Teaching Profession

Don’t Give Into Culture War Distractions, Teachers’ Union Head Says

By Eesha Pendharkar — March 28, 2023 4 min read
AFT President Randi Weingarten holds up books about Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges caught up in culture wars during a press conference at the National Press Club on March 28, 2023.
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Attacks on lessons of race and racism, LGBTQ issues, and book banning are part of a concerted effort to destabilize public schools and are demoralizing educators.

That’s according to Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who spoke to members and supporters at the National Press Club on March 28 in defense of public education, and against the conservative politicians who she argues are trying to undermine it.

Weingarten addressed recent attacks on certain lessons about race and racism and teaching of history, the slew of anti-LGBTQ and more specifically, anti-trans legislation, and the escalating book bans across the country. She offered solutions for how to shift the focus in schools away from the “culture wars” and toward the well-being of students and teachers by building communities and enhancing learning opportunities.

“Attacks on public education are not new,” she told the press club audience. “The difference today is that the attacks are intended to destroy it. To make it a battlefield, a political cudgel,” she said.

“It’s an extremist scheme by a very vocal minority of Americans. It’s hurting our efforts to do the work we need to do, which is educating the nearly 50 million kids who attend America’s public schools.”

According to an AFT poll from January, more than two thirds of voters and parents across the political spectrum are not worried about teachers indoctrinating kids, pushing a “woke” agenda on them, or teaching “critical race theory,” as some Republican lawmakers and conservative parent groups have been accusing schools of doing for more than a year.

Eighteen states have passed divisive concepts laws that prohibit or restrict the teaching of certain topics, and many have also passed laws restricting LGBTQ rights—for example, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law or Idaho’s ban on transgender athletes.

How four strategies will help combat culture wars

Weingarten outlined four solutions to rebuild schools and combat the culture wars: expanding community schools, scaling experiential learning, addressing staff shortages, and deepening the partnerships between families and educators.

Community schools will help connect public schools to outside organizations and offer services to strengthen the academic, mental health, and extracurricular offerings within schools, she said.

In New Mexico, New York, and Philadelphia, community schools have produced positive impacts on student attendance and graduation rates. Addressing staff shortages, increasing teachers’ salaries, and allowing teachers to control what they can and can’t teach will help reduce emotional burnout and stress that’s created because of the culture wars, Weingarten said. That may lead to fewer teachers leaving the profession, which has been increasing recently.

Finally, building parent-teacher relationships can help unite parents and teachers instead of fighting over “parental rights.”

“These strategies can help us create safe and welcoming environments and bring the joy back to learning,” Weingarten said. “And in tandem, these four strategies have a catalytic effect, a transformative effect.”

The solutions Weingarten outlined will allow schools to support students and their communities holistically, get them ready for college or careers, make sure teachers are not burnt out and stifled in their classrooms, and help ensure schools are working with parents on student well-being. It will allow districts to move away from engaging in culture wars and back into meeting students’ needs and building stronger public schools and communities around them, she said.

A new hotline to seek help

Weingarten also announced a hotline that the national teachers union is launching along with The Campaign for Our Shared Future, a nonpartisan group fighting against “extremist” attacks on education.

The hotline is for educators, parents, or students who don’t have a place to go to if a book is banned, or a teacher is told to remove some material from a classroom library or curriculum, or if there are policies within a district or state that are stifling classroom discussions or targeting historically marginalized student groups.

It is meant for people who don’t have the support of a union, such as AFT, or the support of parent groups or a district.

“I’ve seen it so much on Twitter, in direct messages to me: Can you help?” Weingarten said in an interview with Education Week following her speech. “So we just want to try to figure out how to organize that.”

The hotline will have an automated voice recording, and people calling in can leave a voicemail.

“We’re not going to be able to—every single call we have—navigate it successfully in a nanosecond,” she said. “But we want to make sure people have a place to go.”

AFT thinks that the hotline might get some unpleasant voice messages, but that should not deter people who need it from using it, Weingarten said.

People have no idea what they can and can’t teach because of the myriad of laws and policies created by conservative politicians, she said, and the hotline, although automated, will help build a sense of support for educators.

There might be times when the hotline triggers a lawsuit, or involvement by the ACLU, or just a place for an educator to go when they need someone to talk to.

A lawsuit that AFT brought on behalf of New Hampshire teachers against the state’s divisive concepts law for allegedly being vague and violating teachers’ Freedom of Speech rights started with hearing from teachers, Weingarten said, citing it as a possible outcome of educators leaving a voicemail on the new hotline.

The number for the hotline is 888-873-7227.

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