WASHINGTON—Teachers from Tennessee to Iowa are swept up in a wave of outrage led by GOP politicians nationwide over how schools teach kids about race in U.S. history.
Conservatives have pilloried much instruction about systemic racism as “critical race theory,” even when that academic term has never been mentioned. A half dozen states have already passed laws this year banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about systemic racism and sexism in U.S. history and society. Similar debates have erupted in Congress and in heated school board meetings where angry parents square off.
The changes have come so quickly, and with such ferocity, that many teachers were caught off guard. But now educators are under pressure and grappling with how to respond, whether with protests, potential lawsuits, a departure or early retirement from the profession, or just attempts to accommodate the new policies.
Anton Schulzki, a public high school teacher in Colorado Springs and the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, says teachers’ options vary greatly depending on where they are and how secure they are in their jobs.
Many school districts have labor agreements that specifically protect the academic freedom of teachers, so educators there may take a bolder approach to teaching controversial topics. On the other hand, teachers in small towns or early in their careers might feel more heat in the current climate.
“Teachers are part of the community. They have bills and mortgages to pay. They’ve got their own families to raise. So they may play it a little safe,” says Schulzki. “That’s too bad for students. But… teachers seem to be easy targets to go after, particularly history and government teachers, because everything has become so hyper politicized.”
In one sign of a growing pushback, a teacher-led protest to “pledge to teach the truth” took place this past Saturday 22 states.
In Memphis, educators held a march showing just how integral racism has been to the history of their state and nation. It started at the site of a slave market run during the Civil War by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who later became an influential leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
From there, the educators passed by a plaque commemorating the 1866 Memphis race massacre in which 46 Black residents, many of them Union soldiers, were killed. The procession ended at the National Museum of Civil Rights, which stands on the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Many Tennessee teachers felt ignored last month when Republican lawmakers passed a law that will restrict how they can teach students about racism.
The new rules were first introduced in the legislature two days before they passed both chambers, in the final days of its spring session. Teachers didn’t get a chance to testify about the proposal before it became law, says Diarese George, the executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance.
State lawmakers, though, discussed an unconfirmed story about a 7-year-old girl who told her parents she was ashamed to be White and ended up in therapy. Local reporters have not been able to track down any evidence that the story is true. Read more