When the Temperature Rises
February 2, 2024
February 2, 2024
In today’s world, there’s no avoiding the fact that controversial issues are going to come up in our classrooms—there’s just too much swirling around in the world our students and educators inhabit for such issues not to surface in school. When they do, what can you feel safe saying? What kind of materials can you feel safe providing? If you have specific questions about an activity, lesson, or conversation you may be planning, it’s always smart to consult your UniServ Director or VEA representative first. To offer some general guidelines, though, here’s some advice from the National Education Association, excerpted from its 2023 guide, “Educator Rights: Speaking Up for Public Education and Our Students.”
As a matter of both federal and state law, public schools have the right to control what their employees say on the job. That is so because when an educator is speaking in their official capacity, people may assume she or he is speaking for the school. State laws and court decisions give schools significant control over speech in schools. Moreover, the school has an interest in controlling its own message. Schools also have an interest in running their operations efficiently, which means minimizing disruptions and community concerns. Finally, schools may have an interest in remaining neutral on controversial topics. For all these reasons, you should proceed with caution when engaging in advocacy or tackling controversial topics at school or in your school role. That said, there are still some ways to advocate for your students within the bounds of these constraints.
There are no one-size-fits-all rules about what teachers may say in their classrooms. Educators teach about many important historical and contemporary issues, including discussions about racism and LGBTQ+ individuals. But there may be limits to how you can teach certain topics. Your freedom in this context will depend on the rules set by your state, school, and school division.
Discussing Controversial Issues in Class
Remember, instruction on many controversial issues is part of existing state content standards and teaching students to think critically about difficult issues and develop their own views is one of the overriding goals of public education. Keep this in mind when you’re developing a lesson plan that engages with controversial issues to minimize the risk of any backlash from your school or community.
In general, if you are planning a discussion about current events that may raise controversial issues, be sure that your curriculum is (1) age-appropriate, (2) aligned with state standards, and (3) in line with past practices in your school. If you expect that your lesson will be controversial, run the plan by your principal first. This will give your administrator a chance to suggest changes or prepare for a negative response from the community. Following these steps is particularly important in school districts that skew more conservative or that have been targeted by far-right activists. You should be aware that NEA and its affiliates have pushed back against extreme efforts by school administrators to censor instruction, but the cases can be difficult, and our efforts have not always been successful. For example, a Texas school district told teachers that, in order to comply with their new law, they would have to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust. The district later reversed course, retracted the guidance, and apologized. More recently, a tenured Tennessee teacher was fired over his use of a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a spoken word poem called “White Privilege.” The district claimed that the issue was that the language in the works was inappropriate for high school students and that the teacher did not present varying viewpoints on the issue. The NEA and Tennessee Education Association continue to press the teacher’s case to try to win his job back, but during the initial steps of the process—a hearing before an independent hearing officer and the action of the school board in reviewing the hearing officer’s report—the school district has prevailed.
Discussing Acts of Violence
Far too often in America, violence rips apart communities. When that happens, students are likely to ask you questions about what took place. As an educator, you want to support your students, acknowledge the pain, fear, or anger they may be feeling, and help those in need to access mental health resources. After one of these events, consider taking time at the start of your day to address recent events and allow students an opportunity to express their feelings. Where possible, coordinate with your school or division administrators to have a consistent response throughout the school. For example, after the mass shooting of Black members of their community at a grocery store, the Buffalo Public Schools district requested that all principals start the day with counseling circle meetings for students and provide safe spaces and mental health resources for students and staff. The National Association of School Psychologists also has tips for teachers on talking to children about violence, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has guidance on assisting parents/caregivers in coping with collective traumas.
When racism and hate motivate the violence, as in shootings by white supremacists, or when the violence exposes systemic racism within our society, as with a law enforcement officer shooting an unarmed Black person, these conversations are even more difficult but even more important. One helpful resource might be the Anti-Defamation League’s curriculum on responding to violence and hate. As always, make sure your conversations are age-appropriate and in line with school policy or state law on these topics.
