‘Parental control’ bills take aim at teachers like me

Submitting all of our teaching materials ahead of time is impractical for Indiana educators already stretched thin. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

My head rests on the steering wheel of my car on a bright Tuesday morning. I should feel more well-rested after the three-day weekend, but I’m exhausted, and I know I’m not the only teacher who feels this way. It’s the second full year of teaching in a pandemic. Teachers have risen to the occasion time and again. Despite public attacks on our profession and curriculum, we show up for our students.

I pick my head up, shake off any doubts, and remind myself how important it is for me to be there. I walk to the front doors of Evansville Central High School, securing my KN95 mask and drawing my ID badge from my lanyard to scan myself into the building. 

Shelby Phelps (Courtesy photo)

Over the past eight years, I’ve worked to make my classroom an inclusive, supportive space for students to read and discuss various aspects of the human condition through the lens of literature and nonfiction texts. I’m a professional who values educational materials that cultivate critical thinking and alternate perspectives. And that’s why I’m so worried about a bill making its way its way through the Indiana legislature. 

House Bill 1134 would allow parents of students in public schools to opt out of educational activities and materials related to sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation. It would also enable parents to sue a school corporation if a teacher steps outside of the boundaries of “fact,” allowing the teacher’s license to be suspended or revoked. 

The bill also requires school districts to form a committee made up of 60% parents and 40% educators to review any texts or materials that could be used in the classroom. Like many of my colleagues, I am appalled by this prospect. I have a master’s in English, have passed background checks and multiple teaching and content exams. This feels like an attack on my expertise and professionalism — and that of my colleagues. Even after amendments made by the House, the language of the bill remains ambiguous, leaving educators wondering how much they can openly condemn historical injustices and atrocities like sexism and racism. 

Those who favor this legislation say they want education to be impartial and that parents should have a say in what their children learn. And while I, too, believe parents deserve to be involved in their children’s education, this bill could have dangerous, unintended consequences. If teachers fear losing their job or being named in a lawsuit, they might avoid teaching enriching texts that incorporate topics like sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation. 

Worse, Indiana — a state already struggling to recruit and retain educators — could lose qualified teachers who don’t want to be micromanaged. Because to comply with the proposed law, teachers would have to submit all 180 days of educational materials ahead of time.

Teachers are already stretched thin. I, for one, teach six English classes a day and a daily 45-minute planning period, and that’s when I’m not covering another class due to the substitute teacher shortage. The bill doesn’t consider how much time teachers pour into their daily lessons. Plus, quality teachers are adaptive, responsive, and differentiated with their students in mind. 

This feels like an attack on my expertise and professionalism. 

The bill’s language does include a “good citizenship” clause that states, “nothing in this chapter may be construed to exclude the teaching of historical injustices committed against any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation,” which allows teachers to condemn atrocities but not necessarily provide the background needed to criticize injustices. 

Throughout my teaching career, I have provided texts to students that have caused discomfort. Experiencing discomfort can be a sign of growth and progress.

We should feel discomfort when Harper Lee describes the angry, racist mob of Maycomb County residents storming the jail cell of wrongfully accused Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We should feel discomfort when Amy Tan describes native English speakers discriminating against her mother because of her broken English in the essay “Mother Tongue.” We should feel discomfort when Brent Staples details his experience as a Black man walking at night while white pedestrians clutch their handbags and lock their vehicles in his essay “Just Walk on By.” We should feel discomfort when Jeannette Walls describes going days without eating because her father spent the last family dollar on alcohol in her memoir “The Glass Castle.” We should feel discomfort when Ralph Ellison depicts young Black male contestants picking money off an electrified rug after fighting for white men’s entertainment in the first chapter of “Invisible Man.” We should feel discomfort when Ray Bradbury details Montag’s horror as an elderly woman refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to light a match and burn herself alive in “Fahrenheit 451.”

Amid the discomfort, we, teachers, rise to the occasion to show our students that the world can do better, that we can do better. We rise to the occasion because, as we lift our heads and walk into our classrooms each day, we know what’s at stake. 

Shelby Phelps has been teaching for the past eight years at Central High School in Evansville, Indiana. She is also a Teach Plus Indiana Senior Policy Fellow.