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'I refuse to teach lies': Why one Black History teacher is taking a break

Miami Norland Senior High School teacher Renee O’Connor connects the impact of Trayvon Martin's death with the lessons learned 10 years after his death during a classroom assignment for her students on Feb. 14, 2022.
Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Miami Norland Senior High School teacher Renee O’Connor in her classroom on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

Back in February of 2022, Renee O’Connor was a finalist to be Miami-Dade County Public School’s teacher of the year. Just a year-and-a-half later, O'Connor is on leave from teaching.

O’Connor came to the U.S. from Jamaica as a young girl, enrolling in the Miami-Dade school district and going on to teach African American history at her alma mater — Miami Norland Senior High School, a predominately Black school in Miami Gardens.

At the awards ceremony last year, O’Connor was hailed as a “champion of diversity and representation in the classroom.”

“Ms. O’Connor has been recruited to write African American history course curricula for other school districts,” an announcer said, “and has devotedly served our community as a diversity trainer and mentor with various local organizations.”

READ MORE: 'We cannot be afraid': Black leaders rail against new African American history standards

O’Connor is known for not shying away from teaching her students about systemic racism in the U.S. — and how it affects their lives today.

“The history of Black Americans and brown Americans has always been a struggle,” O’Connor told WLRN back in January. “So if it's the Governor, if it's police brutality, if it's anything in the news, whatever it is … it's going to continue for the rest of our lives. It's how we respond to it.”

O’Connor was among the teachers who raised their hands to pilot the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course — before state officials blocked it from being taught in Florida, saying the class was “contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value."

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has defended its restrictions on the teaching of race, identity and history as a way to root out what it sees as 'liberal indoctrination' in public schools.

"It's a really tricky situation that I'm in right now. Because I do feel that I've let some of my students down.But in order to be a good teacher … you have to be strong yourself."
Renee O'Connor

After the news broke about the AP course, O’Connor told WLRN she was undeterred.

“I'm going to continue to teach Black History, African American History at Miami Norland Senior High. Whether it's AP or it continues to be Honors, it's still going to happen here,” O’Connor told WLRN in January 2023. “So that's why you see a smile on my face. Because we're not going to stop teaching this class.”

But when school started back at Miami Norland this year, O’Connor wasn't there.

“I absolutely miss it,” O’Connor said. “Especially these first few days when you're making connections with the kids. I mean, this has been my life for the past 12 years. All of my markers, highlighters, everything is in a storage unit right now.”

O’Connor spoke with WLRN Education Reporter Kate Payne about her decision to take leave from the classroom — and what it would take to get her back. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Norland Senior High School teacher Renee O’Connor in her classroom on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. O’Connor is one of four finalists for Miami-Dade Schools Teacher of the Year.
Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Miami Norland Senior High School teacher Renee O’Connor in her classroom on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

WLRN: When classes started this year at Norland Senior High, you weren't there. Why not?

O’CONNOR: Part of me is so attached to being a teacher, so attached to the subject matter, so attached to my school, my neighborhood. If not me, who's going to do it, right? But then the other part of me was just full of anxiety, with almost the daily … slap in the face, is basically what I call it coming out of Tallahassee.

Not that I would feel that my administration was going to stop me from doing whatever I needed to do in the classroom, but knowing that what I was doing every day was going to be basically in a fish bowl. And now with these standards, which are ridiculous …

These are the new standards that among other things, say that enslaved people benefited from their enslavement.

And any teacher that opens their mouth and reiterates that is doing a disservice to our students, our state, our country. I refuse to teach lies.

I think that it's already difficult enough, right? You have to worry about … don't say this, don't call the kid the wrong name, or the right name, don't say gay, don't say woke. And then this year, I was supposed to be part of the AP pilot, which was removed. That was going to be something exciting for us. And they … my school decided to not even join the fight for that.

As you've made this decision to take this break, how have you weighed your responsibility to your students, especially Black students?

It's a really tricky situation that I'm in right now. Because I do feel that I've let some of my students down.

But in order to be a good teacher … you have to be strong yourself. So the way that I am making up for that is by teaching other teachers around the country what I've been doing so that they can pass the torch. And I don't think this is the end for me. I just needed to take a break. Because I cannot be an emotional wreck in the classroom every single day, you know what I mean? So if I'm not fully there, especially teaching this content, it would not be beneficial.

I do have several kids this year that were with me last year that have been emailing me like, ‘Where are you? You promised that you'd be back.’ However, I think that I sparked the curiosity in them. And hopefully, they will continue to learn on their own.

But it doesn't mean that I am no longer involved in the cause. Like I said, I'm still doing my weekly zooms with teachers from around the country. I work with other school districts and give them my pacing guide that I've created and my syllabus. So I'm still doing the work, just not in the classroom at this moment.

What do you think your students are missing by not having you as their teacher?

My fear right now is that most teachers are afraid to push against the grain because of the fear of getting in trouble. Not many teachers are willing to speak up, show their face. Nothing against those teachers — I know that some of them are the only breadwinners in the family. They have kids. They cannot afford to lose their job or to be blackballed in any type of way.

There are a few soldiers that are going to continue to do the work. But I do think that a lot of people are just going to kind of sit back and see what's happening. However, I do really have belief that we're going to come out on top. And I think that the shift is happening. I can only hope that that is what is going to be the end result of all of this madness.

Going forward, how will you weigh the decision to go back into the classroom? And what will it take to get you back teaching Black history in Florida?

I can't say for sure right now. I am enjoying my mental freedom. And I'm finishing up my Master's. But for me, I think it's just gonna be a day by day thing. It has to feel right for me to go back. I have to be at peace with feeling comfortable in the classroom to be able to share truths with students. And if I can't, then I can't go back in.

Because I can teach in other ways and in other venues and in other forms. So until I feel that I can be 100% Ms. O'Connor, I won't be able to return. And that’s my statement today. It may change tomorrow. It may change later. That's just how I'm feeling right now.

READ MORE: Frustrated by Florida's changes to Black history curriculum? A scholar urges people to speak up

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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