How “Truth” Became a Controversial Subject in Classrooms
Molly Castner on How to Teach Facts in 2021
This piece is part of a series from teachers on the ways their classrooms have changed over the last year. Read others here.
In the fall of 2020, a local science teacher planned a lesson to help students learn about pandemic science: how viruses and diseases spread and the ways that masks and vaccination might stem the tide of a deadly pandemic. It was a hit, not only with students, but with parents as well. Students had great questions about how the science applied to Covid-19 and the mandates required by the government such as the closing of non-essential businesses, mitigation efforts in schools, and the required wearing of masks in public.
This was prior to any approved vaccination efforts and during a time when many students spent at least half, if not all, of their learning day at home. Families were largely quarantined, and many parents were working from home or serving as essential workers who risked their safety to help society function. This lesson was met with interest and hope for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. This fall, the teacher taught the same lesson, only to be greeted with irate parent phone calls. How dare you teach about the efficacy of masks as we are publicly debating the school mask mandate?
As the school board flips and flops their way through the return to school, the use of masks and the truth of their efficacy—as well as the truth of vaccine efficacy—has become subject to debate, turning classrooms into daily minefields that our teachers must carefully navigate. If they share pandemic science as before, those against mandated masking are at the door questioning the science, and if a teacher chooses to stay silent, those advocating for universal masking and vaccinations want to know why students aren’t learning the facts. There are dangers lurking in every corner.
The pandemic accelerated a trend that already existed: teachers increasingly find themselves facing a potential career-ending explosion if they teach the wrong “truth.” Facts themselves, now, seem up for debate, and teachers don’t know which ones will trigger a firestorm of public ire. It used to be that teachers had to tread lightly when addressing very few issues commonly perceived as controversial; now, even the most mundane topics have become thorny adversaries. But how do you teach history or impart context for a piece of text if the public disagrees about or denies the facts? How do you teach students the value of critical reading and thinking when even the word “critical” raises eyebrows?
The problem is not limited to science and pandemic politics. Think about the social studies teacher who teaches current events to engage students in civic conversation. How are they to address local, national, and global events, when there’s such a divide in opinion about what is happening in our country? Teachers are advised by school administration to stick to the script and don’t talk about anything unless it is in the approved curriculum. The sadness is that this makes educators fearful and denies students the opportunity for rich, meaningful lessons generated from the many teachable moments that happen in classrooms every day.
Educators arrive at school every day to make the most of their time with their students. We know that our future depends on the empowerment of each subsequent generation. We help students navigate an increasingly complex system of “truths” swirling around them; we help them to understand their place in the world. The truth is teachers are some of the best-situated professionals with the power to effectively address misinformation before it poisons people—if they are only given the space and trust to do it.