Recently, the Frederick County Board of Education considered a policy that provides guidelines for teaching controversial topics across the curriculum. So-called Policy 516 defines controversial issues as “a point or matter about which there exists significant opposing viewpoints and/or multiple perspectives.” According to this policy, teachers can talk about socially significant issues with students if they:
- Provide students with access to relevant, credible information.
- Present topics in a way that’s free of bias.
- Encourage students to form their own opinions and ensure they are respected.
This is a tall order to say the least. In evaluating the proposal, one board member stated that students might want to talk about current events. Indeed, students’ questions often trigger such discussions.
For example, imagine a student who raises an issue that has recently received considerable attention, violence toward Asians. She’s obviously upset. The teacher feels a need to address this topic, so he starts talking about recent killings in Georgia and how the pandemic fuels crimes such as this.
Soon Kyra, another student, refers to COVID-19 as Kung Flu. Some students start laughing. Tyler, another student, chimes in, saying “Asian Americans are partly to blame; after all they started COVID.” A classmate remarks, “We’re making too much of this; we’re talking about one gunman who had mental health problems.” Then, a few students share their feelings for the first time, saying their classmates have no idea what they’re talking about. Feeling he’s losing control, the teacher tries to restore order and address what he perceives as bias. But certain students feel as if they’re not being heard.
Does this policy tell the teacher how to handle this situation? Certainly it’s an issue that qualifies as being controversial and socially significant. However, this policy doesn’t go far enough. Teachers need more than guidelines; they need educational and real-life experiences such as:
- Repeatedly taking the role of others and their cultures.
- Developing knowledge and understanding that allows them to talk about diverse and contentious issues comfortably and competently.
- Gaining experience and seeking feedback from peers, with an eye toward improving their ability to manage controversial topics.
Unfortunately, many teachers at all levels of education need to work on improving these skills. Each skill requires awareness, understanding, excellent communication skills, and much practice. I suggest the Board of Education take another hard look at Policy 516. While this policy is well-intentioned, we’re setting too many FCPS teachers up for failure. For this policy to succeed, we must begin by providing teachers with the training and experiences they absolutely need. Otherwise, it’s our students who will pay the price.