As policymakers across the country debate how the nation’s racist history and its impacts should be approached in classrooms, teachers have been caught in the fray.
Education Week spoke to teachers across the state of Texas—one of the 11 states that have put limits on how teachers can discuss race and racism in the classroom—to understand how they feel about the national conversation and how they think it will change the education students receive.
Texas’ restrictions are among the broadest in the nation, and they will affect nearly 5.5 million students, nearly three-quarters of whom are students of color. (Texas lawmakers could still enact additional restrictions—though on July 12, Democratic legislators fled the state, preventing a quorum and delaying any action during the special session.)
Below, teachers share their thoughts on what the Texas law means for schools and social studies teaching. 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
My initial reaction to House Bill 3979 was shock, and then it led to disappointment, which then led to anger. Given our current state of race and social justice issues the United States is facing, I was shocked that a bill like this would even be presented. I was disappointed because it silences the voices of our educators from sharing factual, honest information and dialogue with their students in the classroom. And I was angered because I felt like this was just another example of Texas whitewashing history.
We were virtual the majority of our first semester, and I had a student, her virtual background said Black Lives Matter. Well, I had a student who asked, “Why would she have that background?” So we had an open and honest conversation about why people feel that it’s important to raise up Black Lives Matter, what the historical background was from some of the current events that occurred in the United States in 2020, as well as the civil rights movement. This spun into an entire conversation. Mind you, this is not in our TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards]. This is just me, an educator, having an opportunity and a platform to share with my students where they’re at, and what’s going on in society, and how they feel about that and how that impacts them. This bill limits conversations like that.
This bill prohibits teachers from being authentic. It prohibits us from sharing personal experiences, sharing that, yes, there are stains in our American history. And we have to acknowledge those. We have to admit that this is what happened, we learn from it, and we ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Chandra Wright, 4th grade reading, writing, and social studies teacher at West Handley Elementary School, Fort Worth
I’m trying to figure out, how do you approach [classroom discussions under HB 3979]? I don’t know. Because if I say too much, if I really do answer their questions the way I’m supposed to, I don’t want to get in trouble. But you don’t want to leave a kid hanging. You want to tell them the truth, what’s happening in the world, not have them find out from other sources that may not be accurate.
Jennifer Drabbant, former math teacher at Cedar Ridge High School, Round Rock
When I testified [in favor of the new law], I didn’t do it on behalf of the school, or as a math teacher. I did it just as a person with an opinion and a parent. I’m a single mom to twin daughters. They’re 9. The reason I wanted to testify for it is to make sure that people like my daughters, because they’re [mixed race] Mexican, Black, and white, I don’t want people to look at them like they have it bad, that they are already down in society before they even had a chance. If they have a hard life later on, it’s because of their own decisions.
Probably the most common thing any conservative teacher can tell you is that in our classrooms, it’s perfectly acceptable for teachers to put up pride flags, BLM posters, all of that, right? It’s perfectly acceptable for them to give their points of view on politics. And I don’t have any problem with that. I like these types of discussions. But then there’s people like me who get shut down for just giving my point of view.
For example, one year, I got the Travis County GOP volunteer-of-the-year award. I put it on my desk, and the reaction, oh my gosh. I think I got rid of [the award] within two days. At first, my students saw it and they were like, “Wait, Republican party? Wait, do you support Trump?” All of a sudden, teachers started coming into my classroom and looking at that award and then leaving. It’s not balanced. There’s only one point of view in schools that is allowed, and that’s going to go off onto the students, in my opinion.
That experience showed me that the teachers that I’m surrounded with are OK with teaching the students that they are struggling or down or have a foot lower in society already just because of maybe how they look or their sexual orientation, gender, whatever. As far as this bill and critical race theory, it isn’t necessary to teach our youth that we’ve had a very ugly racist past. We have a very ugly, ugly past, but we are better as a country because of Western civilization and not in spite of it.
August Plock, 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Pflugerville High School, near Austin
What I’m really concerned about is that this law is going to give ground to parents to file complaints on teachers that are teaching something that they personally disagree with and don’t want their child to be exposed to. It could potentially shut teachers down [because] they’re intimidated. I think it comes down to your school administration: Are they going to back you with a parent?
What if you’re a math teacher that just wants to have a conversation with students about something current events-related, and all of a sudden, [you’re told] you’re only supposed to talk about numbers, why are you talking to kids about George Floyd? Potentially any conversations you have with students now, could it be taken out of context? The kids especially want to talk about Black Lives Matter.
Joseph Frilot, 6th and 7th grade humanities teacher at IDEA Montopolis College Prep, East Austin
I find the law to be highly racist. We, as a nation, were able to come together for the most part and agree that what happened to George Floyd was a tragedy, and that racism and police brutality has no place in this country. This is my first time actually witnessing police officers being held accountable. It felt like we were moving in the right direction. Then there’s this law passed in Texas, and it’s being passed in other conservative states, where teachers aren’t allowed to even talk about this topic.
