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Caught in the culture wars, teachers are being forced from their jobs

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/16/2022 Hannah Natanson, Moriah Balingit
People in Albuquerque protest critical race theory outside the New Mexico Public Education Department in November. © Cedar Attanasio/AP People in Albuquerque protest critical race theory outside the New Mexico Public Education Department in November.

A Florida teacher lost her job for hanging a Black Lives Matter flag over her classroom door and rewarding student activism. A Massachusetts teacher was fired for posting a video denouncing critical race theory. A teacher in Missouri got the ax for assigning a worksheet about privilege — and still another, in California, was fired for criticizing mask mandates on her Facebook page.

They were among more than 160 educators who were either fired or resigned their jobs in the past two academic years due to the culture wars that are roiling many of the nation’s schools, according to a Washington Post analysis of news reports. On average, slightly more than two teachers lost their jobs for every week that school remained in session.

The teachers included in the analysis all lost their employment when hot-button cultural, racial, political or pandemic issues intersected with their ability to teach, either because the teacher sought to address controversial topics in the classroom or because administrators took issue with the teacher’s views as expressed inside or outside the classroom.

“Our educators,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, “are being caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars.”

She said many teachers were already exhausted before the wave of high-profile conflicts over what can be taught or expressed, tired out by pandemic-induced stress and the extra demands being made on both their professional and personal lives. She predicted the wave of firings and resignations will only grow in months to come — and warned some educators will refrain from teaching sensitive topics due to fear of backlash in the meantime.

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“Teachers won’t desire to stay in a profession where, when they’re just trying to do what’s right for their students, they are being verbally attacked and blamed,” Pringle said. “It is already having an impact … in terms of a chilling effect, with teachers having to make a decision whether they can teach the curriculum.”

Educators fear conditions will only worsen as lawmakers seek to regulate how teachers talk about any number of issues, including politics, race, history, gender identity and sexuality, creating a new basis to push teachers out. In some cases, the authors of education-related bills and laws have used vague, broad and unclear wording, leading to widespread concern that teachers may unintentionally run afoul of the law.

Bonnie Snyder, director of K-12 outreach for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said public school teachers generally do not enjoy the same free speech rights in the classroom, where they are acting as agents of the state. FIRE opposes bans on teacher speech but also recognizes that state legislatures have the right to enact them.

“It’s government speech,” Snyder said, adding that teachers are hired to deliver state-approved curriculum. “When teachers veer from those guidelines, you’re on thinner ice.”

This Florida teacher married a woman. Now she’s not a teacher anymore.

Some of the firings got widespread attention, such as the forced resignation of James Whitfield, a Black high school principal in Texas who was accused of promoting critical race theory — or that of Matthew Hawn, a White Tennessee teacher who lost his job for teaching White students about White privilege. Right-wing media latched on to other kinds of firings, boosting the message and grievances of teachers like Paul Rossi in New York City, who spoke out against schools’ social justice efforts; or those who refused to call transgender students by their pronouns due to religious beliefs.

Matthew Hawn was fired from a Tennessee school after he taught students about White privilege. © Earl Neikirk for The Washington Post Matthew Hawn was fired from a Tennessee school after he taught students about White privilege.

Many job losses happened far more quietly. The Post’s tally is probably a significant undercount, as scores of firings and resignations go unreported in local media, and the reasoning behind them remains unclear.

Tony Kinnett’s firing did not go unnoticed.

Kinnett, who was the science coordinator for Indianapolis Public Schools, waged a very public war with the district, accusing school officials of lying to parents when they denied teaching critical race theory, an academic construct that examines the consequences of systemic racism. School officials say that it is not taught in classrooms, but its underlying ideas form parts of lessons and policies in many schools.

In the fall, Kinnett posted a video in which he charged that key concepts of critical race theory were making their way into all academic subjects.

