This fall, social studies teachers in Texas will be governed by a new law that restricts how they talk about racism and slavery. But how much will actually change in classrooms?
Education Week spoke to teachers from across the state of Texas to understand how—or whether—this law will affect their teaching.
Their answers illustrate the broad range of reactions educators are having to the restrictions in Texas and 10 other states. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Lakeisha Patterson, 3rd grade English/language arts, reading, and social studies teacher at Deepwater Elementary School, Houston area
I always frame my words and my thoughts and the information that I present from a lens that a 9-year-old is going to understand, in hopes of encouraging additional dialogue and additional conversations about some of these sensitive matters. I do not believe in sugar-coating or whitewashing any part of the curriculum that I present. So I will continue to talk about racism, I will continue to speak on how for a substantial period of time there was an inferior race. African Americans were considered less than human. I present that information, we discuss as needed, and I will not change what I’m doing.
I am not going to silence my voice. If I have a student who asks me about a current event, we will have a dialogue about it. Being a mother of two African American children, I’m not going to be silent. I am not going to stop talking about things that directly impact me, my family, my students, their families, and our society as a whole.
Chandra Wright, 4th grade reading, writing, and social studies teacher at West Handley Elementary School, Fort Worth
We had a [school] board meeting, and they had a whole lot of people who were protesting. Caucasian and African American, both of them protesting the critical race theories, that they don’t want race being talked about in certain aspects. We can’t say how we were oppressed, basically. We should not read something that makes the Anglo kids in my class uncomfortable.
It’s like, you’re telling them one side, you’re not telling the whole story. It’s like, I’ve got to be careful what I say. And I don’t want to give a student the sunny side of it. You need to tell the whole story.
Sometimes the kids will bring up a situation that they’ve heard on the news. And so you would talk about the background knowledge and the concepts. When the George Floyd [video] came out, it did come up as a topic. I have a mixed-race class. Some of my Black boys did not understand why that police officer just kept his knee on his neck. And I had to explain it.
One thing [that came up in class this year] was voting. My males didn’t understand. They said, “We all got to vote at the same time.” I had to tell them about how women were not able to vote for a while. And my females, they didn’t understand that. We read a book called Henry’s Freedom Box [about an enslaved boy who mailed himself to freedom]. They wanted some more information. So we explored race and why [slavery] happened.
August Plock, 11th grade U.S. history at Pflugerville High School, near Austin
In U.S. history, I teach about the GI bill after World War II. And I talk about how my father took advantage of the GI bill and it paid for him to go to college, and essentially set us up as a family to where they could pay for me to go to school. But if I was an African American, maybe I was denied the right to those GI benefits. So [under the new law] is that something that we should bring up both sides of? That the GI bill wasn’t necessarily carried out equally?
We do a whole civil rights unit where you could potentially step on something that somebody is going to disagree with you on. As a social studies teacher, I probably feel more protected because I have the TEKS [standards] to support what I teach. I would be more worried if I was an English teacher and I’m covering a book, and now I’m going to get into a discussion with students based on something that happened in the book. Well, there’s not really a [standard], per se, that supports that teacher and that discussion on the book. And now could you be in trouble?
Our local [union], the Pflugerville Educators Association, along with the Texas State Teachers Association, we’ve been trying to offer [professional development] where the [National Education Association] would come in and give teachers a training on how to work with a diverse group of students. And I have a feeling that this is going to get completely put on ice now. The school district was really excited about this, and we had meetings set up to discuss how we were going to implement this. And then this law came around and all of a sudden it put screeching brakes on it. I’ve not heard back from the school district at all now about being able to do this type of training.
Jennifer Drabbant, former math teacher at Cedar Ridge High School, Round Rock
[The new law] will affect all teachers. Picture a high school student’s day. They have like seven or eight classes, boom, boom, boom. When they go to math class, they’re going to still have on their mind whatever happened in social studies, so they are going to bring that up.
