Matthew Hawn, a social studies teacher in rural Tennessee, was driving to work listening to NPR at the beginning of last school year when he heard a report on what was unfolding in Kenosha, Wis.
A white police officer had shot and injured Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, during a call about a domestic disturbance. Two days later, as protests engulfed the small city over Blake’s shooting, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager, shot and killed two people before walking by police. He was unharmed.
Hawn knew what he’d be talking about in his Contemporary Issues class that day.
“White privilege is a fact,” he told his students after juxtaposing the two incidents. “What we are going to do is we are going to discuss how we can help solve the issue of racism in America. What can we do here in Northeast Tennessee?”
Over the next several months, Hawn, 43, used the news cycle to show students, almost all of whom are white, how systemic racism is an indisputable element of American life.
In early February, after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Hawn assigned a controversial Ta-Nehisi Coates essay called “The First White President,” which pairs the history of white supremacy with the rise of President Donald Trump. During the spring trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, accused of murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, he had students dissect a provocative spoken word poem titled “White Privilege” by Kyla Jenée Lacey.
After each lesson, parents complained to administrators, who in turn admonished Hawn.
“Your job is not to teach one perspective,” Ingrid Deloach, assistant director of schools for Sullivan County, wrote in a written reprimand to Hawn on Feb. 3. “Your job is also not to ensure students simply adopt your own personal perspective. Your job—in teaching current events—is to ensure students learn to seek out and consider varying and credible perspectives.”
On May 10, Hawn was fired.
His dismissal came three days before Tennessee’s legislature passed into law a series of rules that severely curtail the ways that public school teachers can talk about racism in the classroom. And he became one of the first casualties from the nation’s debate this year over “critical race theory” and whether or how teachers should acknowledge racism in class.
“I don’t even think I even considered not talking about it,” Hawn said in an interview with Education Week. “Because it’s always a contemporary issue, every year it’s a contemporary issue. And so I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t talk about race.”
He has since appealed the dismissal and is currently suspended without pay. His case is expected to be decided in mid-October.
Sullivan County Director of Schools David Cox said at a June school board meeting that the passing of Tennessee’s “divisive concepts” law and the firing of Hawn was purely coincidental.
Hawn’s dismissal papers cite, among other things, “insubordination and repeated unprofessional misconduct” and violating the state’s teacher code of conduct, which requires teachers to provide “varying points of view.”
During a hearing on Aug. 17, Hawn and his lawyer, sitting in front of a dozen supporters — some wearing “I stand with Hawn” shirts — argued that the district took his lessons out of context. They said district administrators did not give him the proper resources or training to address racially volatile news events, and after taking issue with the way he taught about racism and white privilege, never told him how they expected him to teach those concepts.
“I don’t believe my livelihood should be taken away over one reprimand,” Hawn said in his testimony. “I’m here fighting for my job because I want to teach here. I was never given the opportunity to finish that lesson.”
Teaching about racism becomes complicated
How to address issues of race outside and inside the school building became incredibly more complicated this year for teachers across the nation.
In years past, the vast majority of teachers decided on their own whether and how to speak up when they encountered racist ideas in the classroom. But a new series of laws passed in 12 states in the last few months dictates what concepts about American racism teachers can and can’t teach. The penalties for violating the new restrictions are steep.
Tennessee’s law, which went into effect this school year, prohibits teachers from teaching students that any person is “inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,” and from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. They are also prohibited from teaching that Tennessee or the United States “is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”
If teachers “knowingly violate” any portion of the law, they risk losing their license and their school districts could be fined up to $1 million for each offense.
District leaders, teachers, and advocates for students of color in the state fear the law will have a chilling effect on almost all conversations on race.
A parent in Williamson County, Tenn., has already cited the law in a complaint that alleges that a teacher’s lesson on Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old girl who became the first African American student to integrate a school in the South, made her child feel uncomfortable.
While legal experts say that states are in their full legal authority to dictate what public school teachers teach, the laws are “forcing teachers to omit difficult parts of our history and not teach students that racism is wrong,” according to the Learn from History coalition, a newly formed group made up of prominent civil rights and education groups, including the AASA, the School Superintendents Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The group instead advocates for students to be taught “thorough, accurate, and fact-based history.”