The video was viewed more than a half-million times and picked up by right-leaning news outlets. He later shared with the Daily Caller videos of an administrator talking to students over Zoom about systemic racism, accusing her of “creating racial tension through her open support of Critical Race Theory.” After being placed on administrative leave, he was let go.

Kinnett, who worked as an education policy adviser for Republican Scott Walker when he served as governor of Wisconsin, said he grew frustrated in the run-up to the midterms by people who said that critical race theory wasn’t being taught in schools, that “it’s just this boogeyman.”

While he lost his job, his vocal outrage in Indianapolis boosted his public exposure just as he was beginning his new career as an education journalist for right-leaning outlets. He has become a repeat guest on Fox News.

The Post’s tally of culture-war-related educator job losses in the past two years show 74 cases in which educators were fired from their jobs and 92 in which they resigned, either of their own volition or under pressure. The firings and resignations took place in at least 28 states, with California, Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York boasting the largest number of incidents (eight each).

Of the firings, 35 teachers lost their jobs for behaving or speaking in accordance with traditionally conservative beliefs, while 33 lost their jobs for behaving or speaking in accordance with traditionally liberal beliefs.

A flag, videos, an assignment: Each meant the end of a teacher’s career

The flag read “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” and it went up outside Amy Donofrio’s Florida classroom in October 2020.

It was about five months after the murder of George Floyd spurred nationwide protests for racial justice. Donofrio taught at Robert E. Lee High, named for the Confederate general and whose student body is majority-Black. The Duval County School Board was involved in a pitched fight over whether to rename the school, drawing pro-Confederate activists to meetings.

In the midst of this, Donofrio said she wanted to ensure that her Black students felt seen. She had spent much of her career helming a leadership class and organization that connected Black students with policymakers and police officers, allowing them to share their stories and perspectives. Posting the flag, with its simple refrain, felt like the right gesture.

The flag stayed up until March 2021, when administrators took it down after she declined again to remove it. In its place, she posted a piece of paper with an explanation of why it was gone. When she was barred from campus and placed on administrative leave, she sued with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The news of her firing came from an unusual source: a public speech by then-Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at a conservative college in Michigan. In it, he said there was “an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter.”

“We made sure she was being terminated,” Corcoran told the audience.

To Donofrio, the flag was not political. She said there is nothing she would have done differently, even though it separated her from a job she loved.

“I don’t know how any teacher cannot stand with our students and their value and their humanity,” she said. “That’s all that I did.”

A district investigation revealed that Donofrio also violated policies by giving students extra credit for attending the contentious school board meetings where the name change was discussed, and for wearing in yearbook photos masks and sweatshirts with the “I Am Not A Gang Member” phrase of the student group she founded, according to local media reports.

The Duval County school board voted to settle the lawsuit with Donofrio in August, even though many board members believed the district had not violated its policies.

Donofrio said she’s unsure if she will ever return to teaching.

In Massachusetts, Kari MacRae, 48, was dismissed from her position teaching business to high-schoolers in Hanover last September, when school officials caught wind of a video she posted on TikTok.

In the video, which MacRae shared as part of her successful campaign to join the school board in a nearby district, Bourne Public Schools, she critiqued what she called two glaring flaws of modern-day public education.

“So pretty much the reason I ran for school board,” she said, “is to ensure that students, at least in our town, are not being taught critical race theory. That they’re not being taught that the country was built on racism.”

MacRae added: “So they’re not being taught that they can choose whether or not they want to be a girl or a boy.”

The comments sparked criticism from residents, parents and students who felt the remarks were hurtful and transphobic. Administrators told her soon afterward that she was being let go for her “social media posts.”

Matt Ferron, the district superintendent, confirmed by email that “an investigation was opened related to [MacRae’s] social media posts.” He wrote that MacRae’s online activity denigrated members of “traditionally marginalized groups” and added that the decision to dismiss her was “not a result of her political views.”

