A new law on teaching history is causing concern and sowing confusion among teachers of every grade. TEA is taking on the new law and is ready to defend the professional rights of members.
As long as a teacher is teaching to the Tennessee state standards, they are in compliance with the law.
“The vague language in this amendment could bring false accusations of violating the law. Now more than ever it is important to be a member of TEA,” said TEA President Beth Brown.
Passed hastily in the last days of the legislative session, the law prohibits things that are not taught by any Tennessee teacher, such as the violent overthrow of the United States government or that there are no laws, only power concepts.
The bill was based on myths often pushed by privatizers that Tennessee schools are indoctrinating students in theories and concepts not part of the state standards. One prohibition is teaching students they “should feel” guilt and other negative emotions based on personal culpability for history.
“We teach facts, not feelings,” Brown said. “Some of the facts we teach in the state standards are difficult, like lynching during Jim Crow. They may evoke an emotional response from students, but that’s different than instructing students how they should feel. This is where the vagueness and lack of common sense of the law come into play.”
To inform the public and Tennessee educators about the realities and fallacies of the new law, TEA is launching a public information campaign stating clearly that teachers follow the Tennessee state standards and highlighting the absurdity of the law, including a commercial to be broadcast on television and social media.
A significant aspect of the commercial is the launch of a pre-clearance initiative, where members upload a lesson plan for pre-clearance by the state. Pre-clearance requests by hundreds of members on lessons aligned to standards that factually address difficult periods of history provide an opportunity to show the public quality teaching while highlighting the absurdity of the law.
The state will not have the manpower for pre-clearing lessons of hundreds of teachers—which would cost millions of dollars and make timely instruction near impossible—and demanding pre-clearance demonstrates the folly of the law.
“When we teach the civil rights movement, one of the most effective strategies we highlight is the taking of positive and direct action,” Brown said. “Since enforcement of the law falls to the commissioner—where she must withhold state school funding if a violation takes place—it makes sense to demand the state make rulings on what is acceptable and what they find is not. By pushing for this, we’ll demonstrate the absurdity of the law.”
The Tennessee Department of Education has announced it will issue guidance on the new law on August 1. State Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has said implementing laws is her job, and that teachers deserve to understand what is expected of them.
“It will be very difficult to create strong guidance on the vague language that was in the amendment,” said TEA Legal Counsel Steve McCloud. “The law uses terms like ‘inherently’ and ‘impartially’ that are subjective and have no definition in state code. Things that are passed as hastily as this do nothing but cause confusion and take the focus off teaching and learning.”
McCloud says threats to professional practice like this law are why every teacher needs to be a member of TEA.