New state laws and other actions to limit teachers’ conversations about race, racism and sexuality in the classroom generally apply to elementary and middle schools. So professors, although often opposed to the law, are largely unaffected. But at least one group of teachers is feeling the immediate impact: those who train teachers.
Since 2021, more than a dozen states have passed laws — sometimes called divisive concept laws — or used other statewide actions such as executive orders to limit how teachers discuss certain issues. Many have drawn language from President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order, which has since been rescinded by President Biden.
As the nation’s culture wars have moved to the classroom, teachers and staff at Teachers College have a unique perspective where many of their students work or will soon be. Concerned that the law will have a chilling effect on teaching, some have advised their students to consider the environment when deciding where to teach. They urged them to think creatively about how to meet the needs of students even within the constraints of the law. Some actively oppose the law, testifying against them in state legislatures or working to exempt higher education from the bill, and organizing the faculty Senate to pass resolutions against the law.
Scholars who have dedicated their careers to helping shape the teachers of the future say the laws represent not only a violation of academic freedom, but a step backwards toward more inclusive classrooms.
“I am very disappointed and frankly very angry that in 2022…we are still fighting for the rights of black people and other marginalized groups to have their history and share their life experiences,” Distinguished Professor Donna Ford at The Ohio State University’s School of Education and Human Ecology.
what the law says
Under the banner of critical race theory, politicians and the public alike conflate the concept of divisiveness, an obscure academic theory once attacked by conservatives, though few state laws explicitly name it. Among other things, critical race theory argues that racism is structural and built into laws and institutions.
Mississippi’s Critical Race Theory legislation, signed into law in March and covering public colleges and K-12 schools, states that educators may not instruct or compel students to personally identify, adopt, or abide by “any gender, racial, ethnic, religious or national origin, inherently superior or inferior; or an individual should be treated disadvantageously because of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.”
Those laws rely on “unsubstantiated claims about what teachers do on the job,” said Rich Milner, chair of the education department at Vanderbilt University’s Department of Teaching and Learning.
According to Milner, these laws undermine “the professional judgment of educators who know and understand what students need to learn, how they need to learn, and when they need to learn.”
“Students will miss important aspects of history, important aspects of current reality,” Milner said. “They will miss out on insightful opportunities to analyze, criticize and understand the lessons that lawmakers are trying to suppress.”
Likewise, Dana Thompson Dorsey, associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of South Florida and director of the David C. Anchin Center for Teaching Advancement, describes the divisive concept approach as oppressive. “It’s a way of limiting the teacher’s voice, the student’s voice,” Dorsey said. “It’s a way to avoid discussing history in this country so that students don’t learn real history.”
fear and anxiety
Professors say their students worry that simply trying to teach things like U.S. history will upset parents or other community members.
“They’re anxious, they’re nervous, they’re depressed, [and] Scared,” Milner said. “We’re very explicit about what you do, how you address and pass this legislation that is oppressive and really undermines their professional judgment. “
Milner advises his students to preserve student work to demonstrate that they are drawing on standards in teaching and engaging with families and the wider community. He said that while this added a layer of unfair and unnecessary stress to their jobs, he wanted his students to be prepared for what they might face.
Dorsey urges her students to encourage conversations about difficult topics rather than ignore them. “I tell them to stick to the truth…they’re going to facilitate, not shut down, the discussion.”
Likewise, Ford said she remains committed to helping her students learn what they need to know.
“If there’s a wall, you go around it,” Ford said. “I’m going to find a way to do what needs to be done to really prepare the educators of the future.”
Some professors also talked about feeling obligated to make their students — many of them white — effective teachers of students of color. Meir Muller, an assistant professor of early childhood education in the University of South Carolina’s School of Education, said many black children enter college without a black teacher or see themselves in textbooks or posters on school walls.
“That’s the idea for everyone to see in this classroom,” Mueller said. “It’s for Jewish, Muslim or LGBT students. We want to make sure every student is seen, recognized and celebrated in the classroom.”
March tweet Amy Rutenberg, associate professor and coordinator of the Social Studies Education Program at Iowa State University, received 37,500 likes. “For the first time in my career, I had to tell a student to change the wording of a lesson plan that was 100% factually correct because teaching it with the original wording would violate Iowa’s law,” she tweeted. The ‘split concept’ law, now I want to cry.”
Rutenberg explained that in her lesson plan on the civil rights movement, she advised her students to change the “systemic national level” to the “structural level,” a revision that, in her view, fits the letter of the law without substance. Change course content.
Rutenberg said her students are most concerned about how their parents will work with or against them. She noted that their concerns have escalated in recent years, with news such as controversial school board meetings making headlines.
“When I was teaching in high school, I didn’t think about the school board in my area,” Rutenberg said. “It’s not something I’m thinking about; it’s something they’re thinking about right now.”
students are cautious
One prospective teacher contacted for this article declined to be interviewed, saying she did not want to risk jeopardizing her first teaching contract given the laws in her home state of Georgia.
Others are more willing to accept. Markuan Tigney Jr., a master’s student at Peabody College in Vanderbilt, plans to teach first grade in Virginia, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin opened a tip line in January for parents to report schools teaching divisive concepts. Tigney said he and his classmates often talk about the split-concept approach and try to figure out what they can and can’t teach.
“There’s always this level of hesitation about teaching and getting into trouble,” Tigney said. “There’s always this conversation, ‘Do you think it’s okay to read this book?'”
Tigney said he’d been training to be a teacher for the past four years, and he’d rather focus on teaching than worry about saying something that would offend people. “When I should have taught my children the truth and [help] They become critical thinkers themselves,” Tigney said.
Chris Darby, who is pursuing a Ph.D. At USF and hoping to one day enter academia, he said the debate is likely to influence professors’ decisions about where to live and teach. “A lot of times, universities miss out on good professors who opt out because politics get in the way of their work,” Darby said.
Even as a student, Darby said, he sometimes prevented himself from asking questions or expressing opinions in public because he feared his opinions might change how professors rated him. “I think it limits knowledge because there’s no healthy way to express dissent.”
Caroline T. Clark, a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University, is encouraged by her students’ determination to teach despite the divisive concept law. Students told her, for example, that being a teacher would be worth it if they had access to a child who really needed to hear something.
“It sounds hyperbole, but it’s a brave thing to do as a young teacher,” Clark said. “I’m impressed and hopeful because I feel more and more that their commitment is strong.”