Students in classroom

Many Georgia teachers take umbrage at the idea that they would seek to indoctrinate students, but they worry zealous parents could find fault with their lessons for political reasons and land them in hot water.

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Georgia students will soon be trading their pencils and books for sunglasses and swimsuits after a busy school year. For teachers, the summer break is often a time for lesson planning and professional training.

Tiffany Fannin, a social studies teacher who works with special education students, will be undergoing some extra training this summer to help her handle the type of sensitive issues currently occupying headlines and legislators’ brains.

“I just want to make sure that I am covering my standards in a way that’s not going to cause an alarm with certain parents and learning how to present things factually, but also learning how to be able to present another side, if that’s possible, for many of the issues that we’re facing,” said Fannin, who asked that the Recorder not name the district where she teaches.

Starting in the fall, history teachers will be navigating a raft of new laws passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp ostensibly aimed at taking politics out of classrooms.

The law that originated as House Bill 1084 bars teachers from discussing nine so-called divisive concepts, including that the United States is inherently racist, that a person should be discriminated against because of their race or that an individual bears responsibility for misdeeds committed by others of the same race.

“It ensures all of our state and nation’s history will be taught accurately,” said Kemp at a signing ceremony for the bill. “Because here in Georgia, our classrooms will not be pawns to those who indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas.”

Many Georgia teachers take umbrage at the idea that they would seek to indoctrinate students, but they worry zealous parents could find fault with their lessons for political reasons and land them in hot water.

One Forsyth County middle school teacher who asked that her name not be published for fear of retaliation said she worries her lessons on colonialism could be put under scrutiny.

She said she teaches students about the effects on colonized people including the loss of their freedoms and the erasure of their cultures and languages and how that affects those populations today.

“If I’m linking it to how those people have functioned throughout the time of colonization and after that, and I’m linking it to today, to many of the ramifications, like loss of language and how people are trying to bring those back, I’m sure somebody in our community could say that I am, under the guise of standards, trying to teach critical race theory,” she said. “However, that is not the case. Whether I ascribe to that idea or not, I’m just helping kids to realize cause-effect and long-term impact.”

Critical race theory was once defined as an academic framework examining racism as a cultural force rather than an individual evil. It has come to be used as a catch-all for lessons that some white parents say cause their children to feel guilty by association for sins like slavery and Jim Crow.

In a February committee meeting, Dawsonville Republican Rep. Will Wade, HB 1084’s sponsor, said teachers will not need to avoid difficult subjects as long as they do not assign blame to white children. He told the committee about a time his young daughter came home from school in tears after hearing the story of Rosa Parks.

“She said ‘Why did white people do that?’ and then she just started squalling,” Wade said. “She said ‘Why do people hate each other, daddy?’ My daughter, in that moment, she was feeling anguish. My job as a parent is to embrace that child at that moment, to let her know what she is doing, that she has natural empathy for another human being. The teacher did not do anything in order to tell that she should feel that way because of her race.”

“The point is to ensure that teachers are not, in their role, as a steward for a classroom of children, to take what most people experience at some point in their life when they see the atrocities of the past,” he said. “That somehow, if you are this race, it is required of you that you should feel anguish, you should feel terrible about yourself and who you are as a person because of these atrocities of the past, that is the difference, and I believe in Georgia educators, I believe that they will understand the difference.”

Whether parents understand the difference is another issue. Another Kemp-backed bill known as the parents’ Bill of Rights codifies the rights of parents, including to inspect classroom materials.

Fannin said she’s had a few parents express concerns about her lessons over the course of her career, but she’s always been able to reassure them by having a conversation and showing them her lesson plans. She said she is distressed by a perception that educators are up to no good, and she worries the new laws will make the parent-teacher relationship more hostile.

“In March 2020, we were seen as heroes,” she said. “Teachers were seen as heroes as we were pushing the kids through this whole COVID situation, we’re trying to be positive and trying to get them engaged online, but probably two or three weeks before the semester started in August, we were seen as the villains, and we continue to be seen as the villains because of this critical race theory that’s been drummed up, also mask mandates. That’s been really disturbing to me, how can we have gone from these wonderful keepers of the students’ mental health in March, and by that August, we’ve been demonized?”

She said she trusts her administrators to be fair if she is accused of teaching improper concepts, but she worries that will not be the same across the state, especially for newer teachers who have less experience allaying parents’ concerns.

The Forsyth middle school teacher said she’s less confident in her administrators. She worries they will kowtow to what she calls a vocal minority of parents to avoid further problems, but she says she’s hopeful her district will come up with good guidelines and follow them properly.

“I hope that it is followed with an open mind to actually hear what is being said and with someone who can think critically about what’s being said and not just take it and make it go away because it makes it look better for us,” she said.

During the debate over the bills, detractors said the added scrutiny will push people away from becoming teachers. The Forsyth teacher said she has considered other lines of work, but she’ll be back in the classroom in the fall with her fingers crossed that everything will work out.

“The thing that keeps me coming back is working with students,” she said. “I have fun with them. And there’s only been one part of my time in, during this year, particularly, that I’ve really had to consider where my allegiances are. But it is for the students that I even choose to come back. And I’ve signed my contract for next year, so I hope it’s going to continue to be a relative non-issue within my school.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.