Teachers are being silenced. What can be done about it?
Listen to this post as a podcast (transcript):
The backlash against critical race theory in schools has grown steadily over the past year. While opponents initially targeted a relatively obscure branch of academia, they are now coming after everything, using CRT as an umbrella term for any kind of instruction related to equity, diversity, inclusion, even social-emotional learning. The movement has impacted policy in many states—silencing teachers and suppressing progressive practices that took decades to evolve—and it threatens to do the same in many others.
How did things get to this point? How is this movement harming and silencing teachers, and what damage will it ultimately do to students if it continues to spread unchecked?
Most importantly, what can be done to fight it?
Part 1: Background
Attention to critical race theory (CRT) started over a year ago, right after protests erupted all over the world in support of Black lives, prompted by the murder of George Floyd. In late summer of 2020, a conservative activist began sounding the alarm on CRT to conservative media. His campaign to focus conservative anger on this obscure term worked, first prompting the then-president to issue a directive prohibiting all federal agencies from conducting any kind of training that addressed critical race theory, white privilege, or systemic racism.
Gradually, the backlash turned to public schools, with groups organizing to demand that schools stop teaching CRT or anything like it. For example, in June of 2021, The Manhattan Institute released a Woke Schooling Toolkit1, meant to equip concerned parents with tools for fighting back against the “extremism” spreading in schools. Similar resources emerged from other organizations, like the toolkit2 published by Citizens for Renewing America, which is full of scary-sounding claims like this: “…once the Critical Race Theory activists show up, they will do everything in their power to take over your school, church, mosque, synagogue, club, business, government, police service, hospital, and any other institution you can think of. They will stop at nothing” (p. 7-8).
While a good deal of energy has been spent defining CRT, debating whether or not it is actually being taught in the strictest sense—and whether those who oppose it even know what it is—things have progressed past that point. As education writer Peter Greene puts it, “Granted, the term is still being bandied around, but at this point it is meaningless, a placeholder for various grievances.” These grievances include things like restorative justice, specific books in school libraries, and social-emotional learning.
“It’s true that the vast majority of people throwing the term around don’t know what it means,” Greene says, but at this stage, that’s not really the point. “Parents are upset about something; telling them they’re using the wrong name for it doesn’t really further the conversation.”
This is a brief summary of the backlash against equity-driven teaching in the past year. For a more in-depth study, I strongly recommend the podcast series EdTrusted: The Critical Race Theory Craze That’s Sweeping the Nation.
Now the backlash is being written into law. A growing number of states have passed or are considering laws that serve as “gag orders,” outlawing a variety of topics, ideas, terms, and books from being taught in schools, threatening teachers with termination and the loss of their teaching license if they disobey.
Meanwhile, citizens are taking matters into their own hands: Activist groups are offering “bounty” money to support parents and students in catching teachers breaking these laws. And threats of violence against teachers, which include anti-diversity backlash along with pushback on COVID-related protocols, have increased to a level that has prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved.
These developments have added intense stress, anxiety, and in many cases, fear to the daily lives of teachers who are already struggling through one of the most difficult school years they’ve ever experienced.
Part 2: The Impact on Teachers
The news stories can’t quite capture how this movement is impacting educators. We see the laws being passed and get a sense for the heightened emotion through videos of chaotic school board meetings, but it’s the threats to teachers—whether direct or indirect—that have the most chilling effect on educators’ daily lives.
To illustrate this effect more fully, I’m going to share the stories of two educators whose work has been affected by the anti-CRT movement: Mary and Lauren, whose names have been changed to preserve their anonymity. Both are Black women; I am highlighting their stories because although white educators are also being harassed for equity-framed teaching, for BIPOC teachers that attention carries with it a greater likelihood of physical harm.
“The risk is different,” Lauren says. “It’s not only professional survival but it’s a risk in terms of my own life. We’re not short on examples of how the world feels about Black, Indigenous, and people of color to validate that that risk and that feeling is real.”
One powerful factor in both stories—in the whole movement, in fact—is social media, which not only works to quickly spread misinformation but can be weaponized by parents to publicly target educators. The personal damage this can do in very little time, like it did for Lauren, is enough to make other teachers, like Mary, feel powerless and paralyzed when it comes to their teaching.
The first sign of trouble in Mary’s district was the middle of last school year, when teaching was still fully remote. The teachers in Mary’s department added a two-minute video on implicit bias to one of the online lessons. A parent saw the video while it was being watched from home and took it to Facebook, denouncing the video as indoctrination. Word soon reached the school administration, and the teachers were instructed not to show the video again.
“We were basically told that we have to be careful about the kind of videos or text we’re teaching because of the demographic,” Mary explains. Unlike her previous school, which was predominantly Black, the students and faculty at her new school were mostly white. “It kind of threw me off because I’m not used to having those types of restrictions when it comes to teaching a text.”
