The Making of a Teacher-Martyr

The Making of a Teacher-Martyr
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“He Taught About White Privilege and Got Fired. Now He’s Fighting to Get His Job Back,” declared a recent EdWeek profile of Matthew Hawn, a tenured veteran teacher of 16 years and high school baseball coach, who was dismissed earlier this year by his local board of education after parents complained when he assigned his students a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, “The First White President,” and a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey, “White Privilege.” In EdWeek’s sympathetic account, it’s the story of an earnest and open-minded teacher who stood up against the forces of racism in his rural Tennessee town and got fired for his conscientiousness.

EdWeek is education’s paper of record and ostensibly non-ideological. But its Capra-esque profile of Hawn buries significant details about his case — and more importantly, his pedagogy — to paint a picture of Hawn as “an early casualty in this year's fight over how teachers can discuss with students America's struggle with racism.”

First, a review of some relevant facts: As we’ve written elsewhere, Hawn was not fired for violating any new state rules against teaching critical race theory. In fact, Hawn’s school board had expressly stated that “appropriate discussion around concepts like white privilege remain perfectly appropriate for a high school class.” He violated a policy that’s been on the books in Tennessee for over a decade: the state’s “Teacher Code of Ethics,” which requires teachers to provide students access to varying points of view on controversial topics — something Hawn, by his own admission to the school board, declined to do.

“White privilege is a fact,” Hawn told his students, according the EdWeek account. “What we are going to do is we are going to discuss how we can help solve the issue of racism in America. What can we do here in Northeast Tennessee?” Despite having already been reprimanded for teaching the Coates essay (without balancing viewpoints) to his students in early February, Hawn still assigned Jenée Lacey’s poem later in the month, reportedly stating, “I’m about to get fired but I don’t really care.” When the poem did in fact lead to more parent complaints and to Hawn facing dismissal for failing to provide alternative perspectives, he gave no ground, allegedly insisting, “There is no credible source for a differing point of view” (though he later denied saying this). 

In a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, the Tennessee Code that interferes with the ability of self-avowed “anti-racist” teachers like Hawn to teach their students the “fact” of white privilege and other similarly controversial and disputed issues was written by the nation’s largest teachers’ union. The Tennessee legislature passed the Code of Ethics in 2010, but the language comes nearly word-for-word from a much older “Code of Ethics for Educators” adopted by the National Education Association (NEA) 1975 Representative Assembly. There’s no small irony in the union that today encourages its members to “take your education justice activism to the next level” being the one that crafted the language that got Hawn fired.

To its credit, the NEA in 1975 understood and advocated for something valuable, the loss of which damages the credibility and effectiveness of schools and K-12 education at large. Yuval Levin articulated the phenomenon well in his recent book A Time to Build, which describes the shift from thinking of institutions as “molds” that shape people’s characters and habits to “platforms” for performance, driving a lack of trust and loss of faith in institutions.  

The available evidence suggests that’s what Hawn was doing: using his classroom as a performative platform for activism, not as a space for intellectual inquiry — the purpose for which it was intended. The state and community have every right to insist that teachers not treat their captive audience of students as opportunities for political grandstanding.

All of this makes Hawn a poor candidate for martyrdom, even by his own version of events. If white privilege is a “fact,” as he insisted to his students, then it will withstand scrutiny, debate, and counter-claims. Thus, Hawn seems guilty of an even greater offense than violating Tennessee’s code of ethics: By refusing to present multiple viewpoints, or even to acknowledge they exist, Hawn demonstrated low regard for the intelligence of his students and little faith in their ability to reason. That’s an unforgivable sin for an educator and justifies his dismissal.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on K–12 education, curriculum, teaching, school choice, and charter schooling. Tracey Schirra is a research associate at AEI.

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