Education and teacher concept
Credit: Plutmaverick / Shutterstock
Education and teacher concept
Credit: Plutmaverick / Shutterstock
Barth Keck

Earlier this school year, I wrote an op-ed whose title sums up its message: “Teachers Are Feeling More Stress Than Ever.”

That was back in October, and I explained how even as the issues kept piling up – dealing with the pandemic, attending to students’ growing social-emotional needs and, yes, planning lessons and grading papers – it wasn’t enough to shake my confidence in teaching.

“I still love teaching,” I wrote, “and I remain absolutely willing to put in the time required to do the job effectively. I love helping kids grow, learn and achieve.”

Fast-forward five months. It hasn’t gotten any easier, a fact highlighted by the mid-year exodus of many Connecticut teachers, including Sheena Graham, the state’s 2019 Teacher of the Year.

“My concern for the profession is going to be, if there isn’t a way to address [the challenges], we’re going to see a lot more educators leave,” said Graham.

A recent entry in Peter Greene’s “Curmudgucation” blog pinpoints the dilemma for teachers, many of whom are feeling “moral injury,” a term Psychology Today defines as “the social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness and loyalty.”

Teaching, in other words, is more a calling than a job. When external factors hinder a teacher’s ability to attend to that calling, frustrations follow.

Teaching was not my first choice of careers. I embarked on a job in hospital public relations after graduating college with a degree in mass communications and completing an internship in Yale-New Haven Hospital’s public information office. My PR career lasted six years until I realized I was becoming a hospital administrator – definitely not in my wheelhouse.

My gut told me to pursue teaching. I had always enjoyed supervising the college students working in my office as PR interns, and I loved coaching youth hockey. So, I quit, earned a Master of Arts in Teaching and got certified. That was 31 years ago. I’ve been teaching ever since.

During my entire time teaching, I have never questioned my decision to change careers. I’ve always known I belong in the classroom, working with teenagers. I simply connect with them. I’ve also enjoyed the freedom to develop original, creative lessons that follow the curriculum. Lately, however, I fear the current atmosphere in this country is changing that situation.

Foremost among the obstacles is the increasing pressure, nationally, to adhere to politically motivated initiatives. Even in Connecticut, the fabricated campaign against Critical Race Theory reared its ugly head last year, culminating in anti-CRT candidates running for school board positions in Guilford and Coventry. Those candidates lost, but the campaign to commandeer the public-school curriculum is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Parents and board members in towns like Brookfield and Shelton are objecting to the presence of books with LGBTQ+ characters and themes, while a school board member in Norwich claims, “There’s things being taught that we’re not aware of, or feel that shouldn’t be taught.” Such disputes here are indicative of a national trend of parents wanting more transparency in school curricula.

The irony is that never before has the curriculum been more accessible. Google Classroom was adopted during the initial stages of COVID-19 in many schools, making daily lesson plans available online. All parents need to do is ask their kids to show them.

The growing effort to influence school curricula and classroom lessons has already had a chilling effect on teachers in states like Utah, New Hampshire, and Florida, to name but a few. Might it happen in Connecticut? It could.

A lesson on racism I have routinely taught when reading “A Raisin in the Sun” – one for which I have always felt support in my district – could get me in trouble in other states. Politicians, for example, might object to my pointing out the frequent use of racially motivated real-estate practices in the 20th century.

In fact, if Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, had his way, I might not be allowed to teach that lesson here. His amendment to a bill last year – a measure that failed along party lines – would have outlawed lessons “making any individual feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” Never mind the extreme difficulty in identifying and policing such lessons. “History is not therapy,” adds Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “and discomfort is part of growing up.”

It is certainly never my intention to cause students “psychological distress” when teaching. Instead, I promote critical thinking based on facts. Given the direction public education seems to be headed nationally, however, I wonder: Will I continue to be allowed to teach difficult topics in a way I know has effective and constructive results?

It’s a troubling thought. And for a teacher, it could easily lead to “moral injury.”

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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