After that incident, even though no more direct limits were placed on what she could teach, Mary and her colleagues limited themselves out of caution. In a speech unit, they initially planned to have students look at a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech alongside a Malcolm X speech, but they decided to remove the latter, knowing that if the implicit bias video had caused problems, the parents would be up in arms about the Malcolm X speech.
Like many states, Mary’s state did pass a law banning CRT-related practices this year, which just formalized what was already happening in her district, a chilling effect that often happens when vague laws are passed to restrict free speech.
“It’s almost like I can’t have passion,” Mary says. “I have to watch how I say things and not put as much emphasis on certain things because of how they may be perceived and then taken back to parents. Honestly, because the parents have so much power, their side would be taken.”
The movement has also created a shift in Mary’s relationship with her students, setting an adversarial dynamic in which students have been given the role of whistleblowers. It has also emboldened more students to express themselves in ways they might have previously hidden, like hanging confederate flags in the background during remote learning or saying they didn’t want to participate in Black History Month lessons.
“I definitely feel like I’m walking on eggshells,” she says. “There are certain students that I know just because of things they have said, things that they wear, I feel anxiety being in that setting because I’m so uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being watched.”
Apart from this, Mary’s broader concern is the impact this will all have on students. “It’s hurting the kids at the end of the day. There’s so much that they could learn and be exposed to that they’re not getting, especially in those districts where they banned certain texts. There’s so much that they’re missing. If we want them to be good citizens and prepared … teaching them a watered down or one-sided view, it’s not doing them any justice at all.
For over five years, Lauren had provided professional development to many school districts through a regional service center. She trained teachers on a variety of topics, including those that would fall under the umbrella of diversity, equity, and inclusion, topics like belonging in the classroom, using diverse texts, and having difficult conversations; things that would help educators understand how to best support marginalized populations. Her trainings were in high demand and she received consistently high ratings from the schools where she did her work.
In early 2021, she got a phone call from an administrator at one of the schools she served. The district had received emails from several concerned parents about whether CRT was being taught in their schools, with specific concern around the trainings Lauren had given. Since she wasn’t 100 percent confident of the specific tenets of CRT, Lauren’s first instinct was to Google it.
“I thought, I don’t want to tell this person no if I might actually be teaching it,” she explained to me. “So after I did a little bit of digging and research, I returned the call and said No, I’m not teaching CRT. We do talk about race and racism, and I have pulled some articles and resources by some of the folks that have been involved with the scholarship around CRT, but I’m not directly teaching Critical Race Theory to your teachers, so the answer was no.”
When the administrator responded to the parents, asserting that the work was focused on inclusion and belonging, the parents replied back and said that if the focus was on equity and inclusion, that meant CRT was indeed being taught in the district.
Then Lauren received a voicemail from a woman she’d never met or heard of, asking if Lauren worked as a consultant for a specific school district. Feeling uncertain about the caller’s intentions, Lauren opted not to return the call but passed the information on to the district in question. Someone from that district got back to Lauren a few days later and said that the woman had also made a public records request for emails and voicemails related to their interactions with Lauren. (Many states make these items available upon request under their interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)).
This request was followed by another one that came directly to the organization Lauren worked for, looking for emails Lauren had exchanged with the same school district.
Lauren’s anxiety was mounting. She began searching through all the emails in question to see if she had ever written anything that might be inappropriate or misinterpreted. This process took a toll on the confidence she’d once had in her overall mission. “At this point, I’m feeling really insecure about the work that I’m doing, because I’m just trying to do work that’s really good for kids, really thinking about how we create spaces that foster that belonging and community we know kids need in school. But here I am worried about every word I put in an email, backtracking through thousands of them. I turned up nothing, but it still left me with this feeling of, Am I doing the right work?“
Throughout the spring and into the summer, more questions and more public records requests came in from other districts. “Other administrators were calling and asking the same questions. No one understood it and they were all very confused and frustrated by these emerging loud voices pushing back against work that they felt had so much support after the murder of George Floyd. I remember thinking, How did we go from Black Lives Matter statements and Antiracism resolutions in school districts to this? It was so disappointing.”
The request that was most unsettling was when a district requested Lauren’s personnel file. Although these records must have certain information redacted before being handed over, like social security numbers and bank information, they still contained a detailed account of Lauren’s work history.
“There’s a stack of about 120 pages that is on a kitchen table somewhere of someone I don’t know, and it has every single evaluation that’s been done on me, my resume, any reference that I put down for my job application, salary notifications… they have all this information that was just sent over to them because they asked.”
