In the spring of 2020, James Whitfield had just become the first African American to be named principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, located in a predominantly white Dallas-Fort Worth suburb.
Whitfield, who holds a doctorate in education, was anticipating big challenges when students returned in the fall. COVID-19 had already shut down in-person learning, and the pandemic was about to make a chronic teacher shortage even worse.
Then came the death of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer during an arrest outside a convenience store.
Unable to sleep one night in early June, days after Floyd's death, Whitfield set down his thoughts in an email to friends and colleagues. He wrote about "systemic racism" and wondered what could be done to stop it.
At first, Whitfield says, "I got nothing but positive responses ... from people in the community, parents, family members [and] staff members." In the months that followed, though, pressure on him mounted as internet chatter began to heat up among those he calls "[conservative] operatives here in Texas that are trying to take over school boards." There were even indirect aspersions cast on his biracial marriage.
Whitfield's email came around the time that a slew of new laws were introduced across the country that have reshaped public education. Some target critical race theory, or CRT, an academic framework positing that people who are white have benefited from racism ingrained in U.S. institutions. Other laws are aimed at prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.
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As a result, in some places teachers and administrators — already facing long hours and low pay — now find themselves under additional pressure from politicians, parents and even their own school districts. It all comes as many schools are losing qualified teachers and waging an uphill battle to improve flagging test scores.
A year after his email and weeks after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning CRT in K-12 public school classrooms, Whitfield was accused at a school board meeting of promoting the concept. He denied the charge, but soon after, the board voted not to renew his contract, which expires in August 2023. In the meantime, Whitfield is on paid administrative leave.
When contacted, the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District referred NPR to a statement issued nearly a year ago that says, "the District and Dr. Whitfield each strongly believe they are in the right."
Vacancies are on the rise. So is harassment
The growing polarization in the nation's classrooms comes as many schools are struggling to hold on to teachers and staff. One recent study estimates there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies across the country and more than 163,500 teachers are either not fully certified or not certified in the subject they are teaching. Those figures are conservative, because data from more than a dozen states could not be collected, according to the study. Meanwhile, a report released last month by the Government Accountability Office says "[negative] perception of the teaching profession and perceived lack of support for current teachers" are "among key recruitment and retention challenges."
Further, in a survey published by the Rand Corp. earlier this year, more than a third of teachers and 60% of principals reported being harassed during the 2021-2022 school year "because of their school's policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism, or bias."
The situation has a negative impact on students too, says Lindsay Marshall, a former teacher who is now a history professor at the University of Oklahoma.
"It was very clear to me in the classroom that I was not only engaging with my students, I was engaging with their whole world," Marshall says. When politics gets infused into the classroom, it breaks down that relationship between teachers, students and parents, she says.
Florida may now be the epicenter of the debate
Perhaps no other state has become more embroiled in the controversy than Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has spearheaded efforts to reshape the public school curriculum to reflect his conservative values. That includes the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill and the governor's strategy of weighing in on local school board races. The bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law by critics, prohibits teachers from discussing LGBTQ-related topics "in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."
"The law is clear, and simple: educators are prohibited from instructing students on matters of gender identity or sexuality in grades K-3," DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin wrote in statement to NPR. "Florida's education will be focused on the fundamentals: reading, writing, math, civics, and other core subjects – not politically motivated indoctrination."
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, says the politically charged environment around K-12 education is one of several factors "driving a lot of teachers, especially experienced teachers, out of the profession."
Ahead of the start of the current school year, the Florida Education Association, or FEA, said statewide there were 10,771 advertised vacancies, with 6,006 for teachers and 4,765 for support staff. Those figures are disputed by the Florida Department of Education. In an email to NPR, a spokesman for the department called the numbers part of "a false narrative [that] continues to be spread by media activists and union clowns." Even so, by the Florida DOE's own estimates, it has one of the highest numbers of teacher vacancies in the country.
"This whole teacher and staff shortage is not just people not coming into the profession, which is an issue, but it is a mass exodus of people in some cases with, you know, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years or more of experience," Spar says.
Michael Woods is a special education teacher with nearly three decades of experience at Santaluces Community High School in Palm Beach County. Outside of school, he makes no secret of being an LGBTQ activist and has helped organize local Pride events. But "I don't openly discuss it with kids," he says.
Woods says he doesn't understand the charge by some parents and politicians that teachers are trying to "indoctrinate" students into some sort of liberal ideology. "If I could indoctrinate kids to do something, it would be to bring a pencil to class and to do their homework," he says jokingly.
He says he's thankful to work for a "supportive administrator," but worries about the direction his state has been going in recent years.
The new law could result in the revocation of an educator's teaching certificate if they are found in violation, "bypassing all the safeguards that we've had for decades and decades that were guaranteed by law," Woods says.
Some teachers say they're leaving due to liberal policies
But the issue can cut both ways. Some educators have recently made headlines for going public on their way out the door in protest of their schools' alleged use of critical race theory or sensitivity to LGBTQ issues.
