Controversy Over Gender and Race Has Teachers ‘Walking on Eggshells’

Education Research

Controversy Over Gender and Race Has Teachers ‘Walking on Eggshells’

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Feb 8, 2023

Controversy Over Gender and Race Has Teachers ‘Walking on Eggshells’

In Florida, teachers can face prison time and a hefty fine for having books deemed “harmful materials” in their classrooms. Teachers in Missouri can face misdemeanor charges over books deemed explicit. Oklahoma’s top education official personally called for a teacher’s professional license to be revoked after she shared a link to banned books with her students.

As states and school districts continue to roll out restrictions on how teachers can talk about race and gender in the classroom, educators are feeling the pressure.

A new report is teasing out the details from teachers who are trying to pivot their lesson plans to comply with new limitations, and it explores how policy changes are influencing how they teach.

The report entitled “Walking on Eggshells” takes a look at how teachers in spring 2022 changed their teaching practices to conform to state-level restrictions on “controversial topics” — including race and gender — that began taking effect the year prior.

The data comes from the 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS), which collected responses from more than 8,000 K-12 English language arts, math and science teachers across the U.S.

Confusing Messages

Researchers describe the results of the study in terms of two sets of teachers: those working in the 17 states with subject-matter restrictions, and those working outside restrictive states.

They found confusion about race- and gender-related teaching bans from the outset, with teachers in both groups equally likely to say they believed their state had limitations in place. Twenty-five percent of teachers said they were unsure whether their state or district had restrictions.

Even among those living in states with restrictions, a majority of teachers were unaware of policies limiting how they could discuss issues like gender or race.

“Within the 17 states that had enacted restrictions, only 30 percent of teachers reported that their state had placed limitations on how teachers can address topics related to race or gender,” researchers found. “Thirty percent did not know, and 37 percent reported that their state or district had not put in place any such limitations.”

The data shows that teachers whose states enacted restrictions earliest in 2021 or have explicit penalties tend to be more aware of the policies — though it’s hard to know whether time or consequence has the stronger impact.

Impact on Teaching

About 1,500 teachers provided more details about how limits on race- or gender-related topics have played a role in how they teach.

Critical race theory, or CRT, is at the center of much of the recent political strife regarding K-12 education. Lawmakers in many states have tried to limit lessons that they say draw on the concept, arguing that it encourages classroom discussions of race that unfairly paint all white people as oppressors.

Teachers who were aware of restrictions on teaching CRT said while they don’t teach the concept, they were “worried that they might be falsely accused of teaching CRT when talking about issues related to race, figures who are people of color, or history.”

Beyond race and gender, some teachers also faced limitations on content related to the LGBTQ community. That made them more hesitant to include books featuring characters who are gay or teach lessons involving queer people in their classes.

Teachers dealing with content restrictions told researchers they were more cautious with their words, “‘soften[ing]’ their language and avoiding potential buzzwords like ‘critical race theory’ or even ‘gender.’”

About one-third of teachers said the limitations influenced their choice of textbooks and other written materials, videos and — in the case of a few math and science teachers — datasets they selected for their classes.

“They also described directives to remove books from their libraries or the need to be more cautious about the texts available in their classroom libraries,” researchers found. “Even when using school- or district-required or -recommended materials, a few of these teachers had to rework their use of curricula to remain in compliance with limitations.”

Stressed to the Limit

While states and districts are the ones codifying restrictions, teachers often identified parents as the source of calls for limitations — and the source of stress.

About 150 teachers reported that fear of the potential for parental complaints led them to avoid or be more cautious about addressing contentious topics in the classroom.

“I feel like I have a sword over my head and any parent is able to cut the string if they disagree with the curriculum,” one teacher told researchers, “for legitimate reasons or not.”

Roughly one in 10 teachers expressed concern that running afoul of the restrictions could cost them their job or teaching license. Others said that the limitations ultimately were affecting their students’ abilities to develop critical thinking skills, or their social-emotional development.

“I used to include a variety of topics to challenge my students to use critical thinking skills, but now I’m too scared to veer from the textbook topics,” a teacher told researchers. “And my scores have reflected this.”

Another group of teachers—about 70 of those who said they are still addressing race- or gender-related topics in class—responded that they have no plans to change the way they teach despite the limiting policies. Some teachers said restrictions in neighboring states increased their desire to include diverse materials in their instruction.

“My students are more important than any board policy,” wrote one teacher. “If I get in trouble, then it would be worth it.”

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