Lydia Echols teaches middle school English in a district outside of Dallas. Though it’s her fourth year teaching, it’s her first in this district, which is smaller than her previous one. At the beginning of the school year, Echols’ school held a parent-teacher night, which she felt went well. She thought the parents were “lovely” and was excited to meet them. So she was surprised when a student the next day told her “my parents do not like you because you’re too liberal.”
“I do not remember ever bringing up anything political,” Echols said. “I do not remember being anything other than myself that night. Apparently, something about me that’s too liberal for these parents. And they do not like me because of that, even though I completely adore their child. ” Echols was so wary. “That’s one thing that could get you in trouble here,” she said. “You know, ‘you’re being too political or or you’re being too liberal by introducing my child to this text.'”
To avoid such impressions, Echols’ new district places a heavy emphasis on teachers staying within the strict bounds of the curriculum, to a degree that struck me as counter-productive. When I spoke to Echols, she was teaching her students The Diary of Anne Frank, a mainstay of middle school curricula nationwide. She’d been directed to downplay the Holocaust part. “When we were instructed to teach this, they told us explicitly you’re not history teachers, so do not go too deep into the history of the Holocaust in how it touches on Nazis, neo-Nazism, Holocaust deniers, things like that , and we’re not allowed to broach those topics in a realistic way where it makes the kids sit up and pay attention, ”she said.
“As an African American woman, I am all for social and emotional justice and learning for these kids who are going into a world where they are going to have to face these issues,” Echols said. The Long Way Down, a well-received 2017 young adult novel about gun violence told in verse, but she has not been able to get permission. “Anything that looks like, smells like, tastes like critical race theory to whoever is in charge is not allowed. That’s why we can not go anywhere with a curriculum. ”
A few hundred miles away in rural western Missouri, HR, the ninth-grade English and Spanish teacher, is working in an environment she described as paranoia-inducing when it comes to teaching anything with a whiff of political sensitivity.
“I cannot for the life of me ever teach something that has to deal with like, social justice. Or anything that highlights you know, like, basic human rights like LGBT and things like that, ”she said.
HR has felt the need to tread carefully after a class discussion of the novel Ender’s Game offended a few students who did not like hearing about the atheist society depicted in the book. She worries constantly that a parent will try to get her in trouble for something like that. Teachers like Luis, a sixth-year high-school teacher in Scottsdale, Arizona, have learned what kind of material will generate parent complaints: in Luis’ case, the Rudolfo Anaya novel Bless Me, Ultimawhich some parents opposed 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. Though the term itself refers to a theory of systemic racism encoded in the legal system that originated among scholars in the 1970s, the right has used the term to attack anything that seems too woke on race or diversity. Critics have portrayed it as a sinister, anti-American ideology being smuggled into children’s heads on the taxpayer dime.
More than one teacher I spoke with scoffed at the idea that they could teach students about critical race theory even if they tried; it’s enough of a challenge as it is to get them to pay attention at all. “I could teach basket weaving, and they still would not learn it,” said Joe, the history teacher in upstate New York. “Let alone these massive, you know, critical race theory beliefs.” The furor has powered a national wave of fraught, often unruly school board meetings and motivated voters in key races like last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election, powered by conservatives.
Republican state lawmakers around the country have been introducing bills designed to prevent classroom discussion of institutional racism that would directly impinge on teachers’ pedagogical autonomy. These range from bans on specific curricula to sweeping injunctions against teachers bringing up certain topics. A new law in Florida, which opponents have called the “do not say gay” bill, outlaws any instruction about sexuality or gender until fourth grade or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards . ”
So far, these endeavors have been a mixed bag; bills attempting to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” recently failed to pass in Indiana and South Dakota. But the movement has contributed to an atmosphere of censoriousness around teachers. So have efforts to increase “transparency” by filming teachers or requiring schools to post lesson plans and curriculum materials online ahead of time.
According to Ingersoll, the controversy, however fervent, is just the “latest manifestation” of a “long-standing debate” about curriculum dating back at least to the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial. “These are people’s children,” Ingersoll said. “And so there’s a tussle. You know, who gets the final say in what they’re taught and how they’re taught? ” The current situation also reflects the persistent tendency to try and use schools as an arena to settle societal disputes, Ingersoll argued. “Usually, it’s a story of asking the schools to do more and more and more, and not lengthening the day, not lengthening the year and on more and more topics,” Ingersoll said. “‘We have this societal problem, boom, let’s have the schools fix it. ‘”
For Yvonne, the veteran elementary teacher in Illinois, the increased contempt for teachers has been one of the most pronounced shifts she’s noticed over her long career. Parents have become “quick to attack,” instantly defensive and accusatory when a teacher calls home. Some parents air their grievances about individual teachers publicly on Facebook. The breakdown in trust saddens her, but she concluded that people now channel their rage toward teachers the same way they do to service workers. “It has nothing to do with us,” she said. “You know how people are mean to retail people, like you’re in Target and people are mean? It really has nothing to do with the Target workers. They’re just mad about something. ”