On the first day of school, Kerry Green had a pit in her stomach.
Green, a U.S. history teacher at Sunnyvale High School in Dallas County, Texas, had passed out copies of an 1864 speech about liberty and slavery by Abraham Lincoln to her 11th graders.
“Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty,” students read from their desks.
“At the back of my mind, I was wondering what would happen if someone took this wrong,” she said. “It was just this constant, underlying anxiety.”
As legislators across the country push state bills limiting how teachers can discuss race in classrooms, many educators say they’re already seeing the discord have a chilling effect on lessons. Teachers say the so-called critical race theory bans are threatening students’ learning and heaping additional anxiety on educators already facing a fraught start to their school years amid a worsening pandemic.
“They're putting teachers on the front line of this political battle,” Green said. “It's like walking a tightrope, and you feel that tension from either side of wanting to follow standards and teach true history and then having this ban.”
It feels, she said, like teachers are somehow the enemy.
Anger is boiling over in tense school board meetings, fueled by conservative media and politicians. Several teachers across the country told USA TODAY “critical race theory” has become a demonized catchall phrase for any teaching of racism, equity and slavery.
But the theory, a decadesold legal framework for examining systemic racism, is not even taught in most schools across the country, they say.
Still, at least 28 states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict how teachers teach about racism. Though few of the bills explicitly mention critical race theory, fears of the framework are baked into the legislation, with many lawmakers citing the theory as a driving force behind the efforts.
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CRT doesn’t appear explicitly in any state and district K-12 social studies standards, according to the National Council of Social Studies.
“Culture warriors are labeling anything about racism or equity as CRT to make it toxic,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union. “They’re trying to stop us from teaching students an accurate history because that history makes them uncomfortable, and it’s depriving our students.”
The new legislation has allowed politicians and parents to instill fear and anxiety among educators already stressed about starting school during a pandemic, she said.
The AFT, one of the nation's largest teachers unions, is adding $2.5 million to legal defense funds to help teachers who may be disciplined for teaching about slavery and racism.
During the pandemic, "I've watched teachers who had been rock solid just crumble under stress," said Anton Schulzki, board president of the National Council for the Social Studies and a social studies teacher in Colorado Springs. He worries the new legislation will only add to the burden teachers are carrying.
“There's the fear that if I talk about something like Reconstruction or Jim Crow, do I open myself up for action against me by an overzealous administrator or a parent who listens to a 10-second conversation taken out of context?” he said.
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In Texas, teachers fear losing their jobs
As Texas teachers returned to school, a new law restricts how they teach about racism through U.S. history. Teachers say the law, which took effect Sept. 1, will lead teachers to be unfairly punished, prevent students from thinking critically and learning the nation’s full history, and chill discussions that go beyond the perspectives of white men and a Eurocentric view of history.
Andrew Robinson, an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at Uplift Luna Middle School in Dallas, said while the legislation makes him nervous, he won’t change anything about his teaching.
But he said he knows of school administrators at other schools who have met with teachers to discuss curriculum changes. Other teachers, he said, have been editing lesson plans because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. Robinson said he worries the legislation will drive more educators out of the profession.
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Most of all, he worries the laws will force teachers to upend progress in teaching about race and communities of color. Historically, he said, “we only taught the dominant narrative of U.S. history – a Eurocentric narrative that only celebrates white men – while we ignored and silenced other voices.” The ban, he said, only considers the discomfort of white students, rather than that of students of color, who have long been excluded from the histories they learned in the classroom.
“People are just mad now because there's other voices that are now being heard, and that makes them uncomfortable,” he said. “But I don't care what race you are: If history doesn't make you uncomfortable, you're not learning history. You're learning propaganda.
"True history includes the good and bad and should make us all feel uncomfortable.”
After the law passed, said Eliza Gordon, principal of Wells Branch Elementary School in Austin, teachers immediately started reaching out to her to ask how it would affect their classrooms. The law’s sweeping language and unclear enforcement worried them.
“I don't want any of my teachers to feel uncomfortable about approaching a topic in their classroom or trying something new,” she said. “We want our teachers to be able to have these conversations about race and equity, and I really trust my teachers to be able to do that in a sensitive way.”
She told them: “You're not alone in this work, because this work can be lonely already.”
Critical race theory ... in math?
The chilling effects of critical race theory bans are also apparent in math classes, said Telannia Norfar, a math teacher at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, who teaches Algebra II through Advanced Placement Calculus.
Norfar said she gives students “real-life data sets” to work with on statistics projects that often spark discussions about inequities. “You can see inequities in the numbers,” she says.
Now, with House Bill 1775 blocking the teaching of certain topics on race and gender in Oklahoma, she is still planning an inequities project for her statistics classes but, out of anxiety, she plans to “triple check everything."
Norfar said she’s worried about the message the bans send to her students of color.
“These bans basically slap people of color in the face,” she said. “It tells them their stories and their experiences don't matter enough to be heard in the classroom.”
“It also sends a message to teachers, especially teachers of color, that we're not professionals, that we're not capable of navigating these conversations,” she added. “It's belittling and painful.”
Elizabeth King is a white woman who teaches a fifth grade class of almost entirely Black students at O.J. Semmes Elementary School in Pensacola, Florida. Following calls to cut race out of classroom discussion would be a disservice to her students, she said.
“When I'm told I cannot talk about the true origins of this country, my students who live this every day are going to know I'm full of crap,” she said. “If I deny the existence of racism, I lose all credibility as an educator.”
King said balancing her duty to her students with new state legislation restricting discussion of race has left her feeling like many people in her state don’t trust her to have the best interests of her students at heart.
“People can say they respect teachers all day long,” she said. “But if they don't believe that we're professionals who know what we're doing and how to do our jobs, then they don't really respect or appreciate us.”
My journey with CRT: Critical race theory and loving America are not mutually exclusive
In some states, pressure to avoid certain teachings about racism doesn't have the rule of law behind it. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp urged the Board of Education to keep critical race theory out of state curriculums, so the board passed a resolution in June restricting the teaching on race.
That's likely a “scare tactic” without significant enforcement, said Zach Ames, a U.S. history and AP Government teacher at Newton High School in Covington, Georgia. He said he’s not worried about potential punishment for teaching about racism.
If parents are concerned about what he teaches, Ames said they are welcome to sit in on lessons as long as they're respectful, not disruptive and do not critique until a conversation after the lesson.
“Anybody that wants to can have a look at what I teach,” he said. “I’d be happy to show parents and explain why I choose to teach this important history and have these needed conversations about racism.”
After teaching Abraham Lincoln’s speech, Green, the Dallas County teacher, gave her students a short writing assignment. She asked them: “What does liberty mean to you?”
She doesn’t plan on shying away from what her students want to talk about.
“Fundamentally, I believe in my approach to my standards,” she said. “I know I approach my lessons sensitively, and I have an obligation to fully teach this history and teach those standards. That is my responsibility to my students and community. I'm going to keep doing that. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't anxious.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Critical race theory bans: Stressed history teachers fear losing jobs