Equity Resources, Podcast Articles | Sep 19, 2021
How to respond if a parent accuses you of teaching SEL or critical race theory
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
I’m tackling a topic this week that’s been on my heart for quite awhile, and frankly I didn’t address it because I wasn’t sure what to say.
I’m watching some of our best educators — particularly educators of color — being driven out of the profession due to accusations of brainwashing and indoctrinating kids with critical race theory, and it’s heart-breaking.
I’ve thought deeply about what I personally could offer around this topic, and ultimately decided I would speak to one of the pieces that I haven’t seen addressed much, which is what exactly individual teachers should do if they are questioned about what they’re teaching.
What this article is not attempting to do
My purpose here is not to clarify what Critical Race Theory (or CRT) is and is not, as plenty of experts have already addressed that everywhere online, and frankly, I’m not interested in getting lost in the weeds. Folks educated on this issue know the term is misused to include basically any mention of race in the classroom, or anything that asks students to think critically about our country’s history and question common narratives.
I’m also not attempting to justify socio-emotional learning (which has been erroneously lumped in with CRT as something “liberal” and “harmful to kids” and banned in at least one state, as of this writing). That’s because folks who believe that teaching empathy and social-emotional skills is brainwashing are not my target audience.
If you’re opposed to SEL or any progressive ideology, this article will not be relevant for you, as you probably won’t be questioned by parents about this and wouldn’t need to justify it.
And, if you think that schools are teaching kids to hate each other or hate America, this article will not make sense to you, because we’re not working with the same definitions.
Who this article is designed to help
I’m here to support the educators who are baffled as to how best practices have become forbidden seemingly overnight, and who want to keep teaching the way their students need them to and help parents understand what’s happening so they have support.
This episode is for folks who believe in teaching accurate history rather than a whitewashed version.
This is for folks who have been asking students to use a critical lens when examining systems, who try to include additional and often overlooked perspectives, and value a diversity of ideas.
This is for the folks who strive to be culturally competent and help students be the same.
This is for the folks have been teaching this way for YEARS (I was trained in what we called “multicultural teaching” back in the 90s!).
This is for the folks who believe in honoring their students’ full selves and sharing their own identifies with students, which includes “seeing color” and acknowledging ethnicity and speaking honestly and transparently about race and culture.
If that’s how you teach — and that’s how you plan to keep teaching no matter what a small but vocal segment of the population says in protests — here’s some advice on how to communicate with parents about what’s going on in your classroom.
I believe this way of teaching is not inherently divisive, and there is nothing to hide or defend. It’s simply what’s best for kids, and it’s what great teachers have been doing for decades. We just need to help parents understand what’s happening, and that’s what I want to share some practical advice around.
This will not be sufficient to get all families on board (and we’ll talk about that at the end), but it’s a starting place where we can begin instead of writing the difference off as irreconcilable.
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1. Get on the same page with your district leadership and your admin team.
It’s important to be very clear on what your superintendent expects as well as your school’s admin team. Do they expect you to take a social justice approach to teaching, or expect you to avoid these topics? Will they have your back if a parent questions you, or will they give in?
You don’t have to agree with your district’s stance, but you do need to understand it clearly.
You may want to run some of your policies and beliefs past your principal and get their input on what they can publicly support and what they cannot. That way you are clear from the start of the year what the risks and possible consequences are for various actions.
You may also want to ask the principal what they would like you to do if a parent pushes back. Again, you don’t need to agree with the principal’s approach, but you need to know where you stand. If your principal expects you to immediately back down, then the strategy you plan will need to be different than if your principal supports you.
I also recommend working with like-minded teachers in your school to get support, brainstorm, and problem solve. This is particularly important if you anticipate some pushback, as you want folks who are in your corner and can help you think through appropriate responses.
In this way, you’re getting clear on what’s expected of you, what your limits are, and what potential consequences may be if you push those limits, and you have a support network of other educators who are walking through the same process.
