Stress, Harassment, Censorship: What Educators Face as Politics Roils Schools

By Madeline Will — August 10, 2022 6 min read
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Political debates making their way into school buildings have been a big source of stress for educators, a newly released nationally representative survey confirms.

In fact, principals are three times more likely than other working adults to consider the intrusion of politicized issues—such as COVID-19 mitigation or classroom conversations about race—to be a job-related stressor. Sixty-one percent of principals and 37 percent of teachers surveyed by the RAND Corporation reported experiencing harassment about these politicized topics, which contributed to burnout, frequent job-related stress, and symptoms of depression.

The results, which come from a survey of 2,360 teachers and 1,540 principals that was conducted in January and February, show how educators have landed at the center of political and cultural debates, often with little support or guidance. And there are signs this contention has led to a chilling effect: 1 in 4 teachers have been told to stay away from conversations about political and social issues in class.

Teachers are “having to manage all of these different beliefs of the people around them, whether it’s the administrators, their fellow staff members, the students themselves, or their students’ families,” said Ashley Woo, an assistant policy researcher at RAND and an author of the report. “Educators could use additional support on how to manage these challenging conversations and sometimes these contentious and sensitive topics.”

While the question of how educators teach LGBTQ issues—and handle issues such as gender pronouns, transgender students’ participation in school sports, and bathrooms—has become highly politicized in recent months, the RAND survey didn’t focus on that. Most of the questions centered on how educators felt about classroom conversations about race and COVID-19 mitigation measures.

Seventeen states have imposed bans and restrictions on how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, either through legislation or other avenues, according to an Education Week analysis. (At the time of the survey, these restrictions were in place in 14 states.)

More than half of teachers and principals disagreed with legal limits on classroom conversations about racism, sexism, and other contentious issues, while about a fifth of the educators were in favor of those restrictions. The rest weren’t sure. Social studies teachers—who are tasked with teaching the nation’s complicated history with race—were significantly more likely than teachers of other subjects to oppose the restrictions.

And educators of color were more likely to oppose legal restrictions than their white peers—62 percent of principals of color and 59 percent of teachers of color opposed the bans, compared with 51 percent of white principals and 52 percent of white teachers.

The RAND survey found that 60 percent of teachers and 65 percent of principals believe in the existence of systemic racism, which was defined in the survey as the notion that racism is embedded in systems and structures throughout society rather than present only in interpersonal interactions.

Twenty percent of educators don’t believe systemic racism exists. Educators of color, and especially Black educators, are more likely to believe in its existence—87 percent of Black teachers say systemic racism is real, compared to 57 percent of white teachers.

“This points to an area where we can continue to develop educator mindsets—preparation and professional learning are some natural avenues to begin to do that,” Woo said.

The RAND survey found that educators who thought systemic racism is real are much more likely to oppose legal limits on classroom conversations about race.

Confusion abounds with little guidance

About a quarter of teachers overall said they have been told to limit conversations about political and social issues in class. And the data suggest that the race-related laws are having an impact on teaching: Thirty-one percent of teachers in those states with restrictions have been directed by their administrator to stay away from those topics, compared with 21 percent of teachers in states without restrictions.

Educators have said their administrators are fearful of complaints, both from parents and from the state. Already, the Oklahoma state board of education has downgraded the accreditation of two school districts in the state for violating the law that restricts classroom conversations on race and racism and bans diversity training for teachers.

And about a quarter of principals and 11 percent of teachers reported being harassed for instruction about race, racism, and bias. Students’ parents or family members were the most common source of harassment, which was defined as experiences of hostility or aggression, the RAND survey found.

Teachers’ groups have long warned that these laws will lead to a chilling effect, where teachers will censor themselves to stay out of trouble.

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Image of a person working under scrutiny.

Only 14 percent of teachers said they had “completely sufficient” access to resources, support, and guidance to navigate conversations about race, racism, and bias in their classrooms, and another third said they had “somewhat sufficient” support. In interviews with the RAND authors, some teachers said they hadn’t received such training in their preparation programs, either.

In interviews, teachers spoke of some challenges with professional learning about racial equity, Woo said. Sometimes, there isn’t enough staff buy-in, or the training feels too simplistic or even insensitive, teachers told the RAND researchers. Some teachers were also concerned that the onus of taking an active role in the training would be placed on educators of color.

It would help, Woo said, if school leaders clarify why these conversations are important—that the goal is to make sure everyone feels welcome and included at school.

Even so, the RAND survey showed that principals also received little preparation on how to navigate politicized issues. And while nearly three-fourths of principals overall said they received guidance from the state education department or legislature, they found it more unhelpful than any other source of guidance. Their principal colleagues tended to be the most helpful, according to the survey results.

The situation wasn’t clearer in states with legal restrictions on classroom conversations about race: Nearly a third of principals in those states said they didn’t receive any guidance from state-level entities to navigate the new policies. And the principals in those states who did receive that guidance were more likely to say it was unhelpful than principals in states without those laws on the books.

COVID-19 measures prompt even more harassment

Harassment about COVID-19 mitigation measures—particularly mask requirements—was even more common than harassment about policies related to teaching about race. Nearly half of principals said they were harassed about mask requirements for students and staff.

This survey was conducted during the peak of the highly contagious omicron surge of the virus. Since then, most districts have dropped their mask or vaccine requirements, and many places are starting the school year with little-to-no pandemic restrictions.


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