Worse is the unprecedented scrutiny now directed at teachers by parents, political groups, even legislators. Virtually all the people ostentatiously monitoring teachers are people who have no training in education and no experience in a public-school classroom. The unspoken belief underlying such ideological policing is that teachers can not be trusted, that teachers do not deserve to be regarded as the skilled professionals they are. In many ways, today’s culture war treats teachers – and, increasingly, school librarians – as the enemy.
Consider the veteran educator in East Tennessee, fired for teaching his students about white privilege in a class called Contemporary Issues, a course he had taught for nearly a decade without a word of complaint from parents. Consider the assistant principal in Mississippi, fired for reading “I Need a New Butt!” a funny children’s book, to second graders. Consider the country music star who testified before the Tennessee General Assembly that educators today are predators, akin to “a guy in a white van pulling up at the edge of school when school lets out.” Consider the candidate in the Georgia governor’s race who said in a debate, “We’re going to get rid of kindergarten teachers – men with beards and lipstick and high heels – teaching our children. We’re going to get back to being moral in Georgia. “
These stories from the red states make a recent bit of satire from The Onion – “Teacher Fired for Breaking State’s Critical Race Theory Laws After Telling Students She’s Black” – hard to distinguish from real life.
Maybe you’re thinking this is all hyperbole, a few isolated incidents in a country with more than three million teachers in public schools. It’s not. PEN America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes and defends free speech, has documented the introduction of 185 educational gag orders – most related to race, gender, racism and American history – designed to control what may or may not be discussed in a classroom. Combined with the more than 1,500 book bans issued in the past 10 months alone, these bills “represent an orchestrated attempt to silence marginalized voices and restrict students’ freedom to learn,” according to a statement released last week by PEN.
Not all of these gag order bills have been signed into law, but they have had an unsettling effect on the teaching profession nonetheless. They put teachers on notice: Big Brother is watching you.
And all of this comes on top of the burnout exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, the epicenter of yet another culture war. The pandemic has led to mass teacher absences, contentious mask debates and chaotic “plans” for how to teach remotely. No wonder a poll by the National Education Association found in January that 55 percent of teachers in public schools are ready to leave the profession altogether.
Many will not, of course. They need the paycheck. They need the health insurance. They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.