The Hanover district “fully understands and respects the First Amendment rights of all employees,” Ferron wrote. He called MacRae’s comments an example of a teacher “publicly [interfacing] with the community in a way that may negatively impact our ability to provide a positive and distraction free learning environment.”

MacRae, who is suing the district, said her comments were not meant to be transphobic. She said she supports LGBTQ people and believes “people can choose and pick to be what their heart tells them” when it comes to gender — but she does not think teachers should discuss students’ gender identities during lessons.

Kari MacRae lost her job teaching high-schoolers in Hanover, Mass., after sharing her dislike of critical race theory and education on gender identity in a TikTok video. © Ryan MacRae Kari MacRae lost her job teaching high-schoolers in Hanover, Mass., after sharing her dislike of critical race theory and education on gender identity in a TikTok video.

“I think the problem with things being taught,” she said, “is that when children are young they’re very pliable and if they’re taught certain things they might end up going a certain way.”

Her larger concern, though, lies with the school district. She said she never expected to lose her job in the Hanover district because of opinions she shared while campaigning for a seat on the school board in another district. She said she has read about teachers across the country losing their jobs for similar reasons — in both red-leaning and blue-leaning places — and finds it alarming.

“Whatever party is dominant in the area, if you have an ideology different from the group and you share it, you get fired,” she said. “I think that we have become so very much one-sided — I really think we’re dividing ourselves more and more every day.”

In Oklahoma, Tyler Wrynn was an unknown middle school teacher when a TikTok video he made was featured on “Libs of TikTok,” a right-wing Twitter account that curates videos, many made by teachers, that often end up going viral, used as evidence that educators are indoctrinating and grooming students. Many of Wrynn’s followers are young members of the LGBTQ community, he said, and as someone who grew up queer in a community that did not embrace him, he wanted to comfort those who were also being shunned. So he said to his 20,000 followers: “If your parents don’t accept you for who you are, f--- them. I’m your parents now.”

It was a message that was not necessarily intended for his own middle school students, with whom he never shared his TikTok handle. But when his video drew the attention of administrators, he was placed on leave. In April, he was permitted to resign.

Wrynn says he fears other educators could face the same fate with the passage of new laws restricting how teachers can speak about sexuality or gender identity.

“It puts us between a rock and a hard place,” Wrynn said. “I mean, you can’t be a person, and you can’t have any kind of presence that can be construed as anything other than neutral.”

A spokesman for Owasso Public Schools, where Wrynn was employed, confirmed the resignation but said he could not comment further because it was a personnel issue.

Kim Morrison had taught high school English in her area of White, conservative, rural Missouri for eight years when, in early February, she assigned her contemporary literature students a book called “Dear Martin.” The young adult novel by Nic Stone details the experiences of a young Black teen who is stopped by police, in an encounter that turns violent, and must grapple with racism.

Morrison had taught it before and never received a complaint. This time, to prepare her class for a chapter that dealt with the intersection of race and privilege, she gave her students a questionnaire, “How Racially Privileged Are You?

It asked students to circle “True” or “Untrue” alongside 15 statements, including “I have never been a victim of violence because of my race” and “I can walk into any hair salon and find someone who can cut my hair.”

A few weeks later, Morrison’s principal called her into the office and questioned her about the worksheet, saying that parents had complained. About two weeks after that, the Greenfield R-IV School District board voted not to renew Morrison’s contract. Distraught, she asked school officials for their reasoning.

They sent a sentence: “The board’s actions were taken for the following reasons: Your decision to incorporate the worksheet associated with the novel ‘Dear Martin’ due to the content and subject matter.”

The district did not respond to a request for comment about Morrison’s firing.

Morrison said she knew that “White privilege” was a controversial term before she assigned the worksheet. But she wasn’t using that exact phrase, she reasoned, and she wanted students to read about different experiences.

Morrison finished out the year, but she changed how she taught the rest of “Dear Martin,” nixing a planned discussion of a chapter about affirmative action. Now, she is looking for new jobs.

Chiqui Esteban contributed to this report.

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