The confluence of social media consumption, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare for the general public stark economic, and academic disparities between white people and people of color, the police brutality disproportionately targeted at Black people, and racist and xenophobic rhetoric from local, state, and national politicians. And it’s made it more difficult for teachers to dodge questions students bring to school.
While more than 81 percent of America’s majority-white teaching force supported the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, according to an Education Week Research Center survey, other recent surveys show that only 59 percent of teachers believe that systemic racism even exists and 40 percent of teachers believe that genetics are at least a slight factor in explaining why white students have better educational outcomes than Black students. A third of surveyed teachers support legislation aimed at restricting the ways teachers discuss American racism with students.
Sullivan County administrators were given multiple opportunities to be interviewed for this story but repeatedly declined. At board meetings and at last month’s hearing, they denied promoting racist ideas.
“Sullivan County Schools and I in no way condone racism of any kind,” Cox said shortly after Hawn’s firing. He then read from Hawn’s dismissal letter. “Hawn remained more than welcome to offer and discuss appropriate materials with Contemporary Issues students which provided a more liberal perspective, assuming that would also require offering and discussing appropriate materials, which provided a more conservative perspective on the same subject matter. This crucial—and ethical—standard was lost on Hawn in early 2021 and it appears to be that it’s still lost on him now.”
A white teacher’s awakening about race
Hawn is a registered Democrat and a self-described anti-racist teacher in a county where more than 80 percent of residents voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020. In October 2018, Trump spoke at an at-capacity event about 20 miles south of Sullivan Central High School, in neighboring Johnson City where he called Democrats “the party of crime” for supporting policies that would allow more immigrants into the country.
Two years later, more than 600 cars drove through the neighboring communities of Bristol and Kingsport in a “Trump Train Parade”, which started at the Sullivan East Middle School parking lot.
Hawn grew up in Kingsport, about 20 minutes from Sullivan Central High School and attended Sullivan North High School. (The district this year has consolidated all three of its high schools after losing almost a fifth of their enrollment in the last decade alone.)
The 9,000-student school district is more than 94 percent white.
Growing up there, Hawn wasn’t always so aware of the existence of racism and his advantages of being a white man, he said.
It wasn’t until he participated in Boys State—a program offered by the American Legion through which students learn about the ways county and state governments work—that he met his first Black friend, a boy from Rogersville, Tenn.
His first friend at Tennessee Tech University, where Hawn studied business, was also Black.
“So then I started to realize that people are not that different based on their race and sexuality,” he said.
He first heard the term white privilege when Barack Obama first ran for president.
Hawn started teaching at Sullivan Central High School in 2005 and received tenure in 2008.
In 2015, he watched a Daily Show episode on Comedy Central where Ta-Nehisi Coates was the featured guest, promoting his book Between the World and Me. In the book, which was a national bestseller, Coates writes a series of letters to his son, explaining the realities of being Black in America, which includes the history of violence against Black Americans and disproportionate policing of Black communities. In the book, Coates says there is no evidence to suggest that America will ever rid itself of white supremacy. Hawn read the book and said it was hard to digest, but he learned a lot.
“I’m definitely an anti-racist teacher but I’ve had to learn how to teach that literally on my own,” he said.“I just was not exposed to ideas like that at 17. And I don’t know if we had those resources here. But that’s what I offer now.”
Hawn, who has coached the high school’s softball, football, and baseball teams, was popular with students. More than a dozen of them testified on his behalf, crediting him for teaching them how to listen to people who might not share their worldview.
One recent graduate, Leia Scalf, described Hawn helping her through an especially difficult time in her life.
“Coach Hawn was my safe place. Everything I needed support with, Coach Hawn was there,” she said at the hearing. “If it wasn’t for Coach Hawn, I don’t know if I would even be here.”
Should a teacher be objective about the existence of racism?
