By Amanda Creasey
Back in December, I stood in front of 13 high school students. One had failed my class the year before. But on this day, he sat in the front row, a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s”Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in his hands.
His shoulders shook with laughter as he read. In that moment, I felt “teacher happy.” I was watching a struggling student engage with literature in which the characters look like him and speak like him, literature that touches on struggles and issues he can relate to.
Now, reflecting on that “teacher happy” moment, I wonder whether my name will end up in the McCarthy era-style email hotline Gov. Glenn Youngkin has established for parents to report teachers for exploring “divisive content” in their classes. I wonder how any teacher can possibly teach history or literature without touching on something that someone could view as divisive. While no teacher should advocate for any given position in the classroom, the classroom is a safe space for students to explore various perspectives and belief systems, and to learn how to hold productive, thoughtful conversations about sensitive topics.
It is a place where students can learn how to think critically about controversial topics and decide for themselves what they believe.
I think back to September when I talked to my students about McCarthyism before we began reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” I think back to October, when, as we prepared to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” we talked about John Scopes, arrested and put on trial for teaching evolution in the 1920s.
I never thought the present could feel so much like the past. I feel a sudden kinship with Scopes. I am one of the teachers trying to hold my ground in front of Senator McCarthy. The demagogue had a hand in ruining the careers, reputations and lives of many actors, librarians, writers and teachers blacklisted for allegedly being Communists or Communist sympathizers.
Fear steered the ship then, and seems to be behind the wheel again today, only I can’t quite understand what people are so afraid of.
Education is probably more transparent now than it ever was before, with many students having been schooled virtually at home for so long, and with technology allowing parents to view classroom materials online. Parents are more involved now than I have seen them in my nearly two-decade teaching career—and that’s a good thing. Parental involvement fosters students’ success. But imperative to remember is the fact that teachers are professionals, and we are quickly being robbed of our autonomy, creativity and individuality in the classroom, making us less effective at best, driving us to leave the profession in droves at worst. We have become scapegoats of a divisive political atmosphere we didn’t create, but within which we must navigate our curricula as deftly as possible.
Parents have always been able to question the curriculum, a teacher’s tactics or a school’s policies. I’ve been asked to explain my methods more than once, and every time the result has been the same: Parents realize we can work together, so why is this hotline necessary? Teachers welcome parents who participate in their students’ education. Many times I have improved an assignment as the result of a parent’s reaching out to me with ideas I appreciate and apply.
Parents are always welcome to voice concerns, but need it be done in this accusatory, inflammatory, impersonal way? As far back as biblical times, it was advised that “if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Matthew 18:15). Wouldn’t it be more productive to speak directly to a teacher about parental concerns, than to simply tell on her? Communicating with educators often leads to an incredibly helpful parent-teacher relationship that can’t be facilitated by a third-party email hotline.
We as teachers care about our students. There is no need to pit parent against educator. We share a common goal: Raise productive, capable, well-adjusted people prepared to live in a diverse and ever-changing world that will call on them to think differently and creatively, ask (and answer) questions that haven’t occurred to us yet, work in fields that haven’t been created yet and solve problems they didn’t cause. For this, they will need all the tools with which we can supply them, and we will continue to work hard at filling their toolboxes, because we are teachers, and that’s what we do.
Amanda Creasey is a 16-year veteran teacher. She lives in Chesterfield County and teaches in Colonial Heights.
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