A critical time: Small handful of educators losing jobs for lessons linked to race, not CRT

Tennessee social studies teacher Matthew Hawn knew exactly what he would be teaching his students in his contemporary issues class last year. What he didn’t know was how that would eventually lead to his dismissal.  

After using Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay titled “The First White President” and a video of Kyla Jenée Lacey performing her poem “White Privilege,” Hawn found himself reprimanded by Sullivan County School officials. They said he denied his students more than one viewpoint.  

“Your job is not to teach one perspective,” the letter of reprimand to Hawn said. “Your job is also not to ensure students simply adopt your own personal perspective. Your job – in teaching Current Events – is to ensure students learn to seek out and consider varying and credible perspectives.”  

Hawn says he did just that.  

“I use a lot of different teaching methods,” Hawn told USA TODAY. “In this particular case, we were going to evaluate the claims made by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the other suggestions that the students brought in. … We were going to look at those and let the students determine for themselves the validity of those claims.”  

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Matt Hawn stands across the street from the former Sullivan Central High School Nov. 12, 2021, in Kingsport, Tenn. Hawn was fired from the school after school officials said he used materials with offensive language and failed to provide a conservative viewpoint during discussions of white privilege in his contemporary issues class, which has since been eliminated. (AP

He was eventually dismissed May 10, one of a handful of teachers disciplined this year in response to the outcry over critical race theory, which examines racism in institutions. While Hawn's experience reflects that of a small minority of teachers, it underscores the growing pressure instructors are facing not over critical race theory — a framework reserved for graduate-level studies — but over any topics that touch on race.

Sullivan County School officials had told Hawn in the reprimand that if he was presenting a liberal perspective, he also had to present a conservative perspective – a request that baffled Hawn, who has taught his contemporary issues course for the last decade.

“I never introduce things as liberal or conservative because of our own implicit bias,” Hawn said. “If you have a conservative kid, and you announce something is liberal, they’re going to turn it off and vice versa.”

To comply with the county’s directions, Hawn asked his students about “Black privilege” and whether it existed, allowing them to evaluate those claims for themselves. Despite his efforts, he was dismissed four months later for violating the Teacher Code of Ethics by not providing his students with a variety of viewpoints.

In the 10 years of teaching his course, Hawn said he covered a wide range of current issues, including the closing of Guantánamo Bay, climate change, the #MeToo movement and other race-based topics, and never faced any disciplinary action.  

Hawn partly blames his reprimand and eventual dismissal on deep divisions in the nation. He's worried that this won’t be a one-time event.  

“I’m not going to be the first teacher that this happens to,” Hawn said. “This is going to continue to happen, and it’s not only going to be about race.”  

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Legislating learning

Two people who oppose "critical race theory" in schools speak with a counter-protester during a rally at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12.

The controversy over critical race theory is a new one. Google searches for the term "critical race theory" were flat for the past five years and only started to increase after then-President Donald Trump accused educators and Democrats of trying to indoctrinate American children with alternative views of the nation's history. 

Conservative politicians around the nation have since seized on critical race theory as a political wedge issue and several states passed laws designed to prohibit the theory from making its way into the classroom.

“Critical race theory is a specific academic theoretical framework used by academics in sociology, anthropology and political science," said Mohamed Abumaye, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, San Marcos.

Pundits have used the term as an umbrella label for "anybody or any course that teachers about race," he said. “If you take a class that’s teaching about race, it might not necessarily be using a critical race theory approach.”   

Nine states, including Tennessee and Texas, have passed anti-critical race theory legislation. But only Idaho and North Dakota explicitly refer to “critical race theory.” Most recent legislation bans the discussion or training that the United States is inherently racist, plus discussions about privilege, discrimination and oppression.

Teachers took to the streets earlier this year to protest legislative efforts to restrict the discussion of race and racism in schools. They gathered in groups in more than 22 cities for rallies and speeches, calling educators to pledge to teach the truth about racism, sexism and oppression throughout U.S. history.

Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, told USA TODAY in June that the organization would defend any teachers against critical race theory charges.

James Whitfield, the principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, found himself among the handful of educators being punished for teaching about race. In Whitfield’s case, he chose to resign from his post as principal. 

Whitfield, who last year was named the school’s first Black principal had written a letter to the school community in the aftermath of the deaths of three Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. 

Whitfield wrote that systematic racism was “alive and well,” asking his students and their parents to “commit to being an anti-racist.” His letter was received well at the time. A year later, Stetson Clark, a former school board member candidate, accused Whitfield of pushing critical race theory and demanded the district remove him because of his “extreme views.”  

The Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District voted to suspend Whitfield, prompting Whitfield to resign from his role. As a part of a settlement with the district, Whitfield will remain on paid administrative leave until Aug. 23, 2023, when his resignation becomes official.

“The District and Dr. Whitfield have mutually agreed to resolve their disputes,” a joint statement from Whitfield and the school district stated.  “Dr. Whitfield and GCISD strongly agree it is important we continue to provide a safe and nurturing educational environment to all students, no matter their background, race, or gender.” 

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'Concerned, but not worried'

Audience members join Ben Frazier, founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, in chanting, “Allow teachers to teach the truth,” on Thursday at the Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Advanced Technology Center, during public comments on the state’s plans to ban the teaching of critical race theory in state public schools.

Some experts are hopeful that with the training and support educators have, teachers are prepared to navigate the current political climate.  

"I’m concerned, but I’m not worried. I think teachers are strong,” Amaarah DeCuir, a lecturer in the School of Education at American University, told USA TODAY. “Teachers are well-versed in what it means to teach young people today.”  

Plus, she said, researchers are responding to help teachers in the field.

Leaders for Social Justice, which is a subgroup of the American Education Research Association, is planning a series of anti-racism education workshops on how to best address and advance these issues of anti-racism education in today’s climate, according to DeCuir, who’s a member.  

“It’s a dangerous context that teachers have to navigate, but I think what faculty members and universities are doing is helping pre-service teachers understand what is their role in the classroom,” DeCuir said of training for America's future teachers. “Pre-service teachers are asking more questions about critical race theory to better understand: What is this? Is this something we’re supposed to be teaching or not teaching?”   

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