How many teachers are disheartened and even scared by the restrictive legislation involving school curriculum and materials like books appearing in states across the country? In its latest report, “America’s Censored Classrooms,” PEN America warns of the spread of “educational gag orders” that restrict how, and even whether, we can teach contentious topics at the heart of American democracy like about race, gender, and identity.
While the educators most affected are those teaching social studies, literature, and the social sciences, a policy stance that imposes bans is a threat to us all. The clear message that politicians in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and other states are sending for teachers with these laws is “we don’t trust you.” They don’t trust us to teach in pedagogically and age-appropriate ways. This distrust and punitive legislation is even pushing some teachers to leave restrictive states or the profession entirely.
Do legislators know how hard educators work to master the content, understand the curriculum, plan lessons, and cultivate within students the intellectual independence necessary to participate in our self-governing society? Restrictive legislation misunderstands both the purpose and the value of public education. Its consequences threaten lasting harm to students.
It also offers a “teachable moment” for educators willing to teach policymakers and the public what we do that inspires trust from our students, their parents, and the communities we serve.
I want to make a practical appeal to my fellow teachers: Could you take an hour to write as few as 250 words to your state legislators (you can find them here) that open the door to your classroom, to share the important work you do, why you do it, and what concerns you as a constituent? Think of it like Back to School Night for legislators, only without the stress of staying late and meeting with students’ families.
When you address your legislators, begin with a clear request. For example, ask them to support or oppose specific legislation, or ask for money for an educational need like Wi-FI access or a building repair. Share the powerful connections with students that you made and how much they value your commitment to them. These connections probably echo in your memory, from your students’ goodbyes and cards at the end of the year.
I want my representatives to know what’s at risk from laws aimed at undermining my professional judgement of how and what to teach my students. If they were to drop by my classroom at the start of the year, they’d get to see some of the cool things my kids worked to build familiarity with content and skills. In AP U.S. History, they’d discover a combined class, as my English 11 teaching partner and I brought our English and history students together to introduce our question for the year: “What constitutes American identity?” Our guests might even be drawn to participate as students began exploring this question by analyzing and comparing Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again.”
If they’d come to my law and society class, they might see students grapple with the constraints of the First Amendment. They would see my students evaluating legal scholar Martha Minow’s regulatory solutions to address the crash in public confidence in media caused by the proliferation of information through internet platforms.
Later in the week, they’d see my AP English Language colleague and me guide our seniors through the close reading process with a nonfiction essay and a political treatise and teach them the timeless treasure of the “precis” for clear and concise writing.
How many people outside the classroom realize that this kind of engaging work—tailored to the specific students in a specific classroom—is the norm in public schools across the country?
How many people outside the classroom realize that this kind of engaging work—tailored to the specific students in a specific classroom—is the norm in public schools across the country? Through lessons like these, teachers develop relationships with their students that communicate respect.
Restrictive legislation is a threat because it reflects distrust of the creativity and professional care teachers take to develop these lessons. The restrictions are not even clear about the problem they are intended to solve. Do legislators think that students can’t handle certain ideas and material when we offer it in pedagogically and age-appropriate ways? Is there empirical evidence to support this concern?
You may reasonably ask whether your legislator will listen when you reach out to oppose legislation restricting your ability to teach. My answer is a qualified “yes.” Your politics and your position matter, but your message matters more. Too few people pay attention to state and local politics. Few vote and fewer communicate with their elected officials. This means that on some issues you might be one of very few expressing a constituent position. In fact, your message could be the only message.
If your message doesn’t trigger a reply, follow up with another email or telephone call. We all miss individual emails and calls. When you do reach back out, remind your elected officials of your request. Ask for a response. That way you know they are listening, even if it is to disagree or, more likely, deflect (politicians don’t like to tell voters “no”).
If you are worried that contacting your lawmakers conflicts with your position as a government employee, remember, you are also a citizen with all of the rights conferred by the Bill of Rights, including the right to free speech and to petition the government.
I can’t promise that in our current political environment you are safe from attacks. This is part of the problem. Some see teachers and education as easy targets. Others may count on our silence. In our democracy, however, civic participation is essential. We must model effective citizenship for our students, as well as ensure that education is the policy priority our democracy demands.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Teachers Can’t Afford to Stay Silent