Hawn has taught Contemporary Issues since 2010. Students spend about 85 minutes per class discussing the day’s news events. Over the past decade, he talked to high school students about LGBTQ rights, the Second Amendment, climate change, the legalization of marijuana, the opioid epidemic, every presidential election and, most recently, COVID-19. He has even talked with students about racism and white privilege with previous classes, but said administrators never took issue with his teaching style until this year’s national debate over critical race theory.
The class was usually free-flowing, with very little structure and the ability for students to suggest topics of discussion. Hawn said he occasionally assigned articles, showed video clips, and encouraged debate on any and all topics, no matter how controversial.
When it came to lessons on racism, Hawn said he provided a range of materials with “varying perspectives.”
In April, Hawn pointed out, he assigned an exercise developed by the Harvard University psychology department on implicit bias. In an attempt to help them understand racial segregation and bias, he showed students the PBS documentary “A Class Divided.” In the film, Iowa teacher Jane Elliot in the days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. divides her all-white class of 3rd graders into blue- and brown-eyed students to help them understand what it feels like to be discriminated against.
Hawn said his political views do not affect how he taught class for more than a decade. Several of his students, who testified at the hearing, agreed.
Many former students told EdWeek that he listens to students who disagree with him and facilitates civil conversations.
When he showed the white privilege video in class, Hawn asked students to research “Black privilege,” said Taylor Wilson, a recent graduate who took his class last year.
“Obviously, nobody can find anything because it doesn’t exist,” she said. “But he did encourage us to research both sides so that we could see that there wasn’t another side.”
But administrators focused a large part of their case against Hawn on the claim that his own liberal politics were the reason for him not teaching about white privilege from “varying perspectives.”
The school district’s lawyer said it did not take issue with white privilege being discussed in the classroom, but cited in the dismissal letter that Hawn “acknowledged he had not offered varying assignments/perspectives due to believing that the views [expressed in the classroom material] on white privilege are simply fact, rather than opinion.”
Administrators never specified exactly what point of view Hawn should have taught but in the reprimand letter, Deloach encouraged him to use articles from more conservative publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The National Review.
“Maybe a more conservative stance would have been an appropriate alternative,” Deloach, the assistant director of the school district, said in her testimony on Aug. 16.
Hawn has appealed his firing through a special court set up by Tennessee’s Department of Education for tenured teachers. An earlier appeal was upheld by the Sullivan County school board.
If he wins the case with the state department of education and the school board decides not to appeal that decision, the district will have to reinstate him as a teacher at Sullivan County High School.
In the meantime, the school district is no longer offering high school students a Contemporary Issues class.
At a rally on Aug. 15, a day before his hearing, dozens of people showed up to the King Mercado food truck court in nearby Johnson City to support Hawn. Lacey, the spoken word artist, attended and performed the poem that Hawn was fired for showing in class.
One of Hawn’s sisters started a GoFundMe page to raise $85,000 for expenses related to his dismissal appeal and to replace his salary in order to pay for his living and healthcare expenses.
After the second day of his hearing, Coates called Hawn to offer support.
A fight to keep teaching in a town he loves
Two months after Hawn was dismissed, he traveled to Nashville for a weekend of celebration in honor of the late congressman Rep. John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, a group of white and Black activists who in the 1960s challenged racial segregation in the South through several violent confrontations with white supremacists.
At the time of the celebration, Hawn was considering just quitting and not going through the lengthy appeal process.
“I could just resign, and this would all go away, and I’m probably going to be OK,” Hawn said. “But being reminded of what those Freedom Riders went through and what they did—they literally sacrificed themselves—I started to think, well, what did you sacrifice?”
Hawn lives in his childhood home where he knows all his neighbors, one of whom walked his German shepherd, Marloh, while he sat through the three day-long hearing. After the hearing, as he sat in his backyard and reflected on the case, he wished his other neighbor a happy belated-birthday.
That’s the community Hawn does not want to leave.
“This is my home. I think students in the Sullivan County school system deserve to have a teacher like me,” he said. “Why should teachers like me—anti-racist teachers—move to big cities? There’s work that needs to be done here too.”