This comes up every year just because politics is such a hot issue in our country. If [students] ask me if I’m a Trump supporter, I say, well first, tell me what your opinions are on Trump. I’ve had students ask about pro-life issues, LGBTQ issues. It’s always, well, let me hear what you think, because if you’re bringing it up, you have an opinion that you want me to know.
Anthony Lopez-Waste, the 2021 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year and a world history teacher at Canutillo High School, El Paso
[This law] is not going to affect my classroom at all because I’m going to teach to the TEKS, which we’re required to teach by Texas. Also, I teach [Advanced Placement classes], so I have to teach what College Board mandates these kids must know to gain college credit when they take the AP exam at the end of the year. I broke all of the key concepts down that had something to do with coerced or forced labor—there are 82 key concepts that the kids must learn on the cause and effects of the different aspects of these institutional labor systems. What are we going to do, leave those out? Now what are they learning? They’re learning nothing now.
I teach facts. And I teach my kids to interpret and analyze primary and secondary sources to pull information out of these documents. I can’t control our feelings about facts. What I do have in my classroom is open dialogue, and we really get into it. For me, it’s more about really teaching them how to learn, teaching them how to research, and teaching them how to think for themselves based on that research and analyzing sources. The day I’m told I can’t teach facts coming from primary documents, primary sources—that’s when I’m done teaching. I’ll move on.
Joseph Frilot, 6th and 7th grade humanities teacher at IDEA Montopolis College Prep, East Austin
Prior to this law being passed, throughout this entire school year, my campus and district were working on becoming more anti-racist. We had trainings this year on anti-racist curriculum and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom. I was able to develop curriculum that highlighted the resistance in this current era regarding Black Lives Matter and relating it to the past civil rights movement.
My district sent out an email prior to this law being passed, saying that this is something we will have to discuss further and figure out together. I have been speaking with my curriculum manager, who does the curriculum for our grade level. And from what I understand, any lessons that explicitly talked about oppression, we no longer can have. A huge chunk of the curriculum that I created was about oppression and resistance, so all of that will be excluded from our curriculum. I won’t be able to do that next year.
It’s very subjective as to what it means to have deference to either side. Everything has bias to it, including the way in which we teach our students. For me, the way in which I avoid that bias is being transparent—this is where I stand at when it comes to this topic, but you don’t have to stand in that area. This is where other people may stand, and this may be where you stand on this topic. But now, when it comes to this law, it’s like, do I tell students where I stand at when it comes to these issues? Am I allowed to be the transparent and honest educator that I’ve been over the years?
Stacey Cave, government and economics teacher at Katy High School, near Houston
One of the things that we talk about at the very beginning of my classes is, “We’re going to talk about things that make you uncomfortable.” But that’s the only way to learn. As the law says, I try to play devil’s advocate, where if I have a strong statement on one side, I am willing to voice the other side—even if I may not agree with it—just so they’re getting more than one viewpoint, because that’s your job as a teacher.
We talk about the differences in the schools themselves. Before desegregation, the white students from the neighboring school district were bused to our school district and the African American students were bused to the other school district. That school district still has not recovered from that distinction. People don’t want to move into that area. [We talk] about how you can look around various cities, and you can see areas of the city that are designated as low-income areas where minorities tend to be, and they’re considered not as nice a part of town. I’m going to be talking about the passage of these various voting rights issues, too, and how they do tend to hamper certain areas of our city in the ability to be able to vote.
For some students, it’s very eye-opening because it’s the first time that a lot of these things have actually been pointed out to them. Now, I will tell you that the demographics at my school tend to be much more conservative. I’m kind of worried about this next year because we do have some parents who have jumped on the board of this who may find what I teach in my classroom not appropriate. I’ve already told my husband, “I’m going to keep teaching the way I do, and if they don’t like it, and they think I need to go, and they fire me—I’m at retirement time, and it’s fine.” I love what I do, but if they put pressure on it and make it to where it’s not fun in my classroom anymore, I know I can walk away.