The Critical Race Theory debate came to my attention the same way it did for most: scrolling through social media.
When I first read an article from the New York Times, I admit I didn’t pay it much attention. I thought, “wow, surely the folks at the forefront of this debate just don’t realize they are debating something we don’t even teach in K-12 schools?” I figured they would realize their blunder and just sweep it under the proverbial rug and move on.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
Next thing I know, colleagues are sending me articles about Culturally Responsive Teaching and Social Emotional Learning being put under fire. At this point, I became concerned. I am fortunate to work in a school district that values these practices, but I have educator friends in neighboring districts and all around the country who are not so lucky. For them, I started to worry.
As I began to research exactly what is going on, the anti-CRT conversation began to take on a very different tone. It was as if someone realized the blunder of banning Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools and immediately sent out a task force to figure out what else they could fear-monger around and ban in school districts where leaders and communities tend to be more conservative, or even outwardly identify with various far right movements.
Add a hint of racism:
Today, the conversation has evolved from a nonsensical ban on Critical Race Theory to a slew of concerning policies across more than two dozen states seeking to curb how teachers discuss history and race in their K-12 classrooms. In some places, they take the form of vaguely worded warnings surrounding discussing systemic racism in class.
In others, they have become full-on bans on using certain curriculum and materials, ranging from CASEL (Social Emotional Learning), BrainPOP (which include diverse characters including BIPOC and LGBTQIA characters and provide a balanced, global perspective on historical events), and the 1619 Project (a curriculum frequently used in middle and high school classrooms to teach about the enslavement of Africans and African Americans and the ongoing struggle for racial equality).
Many of these policies took effect this fall, and some of them involve penalties for teachers and administrators found out of compliance, including the loss of their license or fines.
The debates continue across the U.S.
Still many other states are debating whether new policies need to be put into effect to control how educators discuss “sensitive or divisive topics” with students. These states include but are not limited to Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Utah.
As an educator with experience working with white educators seeking to examine their privilege and how systemic racism shows up in their classrooms and communities, the language used by state and district leaders is important to examine.
Behind this language, you will hear something a little more discreet; dare I say a bit more covert.
For example, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, signed a bill in May 2021 that bans educators in the state from teaching the concept that, “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Additionally, educators are not allowed to perpetuate the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” Teachers in Oklahoma are also not permitted to make students feel “guilt” or “anguish” on “account of his or her race or sex.”
How do we process this, personally and professionally?
Make sure you know the laws being passed and/or debated into your state and school district. Clarify with your district/union leaders what is and is not banned. Make sure you understand how exactly these policies will be enforced and what the consequences for violating them are.
You have the professional right (I would go so far as to argue professional responsibility in many cases) to request a written explanation of what is and is not banned, why it is banned, and what you are expected to use instead to meet the varying needs of your students.
In the case of Social Emotional Learning in particular, make sure you know what your district and school expect you to do in the event that your students are struggling academically due to a lack of attention to their social and emotional needs in your classroom.
Ask what additional resources and staff will be provided to care for students as whole children.
In terms of processing this controversy at the personal level, you may feel some anxiety. We know that excellent teachers have been meeting their students’ varying needs, teaching accurate histories, and including global, non-western, and non-dominant cultural perspectives for many years.
But when it comes to our livelihoods being placed at stake, that may change for some folks. Take some time to examine what potential bans on teaching practices and topics could mean for your classroom and your pedagogy. Prepare yourself for some hard decisions in the years to come if your state is considering or enacting these policies.
What exactly does all this mean for educators in the United States?
If culturally responsive teaching, SEL, and other materials/programs are banned from use in classrooms in your district, it means you have some decisions to make. Will you shut your door and do what you’ve always done for students? Will you work around the system and find new ways to reach your students without the buzzwords and labels? Will you abandon your practices altogether in the name of job security?
Even putting those words in writing feels bizarre for me.
It doesn’t feel quite “real” that in the year 2021, I must help colleagues decide if meeting the needs of students and teaching the truth about our world and our history as a nation is worth losing or leaving the profession we love.
For me, a ban on what I consider best practices for meeting students’ needs would most likely signal the end of my time in that district. Being forbidden from exposing students to varying perspectives and non-dominant narratives would mean the same for me. If a national ban on these practices/topics is imposed, I will take it as a signal to take my beliefs to higher levels in the name of advocacy for our children. But, not everyone is able to take that stance.
We are, after all, talking about people’s careers, how they put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and care for their families. Not everyone is able or willing to risk their livelihood, and that is a harsh reality.
The decisions will be difficult. You may find yourself willing to table what you believe is best for children temporarily while you look for other ways to help the cause and reverse these harmful policies. You may feel too overwhelmed to do either and instead you might feel compelled to continue teaching what you can, avoiding controversial lessons or activities until you decide on your next steps.
How do we respond to concerned parents?
If you teach in a district with policies banning the teaching of certain topics or the use of certain practices in classrooms, you may have concerned parents reach out to you from either side of the controversy.
Parents who do not want their students “exposed” to certain ideas and practices:
Recently I was bombarded on social media by a woman who accused me of being “just another one of those teachers who doesn’t teach.” She went on and on about how teachers “like me” were why she was pulling her child out of school. She voiced many frustrations with public schooling with which many parents can relate. Interestingly, none of her concerns had anything to do with social emotional learning or culturally responsive teaching, which was the topic of my original comment.
