Former Georgia Teacher of the Year: Debate over critical race theory is heartbreaking

A student holds a U.S. flag upside down stands atop the steps at the Idaho Capitol building in Boise in April after the Idaho Senate approved legislation aimed at preventing schools and universities from "indoctrinating" students through teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP.)
A student holds a U.S. flag upside down stands atop the steps at the Idaho Capitol building in Boise in April after the Idaho Senate approved legislation aimed at preventing schools and universities from "indoctrinating" students through teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP.)

Credit: Darin Oswald

Credit: Darin Oswald

It’s possible to love America and acknowledge mistakes in our past, he says

Casey Bethel, Georgia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, has been examining the angry assertions of parents and community members in Cherokee and Forsyth counties that schools are teaching critical race theory.

An orchestrated campaign has led to similar protests in many states, including Ohio, Virginia, Idaho, and Oklahoma. Now, the issue has erupted in Georgia where it was also raised at school board meetings in Cobb and Gwinnett in the last two weeks.

The K-12 science coordinator in a local school system, Bethel writes in a guest column today that some critics showing at these meetings are misunderstanding why race is critical to teaching our nation’s history.

By Casey Bethel

So much ado about critical race theory in schools. I can’t promise to provide all of the answers, but what I can offer is the perspective of one teacher leader in this state who is heartbroken over the conversation.

I watched the heated school board meetings in Forsyth and Cherokee in shock. I read the statement from our governor and shed a tear. I watched former DeKalb County chief executive officer Vernon Jones denounce critical race theory while, in the same sentence, admitting that he could not give a description of it and my tears turned to headache. Then, three days ago, I listened to local talk radio hosts vehemently decry words like diversity, equity and inclusion. It was then that I finally decided that something needed to be said.

Let me state up front that I consider myself inadequately equipped to argue for or against critical race theory specifically. I am still reading myself, seeking a clear picture of it, and I take my responsibility to offer an informed opinion too seriously. So, let’s put the term critical race theory aside for a moment and stare at the heart of this matter.

As a teacher-leader, I am concerned when I listen to the arguments around this topic and read some of the “official statements.” Because it feels like a rush to condemn anyone or anything that seeks to take an objective look at our country. Or to question the way things have been done. Or to seek to make changes. And I wonder why is that.

Casey Bethel
Casey Bethel

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Next, it is insulting to hear that “educators want to corrupt the minds of young people.” I personally know a surprising number of the 115,000 proud public school teachers in our state. I can rest our collective laurels on the fact that we’ve always sought to present the content, facts and evidence to students and allow them to think for themselves. Every rubric I have ever seen grades students on their ability to draw and justify their own conclusions — not on which conclusions they draw.

The message that any of the thousands of educators I know across this country wants to corrupt students is scary language and unfair to my colleagues.

Now, it pains deeply to hear that even noble ideals like diversity, equity and inclusion are being questioned. Put very simply — diversity fosters recognition and appreciation of the myriad of differences we share; equity promotes the idea that we should all be treated fairly regardless of those differences; and inclusion suggests no one should be excluded, and instead everyone should have a seat at the table. I would offer to you these very ideas are contained in the pledge of allegiance when we affirm that we seek to be “One Nation Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice For All.” Right?

Perhaps my appeals to your emotions don’t work. If you are looking for a concrete, evidence-based reason to give attention to diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools, look no further than the curriculum for U.S. History in our state. You can Google the Georgia Standards of Excellence for US History, the document that governs what gets taught and how it’s taught across Georgia. The instructions mention 45 individuals by name, and 42 of them are white men. Of course, there are the Thomas Jeffersons and Ben Franklins, but also the Daniel Shays and Andrew Carnegies. Eleanor Roosevelt, the lone woman appears at 31, while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama appear 38th and 45th respectively.

No knock on white men, but I ask you to imagine what it must feel like for our Native American and Asian American students wondering, “Gee Whiz! You mean to tell me that absolutely nobody who looks like me did anything of significance in this country’s centuries-old history?”

Consider the incomplete feeling that the 630,000 Black students in Georgia derive from the acknowledgement that only MLK and Obama did anything worth mentioning. As a humorous side note: I am writing this over Memorial Day, set aside to honor the war-fallen and realizing that Crispus Attucks himself, the first person killed in the first war this country ever fought, so far has not earned a shout out.

Plus, regardless of race, my heart breaks for my daughter Harper and all the little girls sitting there wondering “What were people like me doing all this time?” Where are the Susan B. Anthonys?

I know this particular point might be more complex than I am making it. Yet, the way we teach history can directly or indirectly, purposely or mistakenly, communicate what gets prioritized and what doesn’t, who gets included and who doesn’t. Which might be one of the ideas of those supporting critical race theory in the first place.

Let me pause. I have very dear friends who sit on the groups that determine the standards for our courses, including U.S. History. This is not finger-pointing. Your work is challenging and immensely valuable. I know from our conversations that many of you carry the desire to make changes, but those changes are extremely difficult. My point is that any changes you hope to make become even more difficult against the backdrop of condemnation of diversity, equity and inclusion. You have my prayers.

Back to the rest of us. I beg you to resist the idea that to take a long hard look at our history causes young people to hate our country. That is a false narrative. Two things happen every morning when I look in the mirror. I love myself AND I recognize the need to lose weight. I don’t love myself less. I am instead supercharged to exercise more and eat healthier. In that same way, it is possible to absolutely love America while seeing the mistakes in our past and committing to be better. Two things can be true at once, and two things can happen simultaneously.

I get it. Taking a long look at history can be difficult and painful. But I have always believed in us Georgia — that we can be the state that leads. We can do the challenging but right work, regardless of the pressure and the noise, because as educators and leaders it is our responsibility to do right by all who depend on us.

It is the wrong time to score political points with a topic that is this important. It is the wrong time for radio hosts to drum up fear around an issue that is this honorable. It is the right time for Georgians to unify around noble goals no matter how difficult. Remember, No. 38 on that list above said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

I’ll end with this advice for the decision makers. If it is the term “critical race theory” that worries you, investigate what those who support it actually desire for our schools and our state. Judge those desires with your heart, with godly wisdom and empathy. Then call it whatever you wish, but let’s put action behind it. Let’s create classrooms that lead to a world where all are understood, and all are valued.

Educator Casey Bethel, the author of this guest piece, was Georgia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.

ExploreGeorgia state Board of Education meets Thursday to discuss guidelines on teaching about race

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