Teachers, deputized to fight the culture wars, are often reluctant to serve
Michael Woods doesn’t tell his high school students that he is gay. He doesn’t bring up gay marriage or any other topic that might court controversy, either.
“I am very cautious about a lot of things,” said Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida, who teaches science. “I enjoy keeping my job.”
But when LGBTQ students take note of the “I’m Here” sticker on the back of his school ID, or his “We are ALL HUMAN” T-shirt, and come to him for advice or guidance, Woods is happy to provide it. He grew up in the county where he now works and remembers what it was like to be bullied.
“For many of these young people, teachers are the safe space,” said Woods.
Woods said he won’t stop having those conversations when Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which limits classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity, takes effect this summer. But he worries that students won’t feel comfortable turning to him for help. Already, some students are asking teachers what they’ll be allowed to talk about, Woods said.
Supporters of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, officially titled “Parental Rights in Education,” say they’re seeking to protect parents’ rights to decide how their children are raised and prevent teachers from “indoctrinating” students into liberal beliefs. Lawmakers in at least 20 states have introduced similar bills.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the governor has directed schools to report students who are receiving gender-affirming care, such as hormone blockers, as cases of child abuse. In Alabama, the governor signed a law last month requiring schools to notify parents if their child is questioning their gender identity.
In each case, teachers are being deputized as culture war cops, called upon to police their own behavior, and that of their students. It’s a role that many are reluctant to take on, and one that has left them feeling confused, scared and uncertain of their relationships with some of their most vulnerable students.
Florida, where the new law will prohibit schools from teaching students about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and require lessons for older grades to be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” parents can sue the district to compel compliance. If they win, the district will have to cover their attorney fees and court costs, and may be liable for damages.
But the law doesn’t define key terms like “classroom instruction” or “age appropriate,” and it gives the state Department of Education until June 30, 2023 to issue guidance on complying with the law — a full year after the law takes effect.
Until then, teachers will be flying blind, unsure if they’re opening their district up to legal risk. Is it still OK to talk to first graders about families, if one student has two moms? Can teachers read second graders a picture book with two dads? What about a book featuring heterosexual romance?
In Volusia County, Florida, third grade teacher Michelle Polgar worries she may have to stop reading aloud the book “Mouse in Love,” a story about a male mouse who falls for his female neighbor. Romantic love in any form feels verboten. She wonders what will happen in share time, too — if a kid mentions that his uncles got married over the weekend, and another kid asks what that means, does she need to shut down the discussion?
“Am I going to have to police kids’ expression?” she asked. “Am I violating their First Amendment rights?”
The law’s sponsors have said that it will not prevent students or teachers from talking about their LGTBQ families or stifle student-led discussion or questions. But critics say the bill’s language is so vague that it will lead many schools and teachers to over-correct, avoiding anything that might anger a parent.
“With the possibility of lawsuits, or someone getting upset, I’m going to be walking on eggshells,” said Polgar.
Anita Carson, a middle school science teacher in Lake Alfred, Florida, said she’ll keep talking to the LGBTQ students who come to her for support, even if it costs her a job. She points to a survey that found that LGBTQ students who can identify several supportive staff members had higher GPAs, better attendance and were less likely to feel unsafe in school than their peers who could name fewer supportive staff. Still, Carson said, the threat of a lawsuit is “one more worry on my head.”
“If a kid comes out to their parents and says, ‘Ms. Carson helped me figure out how to tell you,’ then I’m possibly going to be sued,” she said.
In Texas, where the governor’s order is being challenged in court, Adrian Reyna, an eighth grade history teacher in San Antonio, said he won’t be “intimidated” into reporting his transgender students to state authorities.
“The one thing I can control is the space I create in the classroom, and I will do everything I can to create a safe and inclusive space,” he said.
But he understands why many teachers, particularly sole breadwinners, won’t want to risk losing their jobs or teaching certificates. “The threat is real,” he said.
“Mandatory reporting” laws in Texas and most other states have long required teachers to report suspected cases of child abuse to authorities, or face potential fines or imprisonment. But the governor’s directive breaks new ground, classifying “gender-affirming care” — a spectrum of services that includes hormone blockers and surgery — as child abuse.
“Teachers don’t want to be Gov. Greg Abbott’s transgender police,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.
The past two years have been grueling for many teachers, as they coped with a pandemic that forced them to toggle between remote and in-person learning — and sometimes do both at once — and staffing shortages that have added to their workloads. In Florida alone, there are close to 4,500 teacher vacancies.
To some stressed teachers, the barrage of bills questioning their professional judgment feels like piling on, said Alejandra Lopez, the president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
“They feel like they’ve been carrying the weight of the community for two years,” Lopez said. “To then be used as pawns in a political game speaks to a lack of respect for teachers.”