It gives students the chance, and parents the chance, to just stop all types of conversations when it comes to race. And it gives those teachers who didn’t care about racism or who are racist to begin with, it gives them the chance to remain silent and complicit in what’s going on in our country when it comes to racism and oppression.
Anthony Lopez-Waste, 2021 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year and a world history teacher at Canutillo High School, El Paso
I do understand where parents would be concerned. They don’t want their kids being quote, unquote indoctrinated. I know there are some teachers that feel very strongly about certain things, whether it’s politics or religion or whatnot. I can understand parents not wanting a teacher trying to shove a belief system down their throats. But people are missing the point of, hey, our kids need to learn about how we got here. There are examples of coerced and forced labor throughout history. Every civilization has been enslaved at some point, and every civilization has been the enslaver at some point. For people to get all up in arms that, “You’re making us look bad” or “We’re teaching people to hate each other”—I just think that’s silly. And that’s politicians trying to drive their own narrative.
Joe Shehan, 7th-12th grade social studies teacher at Azle Christian School, near Fort Worth
The insidious nature of critical [race] theory is that students who might be lumped into that broad spectrum of “oppressor” are going to get ignored in the name of equity and inclusion. Your lower-performing white student is not going to necessarily be the focus [if resources are allocated to programs that target students from marginalized groups]. That does not mean that the teacher is going to ignore them. ... My concern about HB 3979 is that it’s too narrowly focused on the classroom, and not focused on these structural issues.
I think the law is wrong-headed. I have talked to teachers, and not just teachers on the conservative side as I am. Prior to teaching at Azle Christian, I taught primarily in public schools in the inner cities of Dallas-Fort Worth.
Are there teachers that are teaching critical race theory? Yes. There are. Now, let me be absolutely clear in this regard: I don’t think it’s because they’re sitting there trying to paint one race as inferior to another or one race as inherently racist to another. But at the same time, they’re working with students, where nuance isn’t really part of the students’ wheelhouse yet.
When you have a teacher who’s getting up, and all they talk about is white racism—even if that’s not the intent of the teacher, but that’s the focus of the curriculum—then a student comes out of that classroom thinking, “OK, well, then white = bad, Black = good.” I think what the lawmakers are trying to avoid is this effort towards painting with such a broad brush, that we have that idea that whites are just naturally racist.
At the same time, when you’re teaching the civil rights era, it was a systemically racist time in American history, and you have to teach it that way. The fact that the law is so vague in its language, I do see the concerns of teachers who are afraid that that’s going to prohibit them from being able to teach certain things or give the power to parents to come in and say, “Well, I don’t want my children reading Ibram X. Kendi in the classroom.” Well, why not? If it’s being paired with Voddie Baucham [a pastor who is an outspoken advocate of homeschooling and biblical patriarchy, and a critic of critical race theory] or Thomas Sowell [a free-market economist], then that’s good. That’s what we want in education. We want kids to be shown both sides of an argument and let them make that decision. If we start saying, “This can’t be taught,” and taking autonomy away from teachers, that is dangerous.
Juan Carmona, U.S. and Mexican American history teacher at Donna High School, near McAllen
What [policymakers are] going to have to do in September is they’re going to have to get committees together. And those committees are going to have to write new [standards] which will be examined and have to go to the state board for approval, ... so none of this will happen right away.
But let’s just pretend it is the worst that we can believe. Then yes, you’re going to end up having to stifle class discussion, which in a sense, won’t educate our kids. They’re going to go and get their information probably from social media, things without evidence, without sources, just rumor and lies. We are casting our students aside, casting our learning aside for someone’s political agenda.
And some of the language is vague. It says [teachers must explore a topic from a variety of] “perspectives.” Whose perspectives? How do you evaluate a perspective? [Teachers can’t be compelled to discuss] certain current events. What certain current events? Probably a lot of teachers are going to be like, “Well, I don’t want to touch that.” Soon you’re down to studying history as a box that happened a long time ago and we can’t talk about how it applies to us, which is part of historical thinking skills.
We have schools right now that have African and Mexican American Studies [courses], and maybe they’ll stay, or maybe some might rethink them as this goes forward. And if they stay, I’m glad. But my fear is that we may not be able to expand into other districts, because maybe some people there will be like, “Well, we might violate that law.” It could be a scary situation for some people. So I think, not only are we silencing voices in the classroom, we’re silencing potential classes, all of which is to the benefit of our kids. This just seems like something that’s just going to harm them. Why would we want to do that? We should be expanding educational opportunities, not shrinking them.
A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as What Does the Critical Race Theory Law Mean for Texas Classrooms? Teachers Speak Out