As Lauren’s sense of security and safety diminished, her own organization remained mostly silent. Other people from districts she’d worked with reached out to see what they could do, but her own leadership did very little. “That’s probably what hurt the most,” she says. “Looking back on it now, I think they should have spent time learning more about the work, they should have understood the complexity of the situation. They failed to see the severity of what was actually happening all across the country. They could have gotten out in front of it to support districts, to speak to what was actually happening, but instead they took the path of least resistance, complied with the FOIA requests, and kept it moving.”
Things got worse. A friend of Lauren’s gained access to a private Facebook group for concerned parents. The group had specifically targeted Lauren as one of a small group of people in the area who were pushing CRT. When they began posting screenshots of Lauren’s social media accounts, she decided to deactivate these.
The attention accelerated: Voicemails came to Lauren’s cell phone from people who purported to be requesting her services. Requests for access came through her Google Drive for documents she’d shared in trainings. At school board meetings that were recorded and played on YouTube, her name would come up and slides from her training would be displayed and discussed out of context.
“People I had never had any contact with would stand up at these meetings and pick apart and critique my work from a perspective that was really hard to listen to,” she says. “If only these folks would be willing to sit down and have a conversation—I’m not necessarily interested in changing their minds, but the way in which they painted me in those board meetings…as though I was some monster coming in, trying to do terrible things to children, which was the exact opposite of the work that I was leading in the district. That was really tough.”
“In one board meeting, they pulled the phrase ‘white supremacy’ out of an article I had shared. When some people hear ‘white supremacy’ they immediately think of Nazis and the KKK. They don’t understand the tenets of white supremacy and how it lives and exists in our world and organizations. Everyone in the board meeting was just in an uproar. One person got up and said, ‘Is this Lauren person teaching our kids to be Nazis and to join the KKK?’ It didn’t even make any logical sense. But to an entire group of people grasping to stop schools from engaging in this work, it was the fuel they needed to gain more support.”
It got to the point where Lauren and her husband were discussing safety plans for what they would do in the event that they were approached in public, especially if they happened to be with their children. “The folks in this particular district had been known to do that, to confront people in public, showing up to their houses, their driveways, etc.”
Ultimately, Lauren ended up leaving her job for a similar position in another organization, where she feels more supported.
While some say this is just the latest in a series of passing moral panics drummed up by the right, the impact this movement is having on teachers—especially those who work in conservative areas—will likely last well beyond this particular moment in history.
“It was so psychologically damaging. It was awful,” Lauren says, reflecting on the series of events that dominated 2021 for her. “I feel like something died inside me.”
At this time, she is not doing any teacher training.
Part 3: The Impact on Students
While teachers are clearly struggling to deal with these threats, ultimately, the people who stand to lose the most in this battle are students.
Without the tools to recognize, address, and dismantle racism, their world becomes more full of hate, fear, and violence. They will be less likely to see themselves as people who can influence how their world operates.
Without an accurate and complete understanding of history, they are less likely to recognize harmful practices, policies, and leadership. They are less likely to spot problems before they grow out of control.
Without a curriculum that includes and celebrates all identities, they are less likely to grow into fully actualized human beings who can pursue their passions and contribute to the world with their unique gifts and talents.
Without programs like social-emotional learning and restorative justice, they are less likely to learn how to regulate their emotions and resolve conflicts in healthy ways, skills they can carry into their partnerships, their parenting, their friendships, and their professional relationships. More students are likely to end up in prison. School shootings are more likely to continue and increase.
Without a resolute and unyielding push back on this movement, by not stepping in when a small, loud minority works to frighten policymakers into reversing all the progress that has been made, we are looking the other way while democracy dies on our watch.
Part 4: Next Steps
The backlash against equity-driven teaching has been strong, well-organized, and loud, and an equally strong response is needed to fight it. If you haven’t already started taking some kind of action to push back, there is no time to waste.
This is especially true if you have any kind of privilege: If you are a white teacher, administrator, or parent, this is the time to use that privilege to speak up. In the summer of 2020, so many white people made personal pledges to work harder to eradicate racism. Now it’s time to make good on those promises. This is the work that is needed right now.
Resistance may look different in different contexts. Multiple avenues can and should be taken at once. In the space below, I’ll start a list of ideas for preserving all the progress that’s been made in equity-driven pedagogy, for rescuing it from its current attackers, but I’d like to keep building it. If you have more suggestions or links to groups that are taking more direct action, please share them in the comments or through our contact form.
At the Local Level
- Work to undo harmful policies. If anti-equity decisions have already been made in your area, speak out against them, because they can be changed. The school board of Spotsylvania, VA voted last week to remove what it called “sexually explicit” books from its library, then reversed its decision this week after a group of parents, students, and other citizens showed up to give four hours of public commentary in opposition to the initial decision. (Librarians facing book challenges can find support resources through the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom or your state affiliate of the AASL.)