2. Actively build relationships and trust by getting to know your families and looking for commonalities that you can build upon from day one.
Just as kids often come to school and tell the teacher a story about something that happened at home which isn’t exactly an accurate portrayal of events, it’s also common for kids to tell their families about things that happened at school which aren’t true and accurate representations.
Misunderstandings that arise in these circumstances can be cleared up much more easily when there is a good working relationship between the teacher and the family. And conversely, parents are much more likely to approach you in a rage if they don’t know you yet as an individual.
So, it’s imperative that families have a chance early in the school year to get to know your personality, character, and heart toward their children.
You need to transcend the stereotype that is being actively pushed in far right-wing media of teachers as lazy, greedy, entitled people who mooch off taxpayers and try to indoctrinate children with left-wing propaganda. The individuals and organizations pushing these myths are increasingly well-organized and well-funded, and their myths have been deeply ingrained in the belief system of many of our students’ parents.
One way to counter these stereotypes is by allowing parents to get to know you as a person and as the dedicated teacher you are. They need an opportunity to see you as someone who also loves and cares about their child, and has their child’s best interests at heart.
I often say that when parents and teachers disagree, it’s important to recognize they have the same goal: they both want what’s best for the child. The only issue is that they disagree about what that “best” looks like.
When you approach their concerns with this viewpoint, you are assuming positive intent, which I believe is true 99% of the time. Parents genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by their child, and we want them to know we understand that. This opens the pathway for parents to see that the teacher also genuinely believes they are doing the right thing by the child within the constraints of the system that they’re working in.
You’re not going to be able to have open conversations about “controversial things with people who do not know like or trust you. So look for the humanity and commonalities with students’ families as much as possible.
For example, we all want freedom, we just define freedom in different ways. Freedom looks different to different people: for some, freedom is not being mandated to wear a mask or get vaccinated, for others, freedom is moving more safely about the community without unnecessary exposure to the virus due to folks who aren’t taking proper precautions.
I’m not equating these two viewpoints, as I don’t think they’re equal, and one is far more dangerous to public health than the other. I’m just pointing out that the root desire is the same: everyone wants to be healthy and free, and when we can remind ourselves that we all want this, we are less tempted to dehumanize people who think differently.
We all care about children, we just have different ideas about what children need.
There are many other issues and topics that you can connect around with students’ families that you do not have any disagreement on. Emphasize those things, not only so these parents are more likely to be cooperative with you, but also so that you don’t lose the ability to empathize with them and see them as actual real humans and not just caricatures of the “opposite side.
3. Be very intentional about who you engage in discussion about your teaching and what venues you use for these discussions.
You do not have to address every statement made by every parent. You do not have to offer a counterpoint for every erroneous statement or correct every bit of misinformation.
If a parent is complaining on Facebook or at a school board meeting, it is not necessarily your responsibility to address it.
Expend your energy on interactions with people whose feelings deeply impact your work. If you have the mental and emotional bandwidth to offer rebuttals at school board meetings, that’s fantastic, and I encourage you to use your voice in that way. But if you are completely worn down by the demands of teaching and just dealing with what’s going on in your classroom, you do not have to fight all the battles.
When you are feeling attacked on all sides, notice who you actually are accountable to. Are some of the people complaining not even parents of children in your school? They don’t necessarily deserve your attention, and those folks can make you feel too exhausted to deal with the families of students who you DO need to be talking with.
Also, make sure you are focused on addressing concerns brought directly to you or your administrative team. It may not be worthwhile to address gossip and rumors, or to be part of an online community or parent group that frequently complains about the school system.
Sometimes the old adage “It’s none of your business what other people think about you” is the best approach. Don’t read or engage with random folks who are ranting online so you have the energy to deal with those who come to you directly with concerns.
Focus on relationships and fostering understanding and support within the groups that you are paid to work with, in the context of work you are contracted to do. Anything else is unpaid labor that you are not obligated to take on, so it’s good to create boundaries for your own mental health.
