Dictionaries have long been considered an indispensable part of any classroom or school library as both a reliable reference for inquisitive students and a teaching tool to expand vocabulary and comprehension. But recently, the Escambia County school district in Florida pulled Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for Students from its shelves, along with an estimated 1,600 other books from its library collections, according to multiple news reports.
The texts are under review to determine whether they comply with recently passed Florida House Bill 1069, which calls for increasing “school district transparency and accountability for selecting and using instructional materials and library materials.” Part of fulfilling this responsibility, the bill says, involves allowing members of the public to formally object to specific materials that depict or describe sexual conduct.
Objections to books containing information related to gender, sexual content, and race have fueled a surge in book censorship over the last few years. PEN America, which tracks K-12 school book bans nationwide, documented 3,362 such bans during the 2022-23 school year, a 33 percent increase from the 2021-22 school year. Florida school districts accounted for more than 40 percent of those book bans during that period, followed by Texas, Missouri, Utah, and Pennsylvania.
Critics of book censorship frequently point to the negative impact it has on students’ learning experiences. But evidence suggests that it’s taking a toll on teachers, too, as they struggle to decipher what they can and can’t teach or possess in their classrooms and, more broadly, attempt to manage the implications of censorship on their professional judgment.
Teachers bear the brunt of censorship legislation
“I know teachers who have left the state, and teaching, as a result of this,” said Heather Felton, who taught high school English for nine years in Southeast High School in Florida’s Manatee County school district,before resigning at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
She is one of them.
“I really just couldn’t take it any more,” said Felton, who, after the passage of HB1069, was advised by school administrators to cover up the 800-plus books in her classroom library until district employees could vet each one individually. “Removal of books as a literature teacher really hurt.”
Hers wasn’t the only district affected by the legislation. Teachers in the 38,000-student Escambia district decided to review its entire collection for books that contained references to sexual conduct, a process that led to the removal of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for Students pending the full review, explained Raegan Miller, a spokesperson for the citizen-led advocacy group Florida Freedom to Read Project, which has been closely following this legislation and its after-effects. The Escambia County school district did not respond to requests via email and phone for comment.
Research shows effects of censorship on teachers’ morale
Recent research suggests that other teachers have also been negatively impacted by attempts at book censorship. In a 2023 nationally representative survey by First Book Research & Insights, a nonprofit educational research organization, researchers polled more than 1,500 teachers in school communities where at least 70 percent of children are from low-income families. Thirty-one percent of the teachers reported book bans, challenges, or restrictions in their school districts; an estimated 15 percent preemptively removed books from their libraries; and 65 percent agreed that book bans are having a negative impact on their ability to teach.
Is there a link between censorship and teacher vacancies?
It’s hard to tell from the numbers how the new censorship push has affected Florida’s teaching ranks.
Discrepancies in reports of vacancies exist between Florida’s department of education and the FEA. In August 2023, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. announced that Florida schools’ total teacher vacancies topped out at 4,776, down from 5,208 vacancies at the start of the 2022-23 school year. But FEA data showed 6,920 vacancies among instructional positions in August 2023, up from 6,066 in August 2022. Last week, the Florida Education Association announced that the state currently has 4,096 advertised instructional vacancies in its public schools. That would be almost a quarter of 16,909 instructional staff members working in the state’s schools last year, according to the department of education. It’s unclear why these discrepancies exist, or how the two organizations count the vacancy numbers. The education department did not respond to phone and email inquiries about the impact of new legislation on vacancy rates.
Tuan Nguyen, an associate professor in the College of Education at Kansas State University, studies teacher vacancy rates around the country. “When we look at the states where we see high vacancy rates, it’s concentrated in the South and Southeast regions,” parts of the country with high proportions of book bans, Nguyen said. “It may be the case that because of legislation and related book bans, it’s pushing people out of the teaching profession.”
But Nguyen added that his team currently does not have sufficient evidence to draw conclusions linking recent policy decisions aimed at K-12 curriculum restrictions to teacher vacancy rates; he does plan to continue to collect and evaluate data on teacher vacancies to learn more about the reasons behind them.
Asked if he thinks recent legislation that spurs book censorship is contributing to teacher vacancies, Andrew Spar, the FEA’s president, responded: “It’s certainly part of the overall climate that is driving teachers out of the profession.” Spar, on behalf of FEA, also has publicly announced several factors it believes could improve educator vacancy rates—including better funding for teacher pay, investments in mental health and student safety, improved teacher working conditions, and keeping politics out of classrooms.
As for politically driven censorship, Spar said that in some Florida districts, teachers have been required to take all books off their shelves or cover them up until they can be vetted. Some Florida teachers have been required to scan the content of every book, an hours-long process. “Those things take a toll on teachers,” he said.
Book censorship activity: erring on the side of caution
Miller, from thea the Florida Freedom to Read Project, explained that districts’ efforts to comply with new and vaguely written legislation often lead them to err on the side of caution. That has resulted, in some cases, in sweeping, districtwide vetting of classroom and library books.
“My kids are in 6th grade and 9th grade, and I’ve never seen pornography in their schools,” said Miller, who described herself as a parent actively engaged in her children’s education. Some state lawmakers, however, have used the term pornography to describe books with LGBTQ themes and characters.
“Most parents appreciate teachers,” Miller said. “The ones staying are good at drowning out the noise.”
Whether those teachers will stick around when book censorship attempts include a longstanding classroom tool, such as the dictionary, remains to be seen.
Greg Barlow, the president of Merriam-Webster, still believes that to be true.
“They help all of us, including students of all ages, expand our knowledge, learn the value of words, and most importantly teach us how to communicate with each other,” he wrote in an email to Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as One School District Just Pulled 1,600 Books From Its Shelves—Including the Dictionary