Choosing Instructional and Classroom Materials
Divisions and schools will often prescribe your curriculum, including the textbooks and instructional materials for specific subjects. Teachers’ freedom to supplement that curriculum with materials they choose varies enormously. Some collective bargaining agreements explicitly allow teachers to do so, while others require advance approval of any materials that are outside the standard curriculum.
Many educators also have classroom libraries where students can access books on topics that may or may not be related to course materials. In response to recent state laws that restrict teaching in honest and inclusive ways, school districts across the country have increased efforts to ban books touching on subjects of race and gender from school libraries and educators’ classroom libraries.
Make sure that curricular materials and other books in your classroom are age-appropriate and in line with school and division policy. If administrators at your school have directed you to remove specific books from your classroom, remove the books in a timely manner. But contact your local union if it is unclear what books are permitted or if the restrictions are being implemented in a way that disproportionately targets and removes books that cover topics of race or LGBTQ+ issues. There are several lawsuits now pending that challenge various restrictions on instruction on the issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and efforts to ban books in libraries or classrooms raise similar issues. For example, the ACLU of Missouri recently filed a lawsuit challenging a school district’s policy that resulted in the removal of a book with a non-binary character before a review process was completed.
Expanding the curriculum to ensure it is inclusive and makes all students feel respected and represented is an important tool for building student engagement and learning. Classroom libraries can also provide students with important opportunities to learn using materials that may powerfully engage them by reflecting the experiences of people and families that represent them or by helping them better understand people with different backgrounds and experiences. Talk to your principal about the importance of making sure that all students feel seen and supported in your school and classroom and ways that the school can make sure this happens.
Bringing In Guest Speakers
Guest speakers are a wonderful way to introduce students to new ideas and perspectives. It is easier than ever to bring in guest speakers virtually. But you should exercise good judgment and plan ahead so that you are complying with any school or division rules. Schools may exercise similar control over invitations to guest speakers as they do over teachers’ lessons.
Many school divisions require teachers to seek prior written authorization from their school principal before a guest speaker’s appearance. When a speaker is likely to be controversial, schools may require teachers to notify parents in advance and provide opportunities for students to opt out of attending the appearance. For example, a high school teacher in Illinois brought in numerous guest speakers for an elective class called, “Conflicts and Mysteries.” Members of the community were outraged after he invited a practicing Wiccan to speak about the occult. Parents supported the teacher, noting that he sent several notices about the guest speakers and required students to get parental permission. The school board cancelled and then reinstated the course. Similarly, a middle school in California has Planned Parenthood teach sex education. The school sends notices to the families ahead of time so they can review the curriculum and, if they choose, have their students opt out.
Sharing Your Opinions on Controversial Issues
Schools may prohibit teachers from voicing their personal opinions, even when they allow teachers to discuss controversial topics in class. For example, a court upheld a school board’s decision not to renew the contract of a teacher who told her students, in response to a student’s question, that she did honk when she passed protestors against the Iraq war holding signs saying, “Honk for Peace.”
If your work is covered by a collective bargaining agreement, read it carefully to determine what your district allows and consult with your union representative. Some CBAs specifically prohibit sharing personal beliefs. For example, the Burgettstown (PA) Area CBA allows teachers to introduce controversial materials and opinions but requires those teachers to make it clear that he or she is not expressing a personal opinion and is not speaking on behalf of the school district. Other CBAs allow teachers to present their personal opinions, but include restrictions. For example, in the Triangle Lake School District in Oregon, teachers may express their personal opinions but only on matters that are relevant to their course content. Moreover, the opinion may not conflict with an established school board policy and/or the approved curriculum. Finally, teachers must explain that they are speaking personally, not on behalf of the school in any way. In Montgomery County in Maryland, teachers may express their own opinions on controversial issues “provided that the total presentation is essentially balanced and fair” and that the teacher is not promoting their own political aims.
If your work is not covered by a CBA, check with your union and school administrators to see what is or is not allowed in terms of sharing your personal views about a controversial issue with students in class. As a general rule, unless you have approval to do so, either directly or in school division policy or practice or a CBA, you should not share your personal views about a controversial issue with students in class.
You can download the entire “Speaking Up for Public Education and Your Students” guide at www.nea.org/advocacy-rights.
Some thoughts on controversial comments or events in class, from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University: