Margaret Renkl: A thank-you note to teachers after a year of attacks

Today’s culture wars treat teachers like political prisoners or, even worse, the enemy.

An Apple for the Teacher | John Cole

Nashville • My grandmother was still a teenager when she started her teaching career. She went to college for a year and then taught for a year to save money for tuition. After another year of college and another year of teaching, she married my grandfather. The wedding, everyone assumed, marked the end of her career. She was 21 years old.

Down here we call someone like my grandmother a natural-born teacher. She loved her job. The family desperately needed her income, too, but the country was in a Great Depression by then, and there weren’t enough jobs to go around. Women in her Lower Alabama school district — as in many others around the country — weren’t allowed to work for pay once they married.

As discriminatory policies so often do, this one backfired. There weren’t enough licensed teachers to staff the schools, especially in deeply rural areas. From time to time, the superintendent would beg my grandmother to come back and finish out the school year for a teacher who was leaving, and my grandmother always did. When her youngest child was old enough for school, she was offered a permanent job teaching in the two-room schoolhouse in her tiny farming community. Years later, she went back to college to finish her four-year degree. She finally retired from teaching in 1970, more than 40 years after she taught her first class.

My grandmother loved to talk about her teaching days, and perhaps that’s why four of her five grandchildren became teachers or college professors, too — and why three of them are still in the classroom. I once asked my mother why she’d never considered teaching. “I watched my mother grading papers every night, and I listened to people gripe when their children didn’t get good grades,” she said. “Do you really think I’d do that to myself?”

This is a question that teachers themselves are asking now. “I’m too tired to keep fighting,” one longtime teacher told me recently. Her last day in the classroom is this week.

It’s not just the lesson plans or the relentless grading that trouble her, and it’s not just the parents with unrealistic expectations. It’s not the crowded classes or the endless paperwork or the meager salary, which in this real estate market means that many teachers can’t afford to buy a home in the communities where they teach. It’s not the wrenching family poverty that teachers have no power to alleviate but are nevertheless expected to help children overcome on standardized tests. It’s not even the active shooter drills.

These are the struggles that have been wearing teachers out for years, sometimes decades, but what’s wearing them out now is even more insidious. Teachers have become prisoners in the raging culture war.

State and local politicians pass laws and issue policies that stipulate which concepts teachers absolutely must teach and which they absolutely must not, which storybooks their students absolutely must read and which they absolutely must not. Administrators are in and out of the classroom, making sure that lessons are being covered exactly as prescribed. And this kind of scrutiny is stripping all creativity and innovation from the profession.

Worse is the unprecedented scrutiny now directed at teachers by parents, political groups, even legislators. Virtually all the people ostentatiously monitoring teachers are people who have no training in education and no experience in a public-school classroom. The unspoken belief underlying such ideological policing is that teachers can’t be trusted, that teachers don’t deserve to be regarded as the skilled professionals they are. In many ways, today’s culture war treats teachers — and, increasingly, school librarians — as the enemy.

Consider the veteran educator in East Tennessee, fired for teaching his students about white privilege in a class called Contemporary Issues, a course he had taught for nearly a decade without a word of complaint from parents. Consider the assistant principal in Mississippi, fired for reading “I Need a New Butt!” a funny children’s book, to second graders. Consider the country music star who testified before the Tennessee General Assembly that educators today are predators, akin to “a guy in a white van pulling up at the edge of school when school lets out.” Consider the candidate in the Georgia governor’s race who said in a debate, “We’re going to get rid of kindergarten teachers — men with beards and lipstick and high heels — teaching our children. We’re going to get back to being moral in Georgia.”

These stories from the red states make a recent bit of satire from The Onion — “Teacher Fired for Breaking State’s Critical Race Theory Laws After Telling Students She’s Black” — hard to distinguish from real life.

Maybe you’re thinking this is all hyperbole, a few isolated incidents in a country with more than three million teachers in public schools. It’s not. PEN America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes and defends free speech, has documented the introduction of 185 educational gag orders — most related to race, gender, racism and American history — designed to control what may or may not be discussed in a classroom. Combined with the more than 1,500 book bans issued in the past 10 months alone, these bills “represent an orchestrated attempt to silence marginalized voices and restrict students’ freedom to learn,” according to a statement released last week by PEN.

Not all of these gag order bills have been signed into law, but they have had an unsettling effect on the teaching profession nonetheless. They put teachers on notice: Big Brother is watching you.

And all of this comes on top of the burnout exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, the epicenter of yet another culture war. The pandemic has led to mass teacher absences, contentious mask debates and chaotic “plans” for how to teach remotely. No wonder a poll by the National Education Association found in January that 55 percent of teachers in public schools are ready to leave the profession altogether.

Many won’t, of course. They need the paycheck. They need the health insurance. They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.

They may be teaching with whiteboards instead of chalk and computers instead of books, but in this sense, teaching has not changed since my grandmother’s day. Policymakers are still out of touch with actual schools, and natural-born teachers are still in love with learning, still in love with sharing the excitement of ideas. Most of all, natural-born teachers love kids. And we cannot afford to lose a single one of them.

(Courtesy of Heidi Ross) Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.