Teachers Shouldn’t Have to Be Afraid to Teach Honest History
As Black History Month continues, many teachers are primed to teach lessons related to the United States’ history of Black people. But given the current social climate, I’m concerned about the consequences they might face in many states and districts across the country. Unfortunately, these anti-CRT laws and the threat of punishment for teachers will only further diminish an already shrinking and racially homogenous teaching profession. This month, and frankly every month, should serve as an opportunity for students to learn about our nation’s honest history.
In 2008, I was a struggling first-year high school social studies teacher with a set of brilliant Black high school students in Atlanta. During my first few months, my students and I found it difficult to connect with the content and see ourselves reflected in the assigned curriculum. The US History standards that aligned with the End of Course Test that my students needed to pass the class did not include Black perspectives unless it related to slavery or a quick unit on the “civil rights era” from the early 20th century. Without being able to incorporate the aspects of Black history that brought me pride and joy — like the brilliant legal strategies of Charles Hamilton Houston or the great writings of author and activist Angela Davis — our class discussions were dull, and my low energy dampened my students’ enthusiasm to work through our lessons.
Then, on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first Black President of the United States. Inspired, my class deviated from our original lesson plan and instead I facilitated a class discussion about its significance. I asked my students to reflect on how this personally affected them. One by one, Black boys and Black girls spoke about the way they viewed themselves and conveyed their optimism that the election would improve how people outside of their community perceived them. The experience codified why I loved teaching and I prioritized having those discussions as often as possible during my four years as a social studies teacher.
Today, if I were still a social studies teacher and taught the same lesson, I might be opening myself up to lawsuits and potential termination in the many states that are introducing legislation to ban discussions on race, some with harsh consequences. For Black teachers like me, this is a dangerous tightrope to walk between teaching what we love while avoiding the punitive measures we could face because of it.
If I lived in a state like Indiana, I could potentially face extreme penalties for the lessons I taught to hundreds of students in those four years. Indiana has introduced multiple bills that regulate instruction on race, ethnicity, and “anti-American ideologies.” Three of their bills threaten teachers with termination for promoting certain ideas about race and ethnicity. Six include a private right of action for parents and families against teachers. And three would punish schools by cutting them off from all state tuition dollars and levying a fine of up to $10,000 per student “subject to the violation.”
As if these threats weren’t enough to deter educators, teacher retention is already a huge issue nationwide, particularly for teachers of color and in schools that serve high percentages of Black and Latino students. Recent studies have shown a growing dissatisfaction among all teachers during this stressful time of dealing with the pandemic, especially among teachers of color — something that threatens the diversity of the already largely White profession.
Research shows that ALL students benefit from having a teacher of color. Black and Latino teachers bring a unique perspective that students of color can relate to, and White students can look up to. Given the lack of diversity in every state’s teacher workforce, the federal and state investments to increase the diversity of the workforce would be undermined by teachers of color who leave the profession, whether it’s due to burnout or concern about their ability to teach lessons on topics about which they’re passionate and with which they personally identify.
We face a critical juncture in our nation’s history — one that if mishandled could set our country’s progress toward equal rights and racial justice back an entire generation. Instead of pulling away from conversations about race and punishing teachers who aim to solve these problems, Black history teaches us perspectives like James Baldwin’s, who, as a Black man in a racially oppressive 1950s American society wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Teachers are not part of some nefarious cabal trying to indoctrinate children. Instead — through a curriculum featuring diverse people, places, and perspectives — teachers are teaching our children the true history of the United States and giving them the tools to understand how to make our country even better. After all, these are the future citizens of America, and together with parents, teachers can ensure that all school children reach their full potential.