The requirements for becoming a teacher were always straightforward: Earn a college degree in education, take enough classes in your area of specialty, practice your teaching skills for a semester as a student teacher.
Politicians have added a new skill this year in some states: Be a mind reader.
That’s what teachers in a Texas school district concluded recently after receiving guidance for how to comply with a law passed this summer by the Texas Legislature and signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
The law, known as H.B. 3979, restricts how topics like race, sex, diversity and discrimination are taught and discussed by Texas public school employees and in textbooks and other course materials teachers use. A companion bill, S.B. 3, discourages teachers from addressing current events in their social studies classes.
Recently, the director of curriculum and instruction in the Carroll (Texas) Independent School District met with the faculty to explain the law’s meaning. Gina Peddy was asked about a real-world example. She said that if teachers have books in their classroom on the Holocaust, then they must have books available with opposing views and other perspectives, too.
“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” one teacher asked.
“Believe me, that’s come up,” Peddy replied.
As the public outcry built, Superintendent Lane Ledbetter quickly issued a statement apologizing for Peddy’s comments. “The comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history. We recognize that there are not two sides of the Holocaust.”
That’s a lucid explanation. But Ledbetter’s pledge to “work to add clarity to our expectations for teachers” is curious.
How do you bring clarity if a key administrator responsible for curriculum and instruction is so confused by the law and the school’s own policies? If she does not have clarity, how can classroom teachers be expected to have it, either?
Teachers in Carroll and elsewhere fear being punished for having in their classroom libraries books on racism, slavery and the Holocaust.
Part of the teachers’ anxiety grew out of the Carroll school board’s meeting four days before Peddy’s comments. The board voted to reprimand a fourth-grade teacher who allowed a student to take home an anti-racism book.
One Carroll teacher told NBC, “Teachers are literally afraid that we’re going to be punished for having books in our classes. There are no children’s books that show the ‘opposing perspective’ on the Holocaust or the ‘opposing perspective’ of slavery. Are we supposed to get rid of all the books on those subjects?”
The reaction of Carroll school employees should not be a surprise when lawmakers and political leaders try to sanitize unpleasant parts of the history of our nation or regions in our nation.
We should not be surprised if some school administrators and some teachers decide the best way to stay on good terms with their employers is to simply avoid these thorny issues and the wacky “two-sideisms” contained in of some of these ill-conceived laws.
Gov. Kim Reynolds provided her own guidance of sorts to Iowa educators in the summer when she was interviewed by the Carroll Times Herald after an event at Black Hawk Lake in Sac County.
The interview came a few days before she signed into law a bill dealing with the teaching of race and diversity.
House File 802 grew out of lawmakers’ concerns that schools were indoctrinating students, rather than teaching them, when presenting controversial issues in American history. In asking Reynolds how educators should teach divisive concepts about race, the newspaper used the example of Black Hawk, the famous Sauk leader who spent much of his life in Iowa.
Referring to the lake where the Reynolds interview occurred, the newspaper wrote, “Black Hawk is not only the face of the lake, he’s a face of a state and nation’s history fraught with broken treaties and genocide.”
As one of the best-known indigenous leaders in history, Black Hawk resisted attempts by the United States government to push the indigenous tribes westward. He was angered by treaties the tribes negotiated with government officials who first got the tribal leaders drunk.
The newspaper noted that the Sauk leader “lost his birthplace, endured prison and brutality at the hands of white settlers and even had his final remains stolen in a morbid exhibition scheme.”
Long before white people settled in what today is the upper Midwest, the region was where native people hunted, fished, farmed and lived — on these rolling hills, river valleys and plains. This was the land where Black Hawk was born in 1767 near what today is Rock Island, Ill. This was where he died from old age in 1838, in a tiny settlement along the Des Moines River in the northeastern corner of Davis County.
Is there a “both sides” to the near destruction of indigenous peoples by white settlers any more than there is a “both sides” to the Holocaust by German Nazis?
Reynolds told the Carroll Times Herald, referring to Black Hawk: “As long as it is balanced and we are giving both sides, I think it is part of history and they should be able to teach that. It has to be balanced and make sure we are having a conversation, and we are educating children, not indoctrinating, and actually giving them the chance to learn and to make their own decisions.”
Of course, a danger greater than indoctrination is avoiding entirely these events from our state and nation’s past.
Our children are not going to have the chance to learn and make their own decisions if our schools decide the surest way to avoid political hot water with state officials is simply to skip over the uncomfortable lessons from history.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.