Teachers say the conservative backlash to critical race theory is overblown, but fear it will have a ‘chilling’ effect on education

CRT school board meeting
Opponents of an academic doctrine known as ‘critical race theory’ attend a packed Loudoun County, Virginia, school board meeting. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
  • Insider spoke to seven teachers in states where anti-CRT legislation was passed or is being considered.
  • They said CRT is not commonly taught in school, but some of their teaching is influenced by it.
  • They feared a chilling effect on education, with teachers steering clear of potential controversies.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The continuing coronavirus pandemic isn’t the only thing teachers have to worry about in classrooms this fall.

This summer, a political storm has been brewing over critical race theory (CRT), a decades-old academic movement which proposes that racism is built into American institutions, and must be dismantled to stop the oppression of people of color.

Right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson have been whipping conservatives into a frenzy over the idea that CRT is being taught to students in history classes across the country, claiming it’s making white students feel guilty about their ancestors’ actions and indoctrinating children to hate America.

CRT has become one of the most talked-about topics on Fox News and former President Donald Trump has railed against it at rallies. Last year the Trump administration went so far as to ban the teaching of CRT concepts in government agencies, calling it “divisive” and “anti-American.”

The outrage has spread to school-board meetings, many of which have turned into hourslong circuses of parents demanding that CRT be banned in schools – something that’s become a reality in eight states. One anti-CRT law in Iowa bans teaching that the US is “fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist” or anything that makes anyone feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.”

Similar bills are being proposed in 15 more states, per the Brookings Institution.

Tucker Carlson
host Tucker Carlson has attacked the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms. Fox News

Not about making students feel guilty

Largely left out of this national debate are the teachers themselves. Insider spoke to seven educators in states that have either passed or are debating anti-CRT legislation.

Most of those teachers said that they don’t teach CRT, and that it’s too high-level a concept for K-12 learning. But a few said CRT had an influence on their lessons.

“Our instruction is informed by CRT, in that we give students alternative narratives,” said Patrick Witt, a high-school social studies teacher at a charter school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“If we only teach our students one version of American history – the one Donald Trump wants us to teach, through rosy lenses – then we aren’t going to be able to teach our students to really understand why America is the way it is today.”

Megan Revello, a high-school social studies teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, gave an example of how she teaches students about the GI Bill, the landmark legislation to help soldiers returning from World War II buy homes and go to college.

Revello said she makes sure students understand how people of color struggled to take full advantage of the bill through being barred from certain schools or neighborhoods.

The teachers said they aren’t trying to make students feel guilty, but acknowledged that some may react emotionally when confronted with the bitter truths of history.

Zipporah Smith, a middle-school social studies teacher in Iowa, said the better word for what students are feeling is “empathy.”

“It’s natural to feel uncomfortable about the things we’re talking about because they’re messy things,” Smith said.

Angela Harris, a first-grade teacher in Milwaukee, said it’s the job of teachers to “push through the discomfort and have these conversations” with students, so that history isn’t repeated.

Manufactured outrage

When asked about the right-wing backlash to CRT, the teachers largely said they felt it had been blown out of proportion by Republicans.

Janel Anderson, a Wisconsin high-school social studies teacher of 19 years, said she believes the anti-CRT bills don’t reflect “genuine concerns in the states.”

Witt said CRT had “become the boogeyman of the right,” while Revello said it was being used as a “buzzword.”

“CRT is just the issue du jour and it will be something different in a couple months,” said AJ Schwankert, a high-school social studies teacher in North Carolina. “I think honestly CRT is just another one of those things to try to divide us.”

The educators said they already have teaching standards that have gone though intense vetting, and that lawmakers with no background in education shouldn’t be involved in that process.

Loudoun county school board meeting
A woman sings ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ after a Loudoun County School Board meeting was halted because the crowd refused to quiet down. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

A ‘chilling’ effect

Some of the teachers said they worried that the right’s CRT battle would have a “chilling” effect on education, no matter who wins.

Anderson said the anti-CRT bill in her state, Wisconsin, has no hope of passing thanks to its Democratic governor. But she’s heard of teachers changing their lesson plans anyway to steer away from potential backlash.

She believes Republicans’ goal all along was to “build on this political moment” and use it to win local elections, calling it a “shameful” and “cynical use of our children.”

Missy Springsteen-Haupt, an Iowa educator, said she actually left teaching middle school late last year following what she described as a “right-wing” effort to get her teaching license stripped over what she called a “standard” media-literacy lesson. It had involved having students read news articles and examine them for bias, she said.

While the effort to get her teaching license removed failed, Springsteen-Haupt – who is also an education doctoral student – decided to take a full-time faculty position at Iowa State University at the end of the school year.

She said she isn’t sure whether she’ll return to teaching middle school, especially if she’s “not allowed to have honest, critical conversations on the role of race and racism in US history.” She said it would be “educational malpractice” to have to teach a “whitewashed, nationalistic version of American history.”

Fighting back

One of the Iowa teachers said she was ready to fight back against the effort to control what teachers teach about race.

Smith, who is half Asian, said she decided to transfer from elementary school to a middle-school social studies position this year amid the CRT uproar.

“I wanted to intentionally put myself in spaces where social studies curriculum was being designed and having those conversations,” Smith said, adding that she hopes to be “the thawing effect” on her state CRT law’s “chilling effect” on education.

Harris, one of the Wisconsin teachers, even said she believes the CRT outrage will backfire on Republicans.

“There’s an awakening that’s happening amongst teachers. Teachers are thinking about ways that they can teach this in their classrooms, when they weren’t thinking of it before.”