If a parent comes to you (or your principal) with a concern, ask them to address it in person if possible. You can request an administrator to be present (as a witness and/or intermediary) if you feel that’s important.
A video call would be second best so that you can see one another’s body language and facial expressions. Either meeting could be recorded with parental consent, which I’d advise you to get in writing or confirm again verbally once the recording has started.
The goal is to make sure you’re having an actual conversation (rather than arguing or repetition of talking points) between fellow humans of equal worth and value who all care about the kids involved … and that requires intentionality. Dashing off an angry email in response can backfire, and the tone can be misinterpreted. So, don’t hide behind a computer screen or allow the parent to do the same.
Most people are far more kind in their interactions when they see an actual human being in front of them, and since you need to have a good working relationship with your students’ families, prioritizing good communication is essential.
4. During a conversation with an upset parent, work to understand their core fears and objections, and validate them as much as possible.
The first time you interact with a parent who is unhappy with something you did, your primary goal should probably be to understand where they are coming from, rather than getting them to understand where you are coming from.
Obviously, active listening is very helpful in rapport-building, but it will also help you get to a workable outcome much faster. The time spent just hearing them out, as long as it’s not excessive–is not wasted. It’s providing you valuable information about their belief system, values, personality, character, and parenting style.
You will not be able to reach an understanding if you do not first truly understand their objection. You can’t have a healthy discussion based on what you THINK the problem is, or what you assume based on stereotypes or interactions with other people who hold their beliefs.
Your goal should be to uncover what this particular parent/family member has a problem with, and why. Listen to understand, rather than rebut. There’s a strong possibility that you’ll discover the parent only takes issue with what they think you are doing, or with what they think your goal is, rather than what’s actually happening.
During the listening process, try to affirm any legitimate concerns or feelings. You could say things like: “Yes, if that was happening, you would have every right to be angry about that” or “If I felt like my child was being harmed like you feel, I would be very upset too.”
Validate the parent’s underlying desire, which is almost always understandable (wanting the best for their child, and fearing something bad is happening that they can’t control and will harm their child).
When you feel like you’ve gotten a good read on the situation and the parent has gotten most of their frustration out, you could say,
“I’m so glad that you came in and brought this to my attention so that we can make sure there’s no misunderstandings. It’s important to me that you understand not only what my intent is toward your child, but also that you understand what I’m actually teaching.
And, I want to understand the impact of what’s happening in the classroom on your child. Sometimes I say or do things and don’t understand the way kids have interpreted and made sense of it in their minds. I’m sure you’ve experienced that as a parent, too.
So if I am saying or doing something that is making your child feel ___ and that is not my intent, I need you to let me know so that I can make things right and change my approach with a child. I am really glad that we’re talking about this.”
5. Be sure to have a realistic outcome in mind and work toward that end so you don’t get sidelined.
With some parents, you may find that their concerns are steeped in disinformation and anti-public school propaganda. Their beliefs may be deeply tied to their identity and questioning those beliefs would mean questioning how they see themselves. That’s a big ask, and it’s probably not realistic to expect parents to do that on the spot.
People believe what they want to believe. If the parent is already convinced that any mention of race in the classroom is brainwashing their child, you will not win them over by giving them facts and statistics about institutional racism.
Any number of conspiracy theories that have been popularized in the last few years are examples of how our beliefs are not always rooted in facts. And, facts alone are rarely what change people’s minds. Sometimes we believe what we believe, despite evidence to the contrary, because it’s part of our community and identity, and to reject those beliefs would cut us from everyone else in our community who thinks the way we do.
So, if you try to counter misinformation with facts, the parent’s choice is to interrogate their allegiances, worldview, and many of the decisions they made in their lives, or reject the facts outright. Some parents will not be willing to interrogate their own beliefs system or change their minds when encountering new and contradictory information: they’ll simply deflect.
And since we’re dealing with a family that you are required to work with as part of your job, a working relationship is more important than correcting their inaccurate beliefs. As much as you may want to educate families on things they’re wrong about, you really do need to pick your battles.
