Teaching Profession

With Their Licenses in Jeopardy, Florida Teachers Unsure How the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Will Be Applied

By Ileana Najarro — October 27, 2022 4 min read
Marchers wave flags as they walk at the St. Pete Pier during a rally and march to protest against a bill dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill Saturday, March 12, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Florida lawmakers have passed the bill, which forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It now moves to the desk of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

At the start of every school year, Cory Bernaert, a kindergarten teacher in the Manatee County district in Florida introduces himself and his partner in a welcome email to families and students. He’s open about his LGBTQ identity as a way to build rapport with his students and their families.

But with the passage of the state’s Parental Rights in Education law—also known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—he knew this school year might be different.

Now there’s at least one notable change that’s gnawing at the back of his mind: the possibility of losing his license.

On Oct. 19, the Florida state board of education approved several rules to enforce the new law. Among these was an amendment that prohibits “classroom instruction to students in kindergarten through grade 3 on sexual orientation or gender identity,” or else teachers’ licenses will be revoked.

“Gender identity and sexual orientation are not standards for kindergarten to 3rd grade,” Bernaert said. “And every teacher knows that. However, LGBTQ+ members that are educators should not feel that talking about their home lives, or their family could be interpreted as instruction.”

The rule also purports to protect students by “expanding the definition of discrimination to include subjecting students to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” any banned concepts covered in the state’s separate law targeting “divisive concepts,” passed in April.

Bernaert and other educators have questions over what exactly constitutes intentional classroom instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation. Neither the amended rule nor the state law make it clear.

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to a query seeking clarity about what instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in K-3 means. In a press release, board Chair Tom Grady said the new rules “will support the safety of students and ensure Florida continues to provide high-quality education to every child.”

For teachers, the changes create a learning environment where LGBTQ-identifying teachers may end up second-guessing whether they can truly be themselves in the workplace, lest discussions of their own identity get interpreted as violating the rule.

Enforcement raises concerns about due process

While Florida has health education standards for grades kindergarten through 3, none of those standards specifically reference gender identity and sexual orientation.

A lawsuit challenging the law filed by Equality Florida, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group, was recently dismissed. While the plaintiffs have an opportunity to refile, the state can move forward with enforcing the newly approved rule, said Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for the nonprofit.

With the enforcement details unclear, some educators are choosing to remove rainbow buttons from their bags even though the law doesn’t specifically prohibit them. They are afraid of conversations that could arise from students’ questions, and whether those conversations could eventually cost them their job, said Clinton McCracken, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.

Districts are working to recruit and retain certified teachers and there are concerns over how such a rule could negatively impact those efforts, McCracken added. The latest state data showed there was a projected number of teacher vacancies of about 9,000 for the 2021-22 school year.

Part of the concern stems around how severe losing a license can be for teachers. It’s not just losing a job; it can be career-ending.

Michael Woods, a special education high school teacher in Palm Beach County schools, who is also a union representative, is concerned over how the new rule could get rid of due process for educators.

“If they decide that they want to make an example out of you or pull your license, you’re done,” he said.

And that all depends on how parents and districts interpretwhat classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation entails.

Bernaert in Manatee County doesn’t plan to change anything in how runs his classroom. But he carries a new layer of hesitancy and a sense of unfairness.

“Now if you’re talking about your family, you have this concern of it being interpreted as intentionally talking about gender identity, versus your heterosexual colleagues that can talk about their families, and they don’t even have to worry about how that’s being interpreted,” he said.

“I want to instill in my students the importance of family, the importance of making memories while you’re at school, because it’s a place where you should feel safe, and you should feel important and you should feel valued,” Bernaert said. “And when my ability to be that sort of educator is kind of put on the line because of one simple thing that might be interpreted differently, that’s a major problem.”


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession 'Gaslighting' Is the Word of the Year. Did It Haunt Schools, Too?
The Merriam-Webster word of the year often intersected with schools and teachers in 2022.
3 min read
The highlighted word "Gaslighting" and showing part of its definition to include the word "manipulation" on a computer screen.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession It's a Nasty Cold and Flu Season, But Some Educators Are Reluctant to Take Sick Days
Many cite the pile of work—and lost learning—that accumulates when they take time off.
6 min read
Sick woman holding tissues and drinking from a mug while working
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I Just Want to Get Better': A Teacher With Long COVID Retires Earlier Than She'd Hoped
A former Massachusetts teacher shares how long COVID damaged her cognitive abilities and accelerated her retirement.
5 min read
Betsy Peterson, a former K-5 technology teacher who was forced to retire early due to symptoms of long Covid, pictured in her home in Maynard, Mass., on November 21, 2022.
Betsy Peterson, a former K-5 technology teacher in Massachusetts, has been struggling with bureaucratic hurdles and debilitating symptom since contracting COVID at the start of the year.
Angela Rowlings for Education Week
Teaching Profession Opinion Linda Darling-Hammond Wins International Prize for Education Research
The recipient of the 2022 Yidan Prize talks about the divide between research and policy, teacher professional development, and equity.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty