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Black History Month poses first challenge to teachers under tip line

Stairs with words on them
The stairs at Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

It’s the middle of Black History Month, a time when many public school teachers break out lessons involving central figures in African American and Black history and dive into discussions surrounding the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement in this country.

But newly elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s actions immediately out of the gate surrounding education in public schools have put many teachers on edge.

Youngkin’s Executive Order Number One, signed on his first day in office, seeks to end the use of “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory,” (which is not being taught in K-12 schools but has influenced some education policy). That was followed by his launching of a tip line for “parents to keep an eye out for ‘critical race theory’ and ‘divisive practices’ within Virginia schools.” Both of these actions have public school teachers wondering how to navigate historical events in this new political climate.

VPM spent over a week reaching out to Central Virginia teachers through social media requests as well as through districts, superintendents, educational organizations, teacher unions, and professional and personal connections seeking comment for this story.

A major reply – besides the many ‘no’ replies from those VPM reached out to – was that many educators are feeling uneasy.

One respondent told VPM that most of the history teachers she asked to help with this story “were not willing to go on the record” because “teachers are fearful of repercussions if they speak out.”

However, the current pushback on how to teach the history of race in public education is nothing new, according to professor LaGarrett King.

“We, as a collective, have been trying to include Black history in school curriculum ever since the 19th century, '' King says, “right after the Civil War, where Black educators attempted to try to infuse Black history in their schools.”

King is a professor of social studies education and the founding director of the Center for K–12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University of Buffalo. He says there have been peaks and valleys over the past 125 years in terms of the ways Black history has been included in or excluded from curricula.

A majority of teachers, says King, were already having a difficult time effectively teaching about race in the classroom. The current climate only exacerbates that issue.

“Lately, I would say, there has been a lot of anxiety in terms of what should be taught in the classroom and how they should teach it,” King says. “So I think the great majority of teachers, particularly those teachers that were on a learning curve already, I think they're more conscious, and their anxiety is always rising.”

King says there’s been an uptick in support for teaching more about Black history ever since the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement took off. But that uptick in support has also strengthened resistance.

“With Black Americans [there] has always been a call for more Black history in the schools,” says King. “And because of that, there's always been kind of this backlash by what I would call more conservative politicians concerning Black history.”

King says many times that leads to compromises on what type of Black history is taught in schools.

“There's always been this notion of, well, let's not talk about racism, or let's not focus too much on radical Black people when we teach about Black people in the curriculum,” King says. “Whenever there has been some perceived improvements or perceived gains, there has always been things that have been taken away from Black history.”

Teaching the truth about the United States’ mass enslavement of people of African descent, especially to students in higher grade levels, is important and shouldn’t be controversial, says psychology professor Faye Belgrave at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Enslavement existed. And there’s nothing wrong with letting people know that enslavement existed,” Belgrave says. “And because of enslavement, there’s a history of institutional racism and oppression for some people in this country. And what would be controversial would be if there were different opinions on whether or not enslavement and racism exists.”

Belgrave says the recent upswing in calls for parental oversight of school curriculum materials stems from fear about how certain material could affect their children.

"I think it’s the parents dictating, in many cases, what they think teachers should teach because they think, in some way, that it might adversely impact their students,” Belgrave says. “Students are resilient, the students can take this information and understand the context."

Not All Teachers are Anxious

However, King says not all teachers are feeling nervous.

“You have another set of teachers who are very strong in their pedagogical knowledge,” King says. “And when I talk with those teachers, their pedagogies are not changing.”

One teacher who’s not feeling nervous or pressured to change because of a switch-up in the governor’s chair is Meaghan Rymer.

“As Black history goes, I feel that not much has changed because of the tip line,” Rymer says. She teaches 7th grade U.S. history, which covers 1865 to the present, at River City Middle School in Richmond.

Person stands next to door
Meaghan Rymer, a 7th grade teacher at River City Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Meaghan Rymer)

Rymer says she continually updates her teaching as she  learns more about all history, something she relies on her colleagues for.

“If anything's changed, it's because I've deepened my own understanding and knowledge,” Rymer says. “Especially when it comes to my Black and brown peers. I really want to learn as much as I can.”

Rymer’s rhetoric matches that of Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras. A spokesperson for the superintendent relayed that Kamras said, "Black History IS American History. We will always teach that – in all of its beautiful, inspiring, and painful complexity – here at RPS."

Rymer says school districts, principals and instructional specialists need to create a teaching environment where teachers feel safe about doing their job. Part of her safety net comes from her instructional specialist.

“He's definitely a scholar in terms of Black American history,” Rymer says. “[He] says we do not teach critical race theory. We teach the truth of what happened. I trust him to help. If he says that I can teach it like this, then I feel like I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing.”

Rymer, who’s taught for seven years, teaches 142 students, who are mostly Black, Hispanic or Latin X.

“I try at all times to make sure I am conscious of their experience and their backgrounds and their perspectives when I'm teaching,” she says.

She says the tip line is a divisive “waste of energy” that confuses her students.

“I teach honors students, and they're very aware,” Rymer says. “And one of my kids had asked me, ‘[are] you not allowed to teach Black history anymore?’”

Rymer told them nothing has changed and said her students began calling it the “teacher snitch line.” It’s impossible to know what kinds of tips have been sent in to the governor’s office as they have rebuffed records requests.

Despite her supportive teaching environment, Rymer says she knows many teachers who are uncomfortable with the current climate.

“I know that there are a lot of teachers that are not in that situation that I have,” Rymer says. “[They] have communities that have very strong opinions on things like this. My mom's a teacher in Virginia Beach, and I won't go teach down there.”

How to Teach Within Youngkin’s Executive Order

Professor King says under Youngkin’s executive order, there are ways to teach all aspects of history by relying on and fostering students’ critical thinking.

“For a lot of teachers, particularly when you're teaching, as the governor mentioned within the Executive Order, about slavery, about civil rights and about all these particular historical topics in the executive order, you just pull primary sources from those particular time eras and you teach those,” King says.

He says that would also address claims of students being indoctrinated, something he also says needs to be better understood.

“All education is indoctrination. It doesn't matter if you agree with it or not, it's still indoctrination,” King says. “But the beautiful thing about history is that you don't have to indoctrinate anyone. You just show them the proof.”

An example King gives is to reference Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens Cornerstone speech.

“Alexander Stephens mentioned in his Cornerstone speech that, hey, the ‘Confederacy is all about white supremacy’ right?” King says. “I mean, kids can read that. And again, they can make their judgments in their own right.”

Rymer agrees with King’s guidance. She uses the art of storytelling to teach about historical events.

“If I tell my kids a story about an event that happened, I like to tell it in story form. And then I can show them the proof,” Rymer says. “I'll show them a letter that someone wrote to somebody else, or a photograph of that event or a series of photographs so that they can draw their own conclusions.”

King says it’s important for teachers to develop a library of primary sources to make sure students “are really learning history.”

“Primary sources are great teaching tools,” King says.

VCU Professor Belgrave adds teachers are trained to guide students through difficult conversations regarding history.

"We have to just have faith that our teachers understand how to address issues of discomfort amongst students,” Belgrave says.

VPM reporter Megan Pauly contributed to this story.