So in the course of listening to understand, try to gauge whether this parent is open to changing their mind, or closed off. Listen carefully and ask only the most pertinent questions. Don’t get distracted by rabbit holes, what-about-ism, and straw man arguments.
Instead, think about what is the most important thing that you want the parent to walk away understanding. It might be, for example, that you would never want a child in your class to feel like you are teaching them to hate white people or feeling guilty for being white.
So, don’t get caught up in the minutia of what actually is critical race theory and what is not. Focus on the parent’s main concern, which is that they feel like their child is being shamed or ostracized, and work to make sure that parent leaves with an understanding that not only are you not intending to do that, but that you will also do what’s in your power to make sure that’s not the impact.
You can clarify your goals, but again, so much of this is about feelings and perceived grievances, rather than what is actually happening in schools. So if the problem is how the parent feels, then validate their feelings and the fact that if what they thought was happening was actually happening, then they would indeed have every right to be upset. Then state what your actual goal is with that particular lesson or teaching strategy.
Don’t expect the parent to walk away with a newfound appreciation for teaching accurate rather than whitewashed history, or brand new insights about how privilege and race intersect in society.
Instead, focus on trust-building: you want the parent to leave feeling that you are a competent educator they can trust with their child, and who is willing to listen to their concerns if they question something you’ve taught.
It might be helpful to have some articles or books to recommend that you think would be appropriate for parents who do want to learn more. You might say, “Would you like me to email you some links to resources that help you understand what informs my teaching?” If the parent says yes, you could recommend some very cultural competency 101-type books, like “So you want to talk about race…” by Ijeoma Oluo.
Use your discretion here, though, and make sure you’re not passing on more information to get the parent fired up and paranoid. Remember: it is not your job to show parents the errors of their ways and the gaps in their knowledge. Offer resources only to those who are genuinely curious and interested in learning more.
6. Be transparent about what you teach, defending less and asking questions more.
In addition to listening more than you talk, I also recommend asking rather than telling. If the parent accuses you of teaching critical race theory, instead of saying, “I don’t teach critical race theory because that means XYZ and we don’t do that in K-12 schools”, ask the parent, “What does critical race theory mean to you?”
Then, listen carefully to the answer. There is a stated agenda amongst the far right to lump anything that looks critically at America’s history under the CRT label. So, just having kids explore the impact of Christopher Columbus‘s arrival in the Americas (which undeniably had a negative impact on the indigenous population) could be classified as CRT by parents who have consumed media on Fox News and other places that deliberately misinterpret CRT.
So don’t get too caught up on the CRT label. Be factual about what is actually being taught and how and why, again focusing on just the most important things and not getting sidelined by every accusation or erroneous statement.
Stay focused on your goal in the conversation and the outcome you’re hoping to achieve going forward. If the parent is worried about a potential lesson, address that. If they’re upset about a lesson that already happened, address it, but be proactive about preventing problems with future lessons.
For example, if you want to be able to teach about Thanksgiving from multiple perspectives and primary source documents rather than parroting the traditional colonial narrative, then stay focused on that as a goal in your conversation.
What does the parent need to understand or believe in order to be okay with their child interrogating traditional retellings of the first Thanksgiving? How can you facilitate a discussion with them that helps them arrive at those understandings?
I recommend plainly stating what you are teaching or planning to teach. Be very matter of fact about it, as again, you are not doing anything that should be considered controversial or divisive. You might say,
“I’m planning to have students read this account from a colonist of the first Thanksgiving, and then this account from a native tribe. No two people ever experience an event the same way, right? And there isn’t just one single truth about how any event happened: it’s all filtered through the experiences of the different people who lived through it.
So this activity allows students to consider different perspectives, and learn more about what the colonists were experiencing and what the native people were experiencing. We’ll talk about how one person doesn’t speak for their entire group, too, so just because one person wrote this doesn’t mean that was what it was like for everyone. Do you have any concerns about students reading these documents?”
