During the course of my professional career in Jewish education, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of roles — as a teacher, university lecturer, head of school, and national director of a day school network. When I had the chance to visit classrooms, I loved to observe the active interchange between teachers and students as they grappled with texts, seeking ways to make personal meaning from the ideas, opinions, and perspectives they encountered.
Even though I retired a few years ago, I follow the currents in the field of teaching and learning with great interest. And today I am deeply worried.
I wonder who will want to choose a career as a classroom teacher, given current conditions and constraints. Already underpaid and undervalued, teachers have had to adapt to online and hybrid learning in the constantly changing circumstances of the pandemic. Now they must figure out how best to meet children’s increased needs — the result of all the disruptions —and work to reverse the setbacks and learning losses. Compounding these challenges, the current climate of suspicion and intrusive oversight of teachers by politicians and parents imposes restrictions that reduce teachers’ ability to respond and relate to the children in their care.
Teachers now are working in an atmosphere of increased distrust, and even threat. Reported incidents of children or their parents reporting a teacher for espousing a viewpoint with which they disagree abound. Harassed and anxious administrators advise teachers to avoid any discussion of issues that might be deemed controversial. Even “emotional intelligence” has been politicized, as some ideologues believe that increasing empathy for others will lead to an endorsement of behaviors they deem objectionable.
There are children in the classrooms of many elementary school teachers who are living in homes with two mothers or two dads, loving parents who are raising them responsibly and attentively. There are children who are depressed, confused, and vulnerable to self-harming because they feel that they do not conform to normative societal gender expectations. These young people need caring understanding, not censorship and value judgments telling them that they are sinful and perverted.
State legislatures around the country are actively taking steps to enact measures that will erode many basic freedoms. The list of regulations and constraints keeps growing. It includes limits on books that public libraries can offer young readers, what materials children can have access to in school, and what questions can be addressed in classrooms. How can teachers engage in discerning and beneficial conversations about real-life concerns with their students in such tightly monitored, restrictive environments?
The proposed controls constrain a teacher’s freedom to make decisions about what is appropriate for their students. A bill enshrining parental rights in education, pending in the Florida State Legislature, includes requirements, among others, that block school district personnel from discouraging or prohibiting parental notification and involvement in critical decisions affecting student’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being, and authorize parents to bring action against the school district. (That’s the legislation that critics are calling the Don’t Say Gay bill.)
The same people who bemoan the role of government in their lives are enacting laws that control the lives of others. In an April opinion piece in the New York Times, Frank Bruni bemoaned “the education conflagration of the moment,” citing “the howls of protest from parents about what their children are or aren’t exposed to, what their children are and aren’t taught.”
I support parents’ need to be able to communicate openly with their children’s teachers, but the charged environment of threat and distrust is poisoning both teaching and learning. Self-censorship has become the way for teachers to protect their jobs.
The depressing consequence of politicized, excessive scrutiny results in quashing the motivation of idealistic educators to open young minds to the values of exploring ideas, listening to others’ opinions, and engaging in non-judgmental discussions. With the erosion of trust and confidence in teachers, it won’t be surprising to learn that talented college grads who once considered a career in teaching will make a different choice.
Elaine Shizgal Cohen of Teaneck is a retired Jewish educator and an active community volunteer. She serves on the executive committee of Congregation Beth Sholom and leads Wise Aging groups.