“Educators, If You Speak Truth We Might Fire You”

The conservative media outrage machine is claiming a new victim: educators. 

A Tennessee educator teaching about racism in a “contemporary issues” class: fired.

A Missouri school district’s director of equity and inclusion, who became the target of violent, racist attacks for doing, well, equity and inclusion work: forced from her job.  

A Connecticut superintendent hired with the direction to expand diversity, equity and inclusion work in the district: pressured out of his position.

A Florida teacher who displayed a Black Lives Matter sign in her classroom: informed of her firing by the state education commissioner in a speech broadcast on Youtube. 

Nationwide there have been more than 50 recall efforts aimed at school leaders working to address systemic racism

And that list is hardly exhaustive.

The same political movement supposedly against “cancel culture” is now “canceling” educators from their jobs. They are now forcing out, outright firing and generally making life hell for educators who are teaching facts and superintendents who are working to create more equitable and inclusive school districts.

In the insanity, once standard elements of primary and secondary education, teaching about slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement in American history, even reading To Kill a Mockingbird, are all in the crosshairs of this anti-knowledge movement.   State legislatures in states across the country are injecting themselves into teaching and learning, with the naked intent of stifling discussions about challenging and difficult topics including systemic racism. 

This isn’t just the latest iteration of the manufactured outrage for clicks and ratings du jour, it’s part and parcel of the broader effort to disempower, disenfranchise and ultimately silence Black and Brown communities and their allies who are working to build a more equitable and just nation. They believe the best of America is in the past.

The impact on the classroom is similarly chilling.  Research shows that exposing students to challenging and even uncomfortable topics in the classroom increases tolerance and interest in civic matters. Navigating controversial topics in the classroom builds communication and critical thinking skills. With a well-equipped teacher, students can ask difficult questions, grapple with ambiguity, and appreciate the perspectives of other people.

These are exactly the kinds of 21st skills that our students need and our teachers must be prepared to model and teach.  A classroom and an education devoid of controversy, challenge and discovery is no classroom at all.  As educators, we have a sacred obligation to our students and communities.  It is an obligation to show them the truth, equip them with the skills to tell it themselves, and sustain the broader civic good by doing both. 

Mind you, in a recent poll by AER, 77% of respondents believed that students should be taught that enslavement of human beings was the catalyst for the Civil War.

The bans on “CRT”, “divisive concepts” and effectively anything that questions, calls out or considers institutional racism would whitewash that obligation to the point of erasure.  Those who advocate for such bans would create classrooms that are anything but. 

This was a driving reason that institutions of higher education (IHEs), the Center for Black Educator Development, and representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Education came together as the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium (PEDC) collaborated to develop culturally responsive and sustaining educational competencies after studying New America’s review of 50 states’ work in culturally responsive materials and standards. PEDC members believe that teacher prep programs must improve how they are preparing their teachers and using CRSE standards are an integral way in doing so.

The mythos of historical blamelessness pervading such schooling would feed the notion that those who suffer the oppressive indignity of multigenerational poverty, discrimination and social subjugation today should simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, should quit complaining and get on with it already. In this white-supremacist-fever-dream-turned-reality, the individual is solely to blame for their conditions, to the point that they “deserve” them. 

The moment shows us both the challenge and opportunity in creating more culturally relevant and informed schools.  The current post-truth political climate puts in sharp relief the need for rigorous and clear-eyed teaching in our public schools.  An unsettling proportion of Americans now hold views that are increasingly untethered from reality on everything from voting rights to race relations–nevermind vaccine safety.  Beyond showing how easily whole segments of society can be manipulated, we also see the urgent need for teachers that are well-prepared for the profession and possess the skills and competencies needed to equip students with what they need to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty, particularly of the sort manufactured for political advantage.

Doing so will require all of us to do our part.  That means teacher preparation programs and  institutions must  step up and finally, fully embrace a culturally informed curriculum.  It also means that we need to do a much better job of getting more Black and Brown young people interested in and pursuing a career in teaching.  And it means that we need schools to engage and empower communities of color and co-create a vision of public education that reflects their diverse needs and aspirations. 

There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done and precious little time to do it. Everyday that goes by is another opportunity for us to slide further from the more perfect union that we all deserve to see realized.  Progress isn’t promised, but it is possible if we have a public education system that supports it. That starts with ensuring teachers can teach the truth without fear or reservation.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

View all posts

More Comments