Column: The Hillsborough student walkouts are a reminder of the high stakes of the 1968 statewide teachers’ strike

A nervous tension permeates the room. Students anxiously look toward each other, waiting for someone to make the first move. The substitute in the classroom demonstratively threatens each student with suspension for any forms of disruption. Suddenly, a quiet girl in the front row stands up, looks toward her classmates, and exclaims, “Let’s go!”

Following her lead, the class stands in unison and walks out the door of their classroom and their school in a show of solidarity with the tens of thousands of teachers who, just a few days earlier, left their own classrooms in protest. This event constituted the country’s first statewide teacher strike.

This scene, described in an oral history interview with Titusville High School alum Gary Cornwell relating his experiences in the 1968 statewide Florida teacher strike, has a striking similarity to the recent student-led walkouts demanding a pay raise for Hillsborough County teachers. In both cases, students vehemently voiced their support for their teachers in a state that places little value on education and the teaching profession.

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1968, more than 27,000 teachers and administrators across Florida mailed in their signed letters of resignation, effectively creating a crisis in education never before witnessed in the United States. The strike, however, did not occur spontaneously; rather, it stemmed from years of neglect to the state’s education system from state and local politicians. Teachers also faced a continuous devaluing of their profession by politicians through a lack of pay and through a public that refused to acknowledge teaching as anything more than glorified babysitting.

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