- Take proactive measures. Research what’s happening in your local school district on this issue. If an anti-equity movement has already gathered steam, build a coalition of parents and students to speak out against it. If nothing has happened yet, build that coalition anyway to proactively and publicly support equity-driven teaching. Call your legislators, even if there are no bills up for a vote, to voice your support for equity-driven teaching. Actively and vocally support your school and public libraries.
- Watch your local school board elections. Some of the people pushing back on school curriculum are now running for and getting elected into positions of power. If a school board election is coming up in your area, look carefully at the candidates and what their platforms are, and share that information with other voters in your area.
- Revisit last year’s diversity statements. Look at the commitments to equity, diversity, and anti-racism that were composed by many school systems in 2020 and challenge those who wrote them to follow through. This is the first big test; resisting this kind of backlash is exactly what honoring those commitments looks like. Are districts going to capitulate under the first push?
- Know the policies that are already in place. So many of the practices currently under fire are the direct result of policies that have been in place for years. Mandates to improve test scores and graduation rates for specific student groups, for example, have led educators to learn how to do a better job of teaching students from all backgrounds, so reversing equity-driven practices violates those policies. On the book challenge front, it will also be helpful to know your district’s policies on how instructional materials and books are reviewed and approved, and how formal challenges must be initiated.
- Share within your own circles. Don’t underestimate how influential you could be on your own social media. Simply writing a personal statement about your opinion on the anti-CRT movement, your own personal experiences, and what you would like to see taught in schools could have an impact on how those in your social circles view things. It may not change the minds of those who are on a regular diet of anti-CRT media, but it might make a dent.
- Band together. This work will be far more successful if you join forces with others who share your mission. If you are an administrator, your teachers desperately need you to stand behind them, but doing it alone carries a great deal of risk. Find other school leaders who will stand with you.
- Donate. Donate to organizations working legislatively on this, especially the ACLU, which filed its first federal lawsuit in late October against Oklahoma’s anti-CRT law.
- Learn the Law. The more people who understand the relevant laws around these issues, the better. For starters, get to know the 1982 Supreme Court ruling against book banning and the concept of viewpoint discrimination. Listen to Episode 2 of the EdTrusted podcast, which discusses the legal implications of the state gag orders in depth.
- Study the Opposition. One key to addressing the backlash is getting familiar with the arguments that have been crafted to create it. Materials like the ones listed in the References section below offer a close look at the way equity-driven practices are being reframed as a conspiracy, and how parents are being explicitly instructed on how to push back.
- Educate. So much of the anti-CRT rhetoric is simply inaccurate; there is not some group of “CRT activists” working behind the scenes to infiltrate our schools. What schools are doing is trying to teach more accurate history, to resolve conflicts responsibly, to help our teachers get more comfortable talking about race, and teach our students to name and manage their emotions. Offering opportunities for parents and community members to look at the materials that have already been used in your schools could calm their fears. Those with the most conservative viewpoints might still disapprove of what they find, but the more moderate parents who are imagining the worst might come to realize that your materials simply don’t align with the descriptions that come from conservative media.
- Prepare. Know what could be coming to your district, your library, or your classroom, and get ready. This thread by librarian Angie Manfredi provides an invaluable blueprint specifically for librarians, but it’s worth a read for all educators; the advice is transferable to classroom materials and teaching practices. Follow the #FReadom hashtag on Twitter to find more resources and others fighting for students’ rights to access the books they need.
Everyone Can Do Something
Pushing back against this frightening backlash will be no easy feat, and it comes with varying degrees of risk, depending on each person’s situation. If your job is at risk and you’re not in a position to give that up, that’s understandable. But everyone can do something to push back.
With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Dr. Luvelle Brown, superintendent of Ithaca, New York, City School District. He shared these thoughts at the end of episode 6 of the EdTrusted podcast series; it offers some perspective on this fight.
“What privileges are you prepared to give up to disrupt oppressive systems? We know that something’s wrong with our system, so that means we must do something to change it, and to change it, it’s going to require us to give up some privileges. One of those privileges is a right to comfort. We feel like we must be comfortable at all times. (But) if you’re going to be comfortable, you’re not disrupting a system that has failed generations of young people. We know we won’t survive this—I don’t know of any superintendent who has had these conversations for an extended period of time who has survived it—but what we hope we’ve done is inspire somebody to take our places when we’ve gone.”
Although most resources in this post are hyperlinked, those below are listed as footnotes to limit the online traffic directed to their sites.
- “Woke Schooling: A Toolkit for Concerned Parents,” Manhattan Institute, June 17, 2021. https://www.manhattan-institute.org/woke-schooling-toolkit-for-concerned-parents
- “Toolkit: Combatting Critical Race Theory in Your Community,” Citizens for Renewing America, June 8, 2021, https://citizensrenewingamerica.com/issues/combatting-critical-race-theory-in-your-community/