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About 24% of teachers say they have been told to limit classroom conversations about political and social issues, such as racism, according to a recent survey.
The nationally representative survey was taken by over 3,800 teachers and principals by the RAND Corporation in January of 2022 to gauge educator’s views on politicized topics in schooling.
In the survey, 54% of teachers and principals urged no legal limits on classroom conversations about racism, sexism, and other topics that some people disagree about.
“In a time when simply carrying out the essential functions of their jobs is a herculean task, educators have been faced with the additional challenge of addressing contentious, politicized topics in their schools and classrooms,” according to the report.
How does this impact teachers and students of color?
Politics Can Be a Stressor for Educators
The survey addressed two politicized issues: COVID-19 safety measures at school and teaching about race, racism, or bias.
48% of principals and 40% of teachers reported job-related stress at the intrusion of political issues and opinions in school leadership or teaching.
“I have had parents come in and say, ‘If this is what you’re going to teach, my student doesn’t need to know about this. . . . [T]hen [the principal] will say, ‘I don’t really think this is a good topic,” the survey reported from one unnamed teacher.
White educators, educators working in schools with predominantly white students, and ELA teachers were more likely than their counterparts to report that the intrusion of political issues in their jobs was stressful.
Some states like Oklahoma and Idaho have passed legislation that limits how K–12 public school teachers discuss subjects like racism, sexism, and other topics that some people disagree about in the classroom.
The Harassment of Educators
37% of teachers and 61% of principals reported being harassed because of their school’s policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism, or bias during the first half of the 2021–2022 school year.
“Harassment can have consequences for school climate and the extent to which educators feel safe and a sense of belonging in their workplaces,” the survey mentions. “Principals who experienced harassment about either of the two politicized topics on which we focused were twice as likely as principals who did not experience any such harassment to report that they sometimes or often feared for their own physical safety at school (16 percent versus 8 percent). We observed a similar pattern among teachers.”
43% of teachers who experienced harassment related to school policies for teaching about race, racism, or bias felt that their school did not cultivate a sense of belonging for teachers of color or only to a small extent, compared with 26% of teachers who did not experience such harassment.
That compared to 26% of teachers who did not experience such harassment.
“Teachers of color sometimes felt underrepresented in their own experiences as students. Therefore, experiences of hostility or confrontation related to conversations that educators of color consider important might reduce the sense of belonging that these educators feel in their schools and districts,” according to the survey results.
Critical Race Theory in the Classroom
Critical race theory aims to examine and critique society, particularly systems and structures in society that lead to different outcomes by race.
“The goal of this critical lens is to identify sources of systemic injustice and make necessary change. Sometimes change begins with an institutional acknowledgement of and apology for injustice,” wrote Amanda Merck in a Salud America! article about critical race theory.
A 2016 research study showed that students who took an ethnic studies class had increased attendance, higher GPAs, and earned more credits.
Regarding teachers of color, the new survey highlighted prior research that showed teachers of color are more likely than their White counterparts to engage in anti-bias topics in their classrooms, supporting students’ development of their social identities, fostering comfort with diversity, and helping students understand systemic inequities.
“It’s heartbreaking for our youth, who won’t be getting the high-caliber education that they could be getting from a multimedia, multicultural, global era,” Tony Diaz, writer, professor, activist, and founder of the Librotraficante movement told NBC News.
How Can Educators Be Supported?
The survey recommends ways to help support school personnel.
The first is to provide training and resources to help principals and teachers communicate effectively and manage conflict about contentious topics.
“Educators should be equipped with the skills and resources to manage differences in opinion—among their colleagues, with students’ family members, and with members of the broader community—in ways that foster fruitful dialogue,” the survey says.
The results also suggest building systems to promote understanding between educators and parents and engage families in decision making.
This would include creating meaningful opportunities to engage families as partners, identify shared goals, and exchange feedback, or engaging in activities such as collaborative problem solving, teacher home visits, and school-facilitated relationship-building exercises.
The final recommendation entails clarifying the purpose of classroom conversations about race, racism, or bias; develop educator mindsets; and provide clear, content-specific guidance.
“Providing greater clarity about the purpose and benefits of conversations about race, racism, or bias to educators could then support clear messaging to families and community members,” according to the survey.
How Can You Help Teachers?
You can help support more equitable education, too.
Select your county and get a Health Equity Report Card by Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.
In your report card, you will see maps, data, and gauges to assess how local health equity issues including educational access, high school graduation rates, reading proficiency, and preschool enrollment – compared to the rest of your state and nation.
You can email your Health Equity Report Card to local leaders to stimulate community change. Use the data in your materials or share on social media to raise awareness.