The culture wars are driving teachers from the classroom. Two campaigns are trying to help
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When Willie Carver Jr. won Kentucky’s 2022 Teacher of the Year award, he had no plans to leave the profession he was so passionate about. But a few months later, in June of last year, Carver suddenly announced he was departing his position as a high school teacher because of the constant discrimination and threats he said he faced as an openly gay man.
“I never had an easy time teaching. I was a gay man in the rural south,” Carver said. “But I felt called to do it, because I know that students need to see people who look like them, who come from where they come from.”
Carver, who grew up in rural Appalachia, said he felt forced to leave the classroom behind after he was targeted by a group affiliated with Moms for Liberty and other conservative groups in the small rural town in Kentucky where he taught at Montgomery County High School. Carver was accused of being a “groomer” and sent death threats, he said, while students in his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) were doxxed online. Carver said he received little to no support from his school administration. (In an email, Matt Thompson, superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, did not comment on Carver’s allegations, but wrote, “Mr. Carver was a wonderful English and French teacher during his time with Montgomery County Schools.”)
Carver’s experience isn’t unique. Since 2019 there’s been a growing number of attacks — both verbal and physical — against teachers, administrators, school board officials, librarians and even students, particularly those who are LGBTQ+, Black, Hispanic or Asian. Those threats have only increased since last year as schools have become a focal point of the culture wars, contributing to challenges the teaching profession has long faced in recruiting and retaining teachers from underrepresented backgrounds.
Two recently launched campaigns are taking aim at the problems facing the teaching profession on different fronts.
“If I’m saying I’m threatened, I’m going to have someone that has my back.”
Willie Carver, former teacher in Kentucky who helped launch the Educator Defense Fund
The nonprofit Campaign for Our Shared Future announced the creation of the Educator Defense Fund during the SXSW.edu conference earlier in March. The fund, launching this summer, will provide teachers, administrators, librarians and other school staff with a “rapid response” resource hub that will include legal support and help with online security. The goal is to give educators the help they need, when they need it, so they are able to focus on teaching, said Eliza Byard, co-founder and senior advisor to the campaign. The campaign is a coalition of parents, teachers, students and advocates who want to “keep politics out of the classroom” by recentering “the needs of students and teachers,” she said. It is currently raising money from individuals and foundations for its legal defense work, according to Ernie Grigg, managing director of communications, organizing, political at Campaign for Our Shared Future.
Carver, who also appeared at SXSW.edu to help unveil the initiative, said the assistance is exactly what educators need right now. “If I’m saying I’m threatened, I’m going to have someone that has my back,” he said. “If I’m saying my students are not allowed to do research, if I’m saying my students aren’t allowed to read a book because it’s written by a Black author, then I know I’m going to have legal support.”
Related: Teachers, deputized to fight the culture wars, are often reluctant to serve
Carver said he feels guilty about leaving the classroom, but, like many LGBTQ+ teachers, he doesn’t feel safe right now. He said he worries, though, that the attacks will leave LGBTQ+ students and students of color without someone to relate to in the school building.
Sharif El-Mekki, chief executive of the nonprofit Center for Black Educator Development, said support, such as that to be offered by the Educator Defense Fund, is critical. As organizations like the CBEF work to improve teacher preparation and teacher effectiveness by increasing the number of Black teachers, efforts to curtail teacher and student voices in the classroom make it harder to recruit new teachers, he said.
El-Mekki said the fund will allow educators to push back against the “fake hysteria about teaching accurate history and allowing students and teachers to show up as their true authentic selves.”
El-Mekki’s organization is also part of a second campaign, One Million Teachers of Color, which launched in 2021. The campaign, which held several events and panels during SXSW.edu, aims not only to retain educators of color but to add one million teachers of color and 30,000 school leaders of color to the workforce by 2030. Launched by the Hunt Institute and TNTP (formerly known as the New Teacher Project), it is led by a coalition of eight education nonprofits that are each working on the issue at the national, state or local level.
Since 2019 there has been a growing number of attacks — both verbal and physical — against teachers, administrators, school board officials, librarians and even students, particularly those who are LGBTQ+, Black, Hispanic or Asian.
According to El-Mekki, this initiative and the teacher defense fund go hand-in-hand. “This modern day McCarthyism can undermine the recruitment efforts,” he said. “Whether it’s a school or district or state entity — if they’re not grounding those principles in retaining teachers, and retaining teachers of color, then they’re not serious about the work of recruiting teachers of color.”
The work of the One Million Teachers of Color campaign began in North Carolina when Gov. Roy Cooper created a task force in 2019 to add more teachers of color across the state. When the Hunt Institute, which was part of the task force, began researching the issue, its staff realized the lack of teacher diversity was a national “epidemic,” one that only worsened during the pandemic, said Javaid Siddiqi, president and CEO of the Hunt Institute.
The campaign launched a three-pronged approach: advocate for policy changes across the country that remove barriers for people of color to go into teaching; build a national narrative around the urgency of diversifying the educator pipeline; and establish a network of “champions” to share best practices on recruiting and retaining educators.
This year, the campaign is holding educator diversity summits across the country to bring together policymakers, educators and leaders to find ways to tackle the problems that are unique to each state. For example, in North Carolina 44 percent of Black graduates of four-year colleges earn their degrees from a North Carolina HBCU, which means the state needs to invest more money in those institutions to allow them to add seats and hire more faculty, Siddiqi said. In North Dakota, the campaign plans to work closely with the Native American community and tribal schools to increase the number of Native and Indigenous teachers.
According to El-Mekki, student voices are vital to this campaign. Part of his center’s work is providing high school and college students with teacher apprenticeships, to make it easier for them to train for the profession. Those voices are also why he said the campaign’s leadership will meet with high school students around the country to get their input on what they want from teachers and the profession. Since the campaign launched, high school students have created viral hashtags, such as #WeNeedBlackTeachers, and days of action inspired by the campaign.
“We have to make sure we’re centering students’ voices, their experiences, as well as the research that shows that a diverse educator workforce is good for all students,” El-Mekki said. “It’s good for all outcomes, and it’s actually good for the country.”
This story about a legal defense fund for teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation.