Social studies and science teachers have found themselves at the center of controversy over the past year. How do they teach about race and racism? How do they talk about COVID-19 vaccines or climate change? How can they have difficult conversations in the classroom when there is so much public scrutiny about their curriculum and instruction?
The four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award all teach either history or science. They spoke to Education Week about how they handle the external controversies over their subject areas and the importance of being honest with students.
The national award, which honors teachers for their work inside and outside the classroom, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The finalists are: Whitney Aragaki, a high school science teacher in Hilo, Hawaii; Autumn Rivera, a 6th grade science teacher in Glenwood Springs, Colo.; Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher in Oberlin, Ohio; and Joseph Welch, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Pittsburgh. A winner will be announced in the spring.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are your thoughts on the politicization of your subject areas, and how do you balance those external debates with teaching what you feel is important?
Rivera: It’s not our job to teach our students [what] to think, it’s to give them the tools so that they can make their own decisions. Providing our students with the ability to evaluate evidence and to really look at claims and see what evidence is backing that up, whether it’s science or social studies, is really important—especially nowadays with so many different pieces of information out there. [We have to] help students know where are credible sources and how to look at them.
Aragaki: I teach biology. At the beginning of the year, ... I wanted to just jump into content because it’s been so long since I’ve had students right next to me. Then I asked them, what is it that you’re interested in? What’s on your mind right now? And the conversations kept circling around the pandemic. “Why is this happening to us? Where are we going to go from here?” So I took the lessons that I had created and scrapped them. I was like, we’re not going to do this [in] quarter one. We’re going to focus on COVID, we’re going to focus on social inequities with COVID, and how [they are] illuminated with different racial groups, health care, and different things like that.
Especially in Hawaii, we focus on our history of pandemics and the history of epidemics. The native Hawaiian population was nearly decimated by the measles crisis when Western colonizers came in for the first time. We had lost so much of our culture, so much of our language because we lost so many people through that. When my students really investigated the numbers and investigated what happened, they felt a calling to keep our community safe from COVID-19. They felt that they will choose to wear masks, to get vaccines, to prevent this [virus] from spreading by social distancing. I ask my students now in this semester, what is it that’s on your mind now? It turned [out to be] climate change.
So it’s not that I’m politicizing my classroom, it’s that the students are having that directly in their minds, and I’m here to address that, I’m here to focus on what they want to learn and what they want to talk about and discuss.
Welch: From a history standpoint, I like to think: This is the soul of education, and it’s focusing on honesty, humanity, belonging, and truth. As long as we’re looking at these conversations through [the lens of], “What is our evidence? What are the facts? What is truthful?,” I think that is the lens that will guide our students to be able to have these conversations—not just now, but in the future. That’s what we want. We want students to be able to understand ourselves and our past.
I tell my students this all the time that we learn history, we don’t learn nostalgia. I teach history, and I don’t teach nostalgia. Going into that framework and looking at what does the evidence say from a history standpoint and using that as our guide—even though it’s more of a conversation right now in 2022 than it was in 1997, it’s still the same conversation, as long as we’re looking at it through the lens of truth. And as long as we’re willing to have these conversations and be truthful, I think students largely can realize that we’re not defined by the past. How we learn from it, and how we move forward from it—that’s our legacy.
Russell: I believe I have the responsibility to tell the truth. Students are truth-seekers. It’s my responsibility to make sure that my students have a framework of knowledge to work with. I teach several courses that might be considered controversial. I teach a class on race, gender, and oppression. I teach another class in African American studies. And within those particular classes, students are willing to engage in conversations that many people believe are controversial. But it’s not “many people,” it’s adults, right? Adults are making these decisions. Adults feel as though our students are unable to have these tough conversations. Students don’t feel that way in my experience. Students are willing, and it makes students more engaged in the learning process. Teaching some topics that might be uncomfortable is a great way to set a standard for our students.
Are you worried that the national debates are going to create a chilling effect in the classroom where teachers aren’t going to feel as comfortable to have some of the discussions that you all are talking about with students?
Russell: I’m sure that many teachers might feel uncomfortable. But my advice to teachers is that we have to do what is right. And students deserve our best. Students deserve a quality education. A quality education is not banning certain books. A quality education is not [refusing to have] tough conversations. You have to feel uncomfortable to grow sometimes. What’s best for students from my standpoint is to have these conversations and this type of discussion within classrooms.
Welch: Teachers need to be at the policy table. Now more than ever, we as teachers need to realize that we have a powerful collective voice, and we need to make sure that we are advocating ourselves. It’s scary, and there’s a lot of pressure right now, but whether it’s by getting involved in our local office, by sharing our narratives and our students’ narratives with local officials, or by writing op-eds, we have the chance to share these narratives of great conversations that can occur in our classrooms. Being able to use that voice is essential. I really do think this could be considered one of the most pivotal points in our education system in this generation.
Rivera: There’s such opportunity for us to really take advantage, as Joe has said, of finding ways that we can really support our students—yes, increasing our teacher voice, but also increasing our student voice and listening to our students and hearing what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about. We don’t need to have our students wait until the future for them to get involved, [we should be] encouraging students to really have that say now, ... and encouraging them to be involved and having those difficult conversations. If we don’t practice having those difficult conversations in a classroom, when we become adults, we’ve never had that practice. And then that skill has not been developed.
Aragaki: When we have these conversations that come up about what’s uncomfortable or who’s going to feel certain kinds of ways, let us remember that our students are of diverse backgrounds. I may not have the experience of every single student in my classroom or of their cultural upbringing. But quite honestly, I knew that I was a person of color very early on in my life. I knew that I was different. And if we don’t have those conversations with students early on—that people have different experiences, people feel different things—then we are doing a disservice to our students. We’re doing a disservice to say that it’s only some people’s narratives that matter.