Curriculum

Teacher Fired for Lesson on White Privilege Loses Appeal

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 26, 2021 4 min read
David Cox, former Director of Sullivan County Schools, left, testifies during a public hearing for former social studies teacher, Matthew Hawn.
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A Tennessee teacher was fired justifiably last school year for teaching his students that white privilege is a fact of life rather than a theory, an outside hearing officer overseeing his appeal process ruled late last week.

Matthew Hawn, a Sullivan County, Tenn., contemporary issues high school teacher, was insubordinate and unprofessional and violated the teacher code of ethics when he failed to provide students “varying viewpoints” on the existence of white privilege during a lesson on police brutality against Black men, hearing officer Dale Conder said in his decision.

“Despite knowing he was to provide varying viewpoints, Mr. Hawn did not provide a viewpoint contrary to the concept of white privilege,” Conder wrote in his decision.

Hawn, reached by Education Week over the weekend after the ruling, has not yet decided whether to appeal Conder’s ruling.

“I really thought that I was going to be teaching in Sullivan County. I thought we made a great case,” said Hawn, 43, who grew up in the county and had been teaching in the district for 16 years. “I’m just extremely disappointed and defeated.”

The ruling comes amid a raucous national debate over whether districts and states should censure the ways teachers talk to students about America’s racist past.

As his case gained national attention, Hawn, who was tenured, decided to appeal the firing, asking for a hearing to determine whether the district acted legally.

Hawn taught a contemporary issues class at Sullivan Central High School for more than a decade, where he brought up current events in his classroom for students to debate and discuss. In September 2020, Hawn told his contemporary issues students, “white privilege is a fact,” while juxtaposing the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, and the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who walked away unharmed after fatally shooting two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis.

On Sept. 10, Hawn was told by his principal in an email to allow room for classroom discussion and not make declarative statements about the topics he brought up in class. Undeterred, he later that year assigned a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay called “The First White President” about Donald Trump, which calls the former president a white supremacist.

After a parent complained, Assistant Director of Schools Ingrid Deloach issued Hawn a reprimand for failing to provide varying perspectives, which is a requirement under Tennessee’s Teacher Code of Ethics.

When Hawn wanted to discuss former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s verdict for killing George Floyd with his class in June, he chose to show a video of Black poet Kyla Jenee Lacey reciting her poem, “White Privilege.” This time, he also assigned students to read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking an invisible knapsack” and CNN writer John Blake’s opinion piece, “It’s time to talk about Black privilege.”

Conder did not consider any of these to be a “varying perspective” to the poem, because they did not question the existence of white privilege.

“These articles do not challenge the concept of ‘white privilege,’” he said in his decision.

In a school district and county that’s overwhelmingly white and conservative, Black writers like Coates, Lacey, and Blake are the varying viewpoint, Hawn said.

“Whenever I teach perspectives from African American people, I have to immediately compare and contrast it with a white narrative,” said Hawn,a white self-described “anti-racist” teacher in a district where more than 94 percent of students are white. “That’s what they want me to do with my lesson plans.”

The district’s school board will now vote on whether to uphold Conder’s decision.

If the district’s school board votes to uphold the decision, Hawn has the option to appeal to the Sullivan County Chancery Court. If Hawn isn’t satisfied with that court’s decision, he could ask for his case to heard in an appeals court.

His firing and subsequent case has drawn national attention, including from the Atlantic, the New York Times, and CNN.

Faith Jones, one of his former students who testified on his behalf in August, said that while she’s disappointed in the court decision, she’s eager to see what he does next.

However, Jones said she’s worried for future Sullivan County students after the school district removed the contemporary issues class from its curriculum this year, according to Hawn.

“I think taking teachers and classes away from small towns limits any type of growth. I just hope Sullivan County isn’t moving backwards with decisions like these,” she said. “If we’re not even taught about what problems our society is dealing with every day, there’s no way to fix it.”

Current head of Sullivan County Schools, Evelyn Rafalowski, said in a statement that Conder had “correctly ruled” in the district’s favor.

“The termination stemmed from a repeated failure to abide by school policy of presenting opposing viewpoints in his contemporary issues class at Sullivan Central High School,” she said. “The subject matter of Hawn’s class was never the issue in this case.”

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