Listen to the parent’s response, address concerns, and then continue:
“Afterward, we’re going to compare and contrast the two accounts so students can think about how the experience of the first Thanksgiving was different for the colonists than from the native people. Does that sound appropriate to you?”
Listen some more, address concerns, validate any legitimate desires, alleviate any fears that are based on things not actually happening in your classroom, and reinforce that you’re teaching students to consider multiple perspectives instead of a single story.
If the parent says something wildly off-base, like, “I don’t want my kid thinking our ancestors were the bad guys,” respond by asking probing questions that allow the parent to think through their concern. Keep your tone neutral and ask the questions sincerely caring about the answers.
For example, “What part of this activity might make them think that?” or “What do you think students will learn that might lead them to that conclusion?” Then ask as a follow-up, “How would you like me to respond if that happens?”
So rather than telling the parent, “That’s not going to happen,” which can feel dismissive, you’re asking the parent to dig deeper and get very concrete about what they think is happening and what they expect from you. Often when we say our fears out loud, we can hear for ourselves how much they stem from our own projections rather than likely outcomes.
This process also helps parents consider any truths they may be wanting to shelter their children from, which leaves the onus on them to consider why they think it’s better to withhold historical facts from young people than to allow them to explore the full history.
That may still be the parent’s preference–they might not want their child learning about specific topics yet (or ever), but I would still put the onus back on them to justify what they’re asking for, instead of justifying your position. For example: “Our state standards require me to cover __. Are you asking me to teach about that without including information about __?” You don’t have to agree to do that, or state a refusal to do that. Instead, return to addressing the parent’s fears of a negative outcome.
You may move the conversation forward by saying something like,
“I would never want a student to feel a personal responsibility for something that other people of their race did hundreds of years ago. That’s definitely not the goal here! I’ll be sure to address that if I hear a student say anything about it.”
Once the parent understands what’s happening, you can conclude by reassuring the parent that they can trust you:
“I want you to know that this is the approach I take regularly in my lessons: I’m not telling students what to think but teaching them how to think, by allowing them to consider different perspectives they might not be aware of. Does that make sense to you?
Please know you can come to me any time you have a question about what’s happening in the classroom. I am not hiding anything from you and never want you to feel like you’re in the dark about what’s going on. I have your child’s best interests at heart and always want to respect the way you are raising your child. You can talk to me about anything that’s bothering you in the way I approach the curriculum.”
7. Decide how far you are willing to compromise and how bold of a stand you are willing to take.
Even though you are affirming valid points and fears, and prioritizing the relationship with the family over educating them on CRT, you do not have to view teaching through a critical lens and teaching whitewashed, one-dimensional versions of events as two opposing viewpoints which are equally valid.
The whitewashing of American history and the refusal to talk about the harm done to various groups of people by Americans in the founding of our country all the way up to the present day is simply ahistorical.
It is not unpatriotic to criticize or to question the impact of various things that happened in our nation’s history. There is no true controversy here on whether or not, for example, westward progression had negative impacts on indigenous peoples, or redlining policies in the 1930s built wealth for white families and excluded all others by federal design (this podcast ep does a fantastic deep dive on that, and the lasting impacts today).
These are truths. These things happened. The only controversy is whether or not we should obscure these truths from our students.
Education is all about bringing truth to light. Stand with the truth, knowing that you are doing your best to help students be critical thinkers and conscious citizens.
If your employment is at stake, you may not be in a position of financial privilege where you can risk your job. However, you might also feel that you cannot compromise your moral integrity and values.
Many of the teachers I’ve talked to who cannot afford to be terminated have still said they plan to go down with a bang rather than a whimper, so to speak. They are willing to risk it all professionally to avoid whitewashing history and marginalizing students of color.
I know this is a big risk, and not everyone can take it. But I believe this is a time for bold stances in favor of truth, critical thinking, and justice. If we want to make this world a better, safer, more just place for everyone, what we teach this next generation matters.
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