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For Teachers, A New Year — And New Book Bans — Means More Work

Back To School Book Bans Back To School Book Bans.jpg - Credit: Adobe Stock
Back To School Book Bans Back To School Book Bans.jpg - Credit: Adobe Stock

When Holly Weaver began teaching in 2014, she started because she loved literature, and wanted to share that with students. But she quickly realized that her class, filled with kids from diverse communities and socioeconomic backgrounds, needed something completely different.

“I saw very quickly some inequities within school systems,” Weaver says. “I realized that my job as an English teacher was much more than teaching kids about literature. I had to learn very quickly how to pull in as many cultures as possible so that all of my students felt represented and seen.”

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In an effort to build an AP Literature course that engaged as many students as possible, Weaver used state requirements and class feedback to pick the book Salvage the Bones for the class. Written by Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award-winning novel is about a Black teen and her working-class family dealing with the effects of Hurricane Katrina. She sent parents a note ahead of the class specifying the books’ themes and encouraged them to speak with her if they had problems, as the class was filled with 17- and 18-year-olds. Instead, a Christian-based Facebook group full of parents called for the book to be banned, first complaining directly to the district, then filing a formal complaint, and then escalating by calling the police and threatening direct legal action against Weaver. After a months-long review process, and a plea from the author herself, the book was allowed to remain on the curriculum. But Weaver had already decided to take a break from teaching.

“I’m very grateful that my principal didn’t say ‘Hey, pull the novel, we’re done.’ She allowed me to continue teaching the novel. Unfortunately, that is not every principal out there,” Weaver says. “I was already working way over 40 hours a week. So to have to also add in all that time it took for me to defend my curriculum choices, was insulting, quite frankly. Because I felt like I should be trusted to select appropriate materials for the students.”

As a new school year begins, conservative-led missions to remove “woke,” inappropriate, or left-leaning content from schools aren’t just changing what students learn. It’s impacting the people who teach them. In Florida, the Governor Ron DeSantis backed “Don’t Say Gay” bill prohibits teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade from discussions surrounding sexuality and gender identity. And recent House Bill 1467 requires that all books available in schools be vetted by a “media specialist.”  Bans have also become prevalent in states like Iowa and Texas. In 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott instructed the State Board of Education to create new standards for preventing”obscene content” in Texas public school libraries — even calling for a criminal investigation into schools that had what he deemed as “pornographic” books in their libraries. In Iowa, the recent passing of Senate File 496 requires all books available to kindergarten to sixth graders be free from any “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”

For teachers who are already overworked and underpaid, complying with these laws on their own means hours of work, and a potential weeks-long wait to have any additional materials vetted and approved before they can be brought into the classroom. But combined with active challenges to approved curriculum or materials by parents, some teachers tell Rolling Stone it’s created a chilling effect — one that makes educators nervous to step out of line both in class and in their personal lives.

During the reporting of this article, multiple teachers active on social media declined to participate because of fear of retaliation or losing their jobs, or because they had been disciplined or warned about speaking out against book bans or legislation before — even though each had public accounts dedicated to teaching. And in states like Texas and Florida — where failure to comply with new curriculum rules can theoretically be punished with a felony and the loss of a teaching license — some teachers feel that they’re being forced to choose between staying under the radar and effectively teaching their classroom, a struggle they can’t win.

While book banning is often celebrated by extremist groups as a simple victory, it’s actually the start of a very time-consuming process for teachers. Once a book is removed or deemed inappropriate by a school district’s ruling body, it’s up to educators to make sure they’re complying with current guidelines, which can be a lengthy process. Shelby McDaniel, a second-grade teacher in Florida, tells Rolling Stone that in some districts in Florida, teachers are required to enter each book in their classroom library into a database, and then cross-reference that with an approved list. For a second-grade classroom with a single bookshelf, that can mean anywhere from 200 to 450 thin paperbacks that must be hand-entered by the 13 digital ISBN barcode number. McDaniel says she’s been lucky and is extremely grateful for her administration: her district provided legitimate book scanners, paid teachers extra for the hours they spent scanning books, and have already decided the process for approving new books. But she says she’s still nervous about what could happen if a book that she’s already worked into her lesson is deemed inappropriate in the middle of the year.

“It definitely gives me some anxiety. Nobody likes to feel micromanaged,” McDaniel says. “I feel like it’s not commonly understood how much work we put into not only planning the lessons but really tailoring them to the kids in our classroom. It takes hours. If we got to the point where we were using a book in a curriculum and we couldn’t use it, we would have to kind of rework the whole thing. I have not had any books that I’ve wanted to read so far that I could ever see there being an issue with but, it’s still early. Who really knows?”

That pressure is worse for teachers who post on platforms like TikTok. While content creation can provide extra income, a boon for a profession plagued by long working hours and low wages across the country, the visibility also comes with the potential for controversy — especially if a parent disagrees with a teacher’s political views. Emily Glankler, who runs the @antisocialstudies TikTok account, shares teaching tips, exam reviews, and short history lessons to her 400,000 TikTok followers — clips that mirror the social studies course she teaches at a private school in Austin, Texas. But she tells Rolling Stone that when taught in public schools, even when she chose materials approved by administrators, parents still had questions about her in-class discussions. Civic lessons surrounding North Carolina’s infamous 2016 bathroom bill, or Frederick Douglass’ speech “What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July,” all resulted in parent calls and visits. And while those incidents never escalate past her school’s principal, Glankler is confident the same circumstances would produce much more dire results today.

“[Teaching] has completely changed,” Glankler says. I’ve had to become infinitely more cautious about how I discuss anything that could be remotely seen as controversial by a parent. I sort of accepted a few years ago, once I started doing TikTok and being more public about it, I basically had to accept that I would probably never be able to get a job in a public school in Texas again.

And since Glankler has moved to a private school, and become far more open about posting videos about racial justice in history, women’s rights, colonialism, and LGBTQ+ history, she’s aware that her TikTok would probably keep her from ever going back to a public school.

“Parents have always had a lot of power and voice when it comes to education. They’ve never been powerless,” Glankler says. “And I’m very pro-parent involvement. “But it’s a tightrope. And that line has gotten crossed way more in the last five years or so, where it feels more like you’re working in the service industry instead of the academic field. Like the customer is always right. ”

With students returning back to school after summer break, McDaniel says the next few weeks will already be stressful enough.

“You have 20 kids in your room. They’re all completely different. They’re all strangers to you,” McDaniel says. “You have no idea what they’re like. And you’re all just trying to figure it out, while at the same time, you’re expected to start teaching curriculum a week after they get there. It’s a lot.”

And combined with the fear of what picking up the wrong book can do, much less a TikTok that could be taken the wrong way by a parent or guardian, Glankler says it’s enough to make teachers over-analyze their every move, adding tension and anxiety when they should be focused on making sure students are given every resource they need to succeed.

“I didn’t get into this job, and I don’t think most teachers have gotten into this job to indoctrinate or be on the frontlines of a culture war,” Glankler says. “We just really love kids. And we want to do our jobs.”

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