Among them is Frank McCormick, who taught history for 11 years in a Waukegan, Ill., high school before calling it quits midway through the 2021-2022 academic year.
He says he "started off pretty progressive, politically," but that he gradually became disillusioned after witnessing what he describes as a "very dysfunctional, very toxic" environment at the school.
Over the years, McCormick says he witnessed "increasing politicization" and an ever-bolder liberal ideological agenda among administrators and fellow teachers, especially after the 2016 election. Last year, he went public with his concerns at a local school board meeting, excoriating the superintendent as "a member of a bureaucratic class of charlatans and frauds, enriching herself at the expense of an impoverished community while students suffer."
McCormick resigned in January, just a few months after Tony Kinnett, a now-former STEM coordinator and head instructional coach for the Indianapolis Public Schools, posted similar criticisms of his school in a video on Twitter.
Kinnett, who previously worked on education policy in former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's office, said he was fed up with endless meetings about diversity and equity trying to decide "who was more oppressed."
"I sat there and watched my colleagues argue with each other for hours on end about that kind of thing," he says.
In his video, Kinnett accused the public school system of deliberate "misdirection" on CRT.
"When schools tell you that we aren't teaching critical race theory, it means one thing: Go away and look into our affairs no further," he says in the video. "It isn't about transparency, it isn't about cultural relevance, it's race essentialism painted to look like the district cares about students of color."
Kinnett was placed on paid leave while the school opened an investigation. He was eventually dismissed.
When NPR reached out to the Indianapolis Public Schools, the district declined comment.
Since his departure, Kinnett has appeared on Fox News and become a regular contributor to The Daily Caller and the conservative magazine National Review. He also started his own website, Chalkboard Review, which says it promotes "diverse perspectives in education."
Kinnett was asked in January to testify before the Indiana House on a bill to ban any teaching that would make a student "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress ... [due to] sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation."
Despite the experiences that led to his departure from the teaching profession, Kinnett told lawmakers that he opposed the bill, which ultimately died in the state's Senate. "I said [that] the way that the bill is written now ... it is a bad way to accomplish the goals that we are trying to accomplish," he says. "I don't think that a state banning or approving certain specific curriculum or ideas to discuss is a very good measure."
Discussing current events is a minefield for teachers
Matthew Hawn, a 16-year veteran of Sullivan Central High School in northeast Tennessee, lost his job after ending up on the wrong side of the debate over critical race theory.
During a discussion in his contemporary issues class about Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager armed with an AR-15 rifle who shot and killed two people and wounded a third at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis., Hawn "made the statement that white privilege is a fact," he says.
"I asked our students, what are we going to do to help solve this problem of racism in the United States?" he says.
At the time, the school — which has since become a middle school as part of a consolidation — was in the midst of hybrid learning due to COVID-19. When Hawn accidentally uploaded a video of the discussion to the wrong class, an angry parent noticed and emailed school officials. He immediately took down the video.
"I was just sick over what happened," Hawn says, but teaching contemporary issues at a time of such massive polarization would prove to be a minefield for Hawn moving forward.
Months later, when the topic of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol came up in Hawn's contemporary issues class, Hawn assigned an essay from The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled "The First White President," a critique of the presidency of Donald Trump as, among other things, "the negation of Barack Obama's legacy."
He was reprimanded by school officials.
Ultimately, for Hawn, it was showing a video of Kyla Jenée Lacey performing her poem White Privilege to his juniors and seniors in contemporary issues that apparently proved too much for school administrators.
He remembers the date of his dismissal: May 5, 2021, the very same day that Tennessee's legislature passed anti-CRT legislation.
Hawn is currently fighting to get reinstated. NPR reached out to the Sullivan County Schools for comment, but received no reply.
The ‘double-edged sword’ facing teachers
In Florida, Alexander Ingram, who has taught civics, advanced placement government, African American studies and the history of the Vietnam War for the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., for about nine years, says he enjoys those courses precisely because they are both controversial and intellectually stimulating for students.
"I love the courses I teach because they are controversial," he says. "I think the most controversial ideas are in many ways the most fun to teach because they are intellectually stimulating."
So, as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol unfolded, he turned on the television and "my class watched in real time."
In the discussions that followed, some students recognized that the violence at the Capitol was not protected speech. Others brought up the issue pushed by then-President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. Generally speaking though, "kids are a lot better about talking about politics than adults," he says.
Ingram says it's the adults, not the students, who have made being an educator so difficult.
"I've heard the things that are said about educators," he says. When he once defended LGBTQ students, he was publicly berated by members of the community as a "pedophile and a groomer."
Since Florida's Parental Rights in Education law went into effect, Ingram says he's "very aware of what the punishment can be right now, which is me losing my certification as well as the civil case against me."
At this juncture, he calls teaching "a double-edged sword."
"On the one hand, I feel like this job is more important than it's ever been," he says. "At the same time, it would be dishonest for me to say that I'm content here."
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