcome.”
Today Allen is a “room mom” in her 6-year-old daughter’s classroom; she is considering substitute teaching, but has no plans to return full time. She knows she’s fortunate to be able to make that choice but also feels she can “do more to help educators and education as a voter, a writer and a parent, unencumbered by the restrictions of being a teacher.”
A self-described “rebel” whose father, an active teacher’s union member, taught her to “speak truth to power,” Allen scoffs at the suggestion that speaking out publicly about her departure could sabotage future employment. “If burning bridges is what it takes, I’d be happy to burn them all,” Allen says.
“If parents had any idea of what is going on in the schools and how it is affecting teachers, they’d do the same thing. These kids are not going to be prepared for anything on a nationwide scale. And what does that mean about their being prepared for life? I’m much more interested in standing up for kids and educators than in having the opportunity to apply for a job with Sarasota County Schools.”
Contact Carrie Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (505) 238-0392.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota school teacher has had enough after 16 years. Here's why