I did my best to let this parent know that I felt each one of her concerns, and that I hoped for nothing but the best for her child. There was no point in going any farther than that. Unfortunately, fear is like poison. Once it gets in deep enough, it is almost impossible to treat. She expected me to attack her back and entertain her rhetoric, but in refusing to do so I let her know that I was not the enemy, and I am most certainly not a punching bag for her frustrations.
Most often you will not be questioned by random strangers on your pedagogy, but you will get questions from the families you serve. I saw a meme on social media that summed up my response to these families, “Tell me what it is and I’ll tell you if I teach it.” Ask parents exactly what it is they are concerned that you are teaching, or what it is they do not want their children to learn in your classroom. Ask them to put it in writing in case you need to get clarification from your administration.
In many cases, they will not have a great answer for you, if any at all. If they do give you a specific answer and are asking you to either lie or omit historical truths, or alienate students from other cultures in some fashion, send that response directly to your administration and request a written response back from them that you can provide to the family.
If parents are perpetuating racism or xenophobia in their families, this is not a battle you are going to win on your own with logic and research.
As we have seen in recent years, racism and xenophobia tend to retreat behind false “patriotism” when threatened or questioned. Logical discourse is rarely effective in bringing these folks around. Protect your energy and preserve it for your students. Simply provide whatever guidance your administration gives you to those vocal families and go about your school year.
Parents who are angry/worried their children won’t feel valued or reflected in curriculum or that their needs won’t be met:
If you have parents who are just as concerned about these policies as you are, you may breathe a short sigh of relief. These parents are unlikely to “turn you in,” or “tell on you,” for teaching their children. However, their fears also need to be addressed.
You can write a proactive letter to families explaining what topics you will be teaching that year and your dedication to meeting the needs of each student to the best of your ability. In your letter, you can direct parents who have concerns about new policies to contact your administration and/or the local school board. In some cases where you have active parents in the community, it may be helpful to direct them to the state legislators who sponsored and supported those policies.
So, what can I teach?
If your district has enacted any of the policies mentioned above or are currently drafting their own, you rightfully may feel anxious. But consider exactly what the language in those policies does and does not permit.
If you are not “allowed” to make students feel guilty about their race or gender privilege for example — this does not in itself mean you cannot bring those inequities to students’ attention. It simply means that the discussion around issues of equity and privilege may need to take on a different form.
We should teach students to look at issues from a variety of perspectives, without the appearance of “indoctrinating” children into one world view.
For example, when teaching the real story of Christopher Columbus, including both his contributions to exploration and how he came to make those contributions at the expense of indigenous peoples provides students with provable facts. Unless your district forbids you from discussing Columbus altogether or is asking you to tell a particular version of history, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to enforcing which verifiable facts you present to students.
If your district is asking you to present what you consider false or misleading historical facts or context, that is something that you can present to your union and school board. This will most likely result in those policies being overturned rather quickly to avoid a media catastrophe.
How can we show solidarity and support for our fellow educators?
If your district supports your pedagogy, this controversy may not affect you directly, but it will affect those around you. It will affect colleagues in other states or districts. It will affect a generation of students who are receiving two very different educational experiences.
The implications for students are clear. If Social Emotional Learning is banned in some districts and not in others, school climate and culture data will reflect the consequences in years to come. I believe that state and district leaders will eventually be held accountable for the harm they cause to students with these outrageous policies.
The implications of bans on culturally responsive teaching and specific curriculum materials like the 1619 Project will be a bit trickier to measure.
The United States already has hundreds of years of documented difficulty discussing race, slavery, and social justice, much less doing the work required to change the conditions faced by BIPOC every day in the year 2021. Teachers unions, universities, and alternative teacher preparation programs can organize task forces to examine the impact of these policies over time, in much the same way they examine the way we have taught literacy in hopes of developing more effective, scientific approaches to the literacy crisis in the U.S, I am confident they could do the same with social justice teaching and learning.
But what can we do if we are not affected by these policies?
Start by staying informed. Know the policies in your state and how they may differ from district to district. Prepare for questions from students and families who may transfer in from other districts. If you have friends and colleagues in other districts, offer a listening ear when you have the space to do so for them to voice their frustration and share their ideas with you.
What can we do in the long term?
I want to believe that much of this controversy will die down over time and fade into the political landscape in the name of progress, but we cannot afford to be naïve in these uncertain times. Our nation is still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, global protests against police brutality and systemic racism, on top of a political battlefield that feels like a violently swinging pendulum depending on what region you are from. This means that emotions and tensions are still high.
We must be grounded and steadfast in our own beliefs as individuals if we are forced to choose which side of history to stand on.
If you have the emotional space and energy for activism outside of your classroom, there are things you can do. Call on your local union, school board, and parent associations. Write/call local legislators.
When speaking to these groups, explain why you need access to certain curriculum materials or permission to use research-based programs in your classroom.
Come prepared with specific examples of students whose lives and educational experiences have been shaped by receiving exactly what they need, not just academically, but emotionally. If there are families that support you, ask them to write testimonies and share those (with their permission of course).
It may feel like education itself is under attack right now.
Educators are angry and frustrated even in states where their pedagogy is not under fire. It is key to remember in these stressful times that we ultimately shape the future through the students we reach each day in our classrooms. We are the voice guiding tomorrow’s doctors, mayors, legislators, and presidents. One day our current students will run the world we leave for them. It is up to us to decide what we will leave them.
5th Grade ELA
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