3 Questions: Justin Reich on the state of teacher speech in America
A new podcast series from MIT's Teaching Systems Lab explores the laws and cultural divisions presenting new challenges for educators

Teachlab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching from the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, is out with a new season called “Teacher Speech and the New Divide.” The new season explores issues like divisive concept laws, book bans, the history and legal framework of teacher speech, and the new challenges for teachers and teaching. 

The podcast is hosted by Justin Reich, associate professor of digital media in MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, director of the Teaching Systems Lab, and the author of the forthcoming book "Iterate: The Secret to Innovation in Schools."

Here, Reich talks about the new season:

Q: Why focus a season on the issue of teacher speech?

A: The U.S. school system has been under enormous strain over the past three years from emergency pandemic teaching, serious mental health challenges faced by students, declining indicators of teacher well-being and job satisfaction, difficulties with recruitment and retention of teachers, and now — on top of all that — a rash of new laws restricting teachers from addressing so-called “divisive concepts.” For educators, these new laws are creating tremendous uncertainty, and we wanted to help address that uncertainty by grounding educators in the state of jurisprudence around teacher speech.

It is entirely appropriate to have debates in communities about what teachers should teach, and it’s important that parents, community members, and professional educators should all have a voice in the classroom. But these new laws don’t just advocate for or against including certain concepts, they are an effort to change the ground rules for these debates in two important ways. In the best of circumstances, we should attempt to be precise in what educators should teach: through standards, curriculum, required textbooks and materials, and other specific forms of guidance. Many of the divisive concept laws are deliberately vague and without sufficient guidance, so they attempt to chill teacher speech around a wide range of topics by not specifying exactly what’s in or out of bounds. Second, there will always be parents with extreme views in any public school community, and one way we accommodate these families is by giving them permission to withhold their child from classes about certain topics — this happens with some frequency in health and sex ed, and less commonly in science, social studies, and literature. New laws are set up so that if one parent objects, then everyone’s children are denied access to these learning experiences. The stakes of any curriculum decision are suddenly much higher. This combination of unclear guidelines and high stakes are very stressful — and unfair — to teachers.

Q: In the podcast, you talk with Dakota Morrison, a student teacher from Findlay, Ohio, about pushback he received from the community for teaching a unit on the history of gay rights. How are these laws and cultural changes affecting teachers like Dakota in the classroom?

A: Dakota tells the story of discovering social studies in his first-grade classroom and deciding he was going to be a history teacher. I have such admiration and a little envy for people who know what they want to do from a young age. And I feel a certain kinship as a former history teacher myself.

Dakota was teaching U.S. history during his student teaching year, and the Ohio state standards instruct him to teach a unit on civil rights — as might be found in every state’s standards. He reads through guidance from the Ohio Department of Education called the Model Curriculum, which provides expert advice on how to go about teaching state standards. Inside that model curriculum is guidance about addressing the broad movement for civil rights by teaching about Stonewall and the gay liberation movement. So Dakota sets about designing a unit, and he’s very careful about how he does this. He’s got it aligned with state standards and the model curriculum; he’s run the unit by his mentor teacher and by the school principal, who was a history teacher. He teaches it for a few days, and students are engaged and interested.

And then, a parent complains, and Dakota is transferred out of the school within days. The district wasn’t enforcing any particular state laws — Ohio’s legislature considered a bill like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, but it didn’t pass — but simply making a discretionary staffing decision based on parental complaints. The effect of school culture wars is making it harder for classroom teachers to address important parts of our history, and this could get even more difficult as more divisive concept laws are passed. 

Q: What do you hope teachers, students, and other listeners take away from the series? 

A: For teachers, we hope the series gives a thorough grounding in law and court cases about teacher speech, and we hope it introduces teachers to a range of new laws being proposed and passed. From all of this important background, we want to help teachers understand their rights and responsibilities, and how those might be changing. We also are informing teachers about how they can keep their instruction on the safest ground, and how teacher unions, parent groups, and free speech advocates are organizing to repeal and overturn these laws. And we want teachers to hear the stories and questions of their colleagues, so if they are feeling isolated or fearful, they know that there are others facing these challenges and responding to them.

The most important thing that public listeners can take away from the series is that it is an incredibly important moment to show up for schools and for public education. The overwhelming majority of U.S. parents are satisfied with their local public schools and they don’t believe that schools are teaching concepts that conflict with their family beliefs about race, gender, sexuality, or other topics. In fact, there are plenty of parents who believe these concepts are not sufficiently addressed in schools. There is, however, a very vocal, well-organized minority of parents who want to change the curriculum and culture of schools to restrict discussions of race and racism, of changing views about gender and sexuality, and other important parts of the fabric of American life. Advocates for those positions certainly have a right to express their views. But for folks who want to make sure that children of all backgrounds can see themselves in the curriculum, for folks who feel like teachers have done an amazing job under incredibly difficult circumstances for the last four years, now is the time to be at school board meetings, in PTA groups, at school events, bus stops, drop-offs, and other places advocating for teachers and schools.

The podcast also introduces listeners to a free online course that we developed with Learning for Justice and the Justice in Schools team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course is called Youth In Front, and it helps educators understand how to support youth activists and leadership, on issues like protesting divisive concept laws, or anything else.