Indeed, in a survey conducted earlier this year by the nonprofit EdWeek Research Center, fewer than half of teachers said they feel the public respects them as professionals, down from more than three quarters of teachers a decade ago, and barely half said they’re satisfied with their jobs. Another survey, by the National Education Association, found that 55 percent of respondents were considering leaving their jobs early. Neither poll asked specifically about culture war issues.
Carson, the Florida middle school teacher, said it feels like schools are lurching from one manufactured controversy to another, as conservative politicians and activists seek new ways to score points with parents.
“These groups are outraged about one thing for a month, and then it’s another thing, and it seems they all shift at the same time,” she said. “We gear up to talk about one controversy, and we get to the meeting, and they’re upset about something else.”
For gay teachers like Woods, the attacks can feel personal. “It seems,” he said, “like an intent to erase an entire population of people, as if they don’t exist.”
Jacqueline Rodriguez, vice president of research, policy and advocacy at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said she worries the bills will discourage LGBTQ individuals from pursuing teaching careers by sending the message that “this is not the profession to pursue if you want to bring your whole self to work every day.”
Enrollment in traditional teacher-preparation programs dropped 35 percent in the decade between 2008-09 and 2018-19, and fell further during the pandemic.
Elana Yaron Fishbein, the founder and president of No Left Turn in Education, a conservative parents’ rights group, said most teachers support efforts like the one in Florida, but are afraid to speak up.
“Unfortunately, the harsh cancel culture silences many of the teachers who oppose the radical indoctrination in schools, or leads them to quit their jobs,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“I guess you have spoken to the same teachers who support sexualizing children in K-12 schools,” she said.
Concerns that schools are sexualizing children go back at least 100 years, to conflicts over the teaching of evolution, according to Adam Laats, a professor of education and history at Binghamton University. That fight took aim at atheism, but its subtext was that teaching students the science of evolution would cause them to “act like animals and have animal sex,” Laats said. Some preachers even warned it would promote bestiality.
The targeting of gay teachers, in particular, dates to at least the 1950s, when the Florida legislature created the Johns Committee to root out communists and homosexuals from public schools and colleges. The attacks peaked in the ‘70s, with Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign, which popularized the notion that LGBTQ teachers were preying on students, Laats said.
Echoes of that 50-year-old campaign can be heard in the Florida bill, which supporters have described as an “anti-grooming” measure, designed to prevent pedophiles from exploiting children.
Still, a lot has changed since the 1970s. Public opinion polls show that 8 out of 10 Americans support schools hiring gay and lesbian teachers to work in elementary schools, up from a quarter of Americans in 1977, and close to 60 percent would be “somewhat or very” comfortable with a transgender individual teaching at their own elementary school.
But Americans remain divided over whether elementary school library books should include gay and lesbian characters, with about half of parents saying it would make them somewhat or very uncomfortable. And fully two-thirds of voters — and 88 percent of Republicans — believe it’s inappropriate for teachers or staff to discuss gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade, another survey, by the conservative Republican polling company Public Opinion Strategies, found.
Woods and other Florida teachers say the new state law is a “solution in search of a problem,” since Florida, like most states, does not include sexual orientation and gender identity in its teaching standards for the early grades. Still, the law, which takes effect in July, is already having an impact, with some districts, including Woods’, preemptively pulling books with gay and transgender characters from school libraries.
That’s happening around the country. In the nine months between July 2021 and March 2022, 86 districts and close to 3,000 schools issued book bans, many of them in response to complaints at public meetings, according to an analysis by PEN America, an organization that advocates for free expression. A third of the banned books included LGBTQ themes or characters, the study found.
Even before the bans, LGBTQ characters were underrepresented in curricula and lesson plans, according to a 2019 survey by GLSEN, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. It found that less than half of LGBTQ respondents between the ages of 13 and 21 could find information about LGBTQ issues in their school libraries, and fewer than one in five were taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history and events.
Such representation matters, according to a research brief by the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ students. It found that LGBTQ middle and high-schoolers who were taught about LGBTQ people or issues were less likely to report a suicide attempt than those who hadn’t been taught.
Laats, the historian, said he expects the latest “moral panic” over LGTBTQ instruction to fade over time, fizzling as past panics have. But that doesn’t mean it won’t leave a mark on the nation’s schools and teachers, who will make “a million tiny decisions” to drop books or censor classroom discussion “just to avoid the issue,” he said.
“What gets left behind is a sense of teachers being attacked,” he said, “and that leads to a narrowing, a stunting of what goes on in schools.”
This story about the culture wars was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.