Teaching Profession

In the Culture Wars, Teachers Are Being Treated Like ‘Enemies’

By Madeline Will — March 15, 2022 3 min read
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Teachers are caught in the crossfire of a political and cultural conflict, and it’s threatening their ability to do their jobs, warns a new statement from five national groups representing tens of thousands of educators.

In their first-ever joint statement, the four professional organizations for teachers of particular subject areas, along with an anti-censorship group, condemned the widespread efforts to curtail classroom discussions about so-called “divisive topics.”

“In their zeal, activists of the current culture wars unfortunately treat teachers as if they are enemies,” says the statement from the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Science Teaching Association, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. “Teachers need our support; they need our trust; they need to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgment.”

Over the past year, 15 states have enacted bans or restrictions on how to teach the topics of racism and sexism in K-12 schools. Anti-censorship groups also decry what they say is an unprecedented volume of challenges to books in schools, particularly to those that focus on race, gender, and sexuality. Topics like evolution and climate change also have been threatened in the science classroom, and the way students make sense of and critique the world in math class has been challenged, the statement says.

The professional organizations for every discipline “are unified in our concern about the limitations and the fissures that are being thrown upon teachers,” said Emily Kirkpatrick, the executive director for NCTE, in an interview.

Concerns rise about a chilling effect

Teachers in every subject area have said they’ve been accused of “indoctrination” or questioned for their curricular choices, as conservative politicians vow to root out instances of so-called critical race theory in schools. (Critical race theory is an academic framework that says racism is a systemic, societal problem. It has become a catch-all term for discussions of race, with some critics arguing that white children are being taught to feel guilty or hate themselves.)

Earlier this month, the College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement program, released a statement emphasizing the importance of AP teachers’ expertise. “AP is animated by a deep respect for the intellectual freedom of teachers and students alike,” the College Board said, adding that if instruction is censored, the AP designation would be removed from those courses, and students would lose out on potential college credit.

And the statement from the five national organizations argues that the scrutiny on teachers is creating a chilling effect in the classroom. Teachers are afraid to assign books that might be challenged, and “as a result, teachers’ very ability to do their job is under threat,” the statement says.

Yet teachers’ jobs have never been more important as they work to catch students up after the pandemic has stalled academic progress, Kirkpatrick said: “Now is the time to give teachers as much agency as possible.”

The culture clashes and uptick in censorship challenges are contributing to many teachers’ desire to leave the profession, she said. Teacher dissatisfaction rates are at record highs, and although it’s yet to be determined whether teachers will actually leave the classroom, large numbers are saying they want to quit.

“The stakes are too high,” the joint statement concludes. “We cannot let good teachers leave the field because they no longer have the freedom to do their jobs. We cannot let the education of our children and young adults become collateral damage in partisan political machinations.”

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