Lydia Echols teaches Middle school English in a county outside of Dallas. Although it is her fourth year of teaching, it is her first in this district, which is smaller than her previous one. At the beginning of the school year, the Echols school held a parents’ evening, which they felt went well. She found the parents “lovely” and looked forward to meeting them. So she was surprised when a student said to her the next day, “My parents don’t like you because you’re too liberal.”
“I don’t recall ever bringing up anything political,” Echols said. “I don’t remember being anything but myself that night. Apparently something about me is too liberal for these parents. And they don’t like me for it, even though I absolutely adore their child.” Echols was wary, too. “That’s one thing that could get you in trouble here,” she said. “You know, ‘You’re too political or too liberal when you present this text to my child.'”
To avoid such impressions, the new district of Echols places great emphasis on teachers adhering to the strict boundaries of the curriculum, to a degree that I found counterproductive. When I spoke to Echols, she was teaching her students The diary of Anne Frank, a mainstay of middle school curricula nationwide. She had been instructed to downplay the Holocaust part. “When we were instructed to teach this, they specifically told us that you are not history teachers, so don’t go too deep into the history of the Holocaust, how it touches Nazis, neo-Nazism, Holocaust deniers and things like that, and we’re allowed to those Not addressing issues in a realistic way if the kids are listening and paying attention,” she said.
“As an African American, I am fully committed to social and emotional justice and learning for these children who are going into a world where they are facing these issues,” Echols said. She wanted to teach The long way down, a well-received 2017 young adult novel about gun violence told in verse, but she was unable to get permission. “Anything that looks, smells or tastes like critical race theory to the person in charge is not allowed. That’s why we can’t go anywhere with a curriculum.”
A few hundred miles away in rural western Missouri, HR, the ninth grade English and Spanish teacher, works in an environment she describes as inducing paranoia when it comes to teaching anything with a touch of political sensitivity.
“I can never, for the rest of my life, teach anything that has to deal with social justice. Or anything you know, like basic human rights like LGBT and things like that,” she said.
HR felt the need to tread carefully after a class discussion of the novel Ender’s game offended some students who did not like hearing about the atheistic society portrayed in the book. She worries constantly that a parent might get her in trouble for something like this. Teachers like Luis, a sixth-year high school teacher in Scottsdale, Arizona, have learned what kind of material will cause parental grievances: in Luis’ case, the novel by Rudolfo Anaya Bless me Ultimawhich some parents rejected because it involves witchcraft.
Conservative activists have pushed the specter of critical race theory in schools into the mainstream of political debate over the past two years. Although the term itself refers to a theory of systemic racism encoded in the legal system that emerged among academics in the 1970s, the right has used the term to attack anything that seems too bright in terms of race or diversity. Critics have portrayed it as a sinister, anti-American ideology being smuggled into children’s minds at taxpayers’ expense.
More than one teacher I spoke to scoffed at the idea that they could teach students critical race theory even if they tried; It’s challenging enough to get them to even pay attention. “I could teach basket weaving and they still wouldn’t learn it,” said Joe, the history teacher in upstate New York. “Not to mention those massive convictions of critical race theory.” The furore has fueled a national spate of tense, often unruly school board meetings and motivated voters in key races like last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election, which were supported by conservatives.
Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced legislation aimed at preventing classroom discussions of institutional racism that would directly interfere with teachers’ educational autonomy. These range from bans on certain curricula to blanket injunctions against teachers who address specific topics. A new Florida law, dubbed by opponents the “don’t say gay” law, bans any teaching about sex or gender through fourth grade or “in a manner that is not age or developmentally appropriate by state standards for students.” .”
So far, these efforts have been mixed; Bills attempting to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” recently failed in Indiana and South Dakota. But the movement has contributed to an atmosphere of censorship towards teachers. So make an effort to increase “transparency” by filming teachers or requiring schools to post lesson plans and curriculum materials online in advance.
According to Ingersoll, the controversy, fierce as it is, is just the “latest manifestation” of a “long-standing debate” about the curriculum, dating back at least to the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial. “These are people’s children,” Ingersoll said. “And so there is a scramble. You know, who has the final say on what they’re taught and how they’re taught?” The current situation also reflects the ongoing tendency to use schools as an arena to resolve societal disputes, Ingersoll argued. “Usually it’s about asking schools to keep doing more and more and not lengthening the day, not lengthening the year, and covering more and more subjects,” Ingersoll said. “‘We’ve got this societal problem, boom, let the schools fix it.'”
For Yvonne, the veteran Illinois elementary school teacher, growing disdain for teachers has been one of the most marked changes she’s seen in her long career. Parents are “vulnerable,” immediately defensive and accusatory when a teacher calls home. Some parents are publicly voicing their grievances about individual teachers on Facebook. She’s saddened by the breach of trust, but has concluded that people now direct their anger at teachers just as much as they do service workers. “It has nothing to do with us,” she said. “You know how mean people are to retail people like you are at Target and people are mean? It really has nothing to do with the Target workers. They’re just mad about something.”