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By Maya Pottiger

Originally appeared in Word in Black 

Across the country, 17 states now have restrictions on discussing gender and race in the classroom. It’s jeopardizing the teacher pipeline.

From adapting to virtual learning and combatting learning loss to facing book bans and ongoing trauma, public schools have been through a tumultuous few years. As if that wasn’t enough, between 2021 and 2022, 17 states in the United States enacted restrictions on how teachers could discuss “divisive topics” — namely gender and race — in the classroom.

And in March 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis doubled down on his controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill. His administration plans to expand the bill to forbid classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades, where it initially banned the topic in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Similar legislation is in the works in several other states.

These actions have consequences on educators, from taking a toll on their mental health to ultimately impacting the teacher pipeline — especially for teachers whose identities are being restricted. Some states are saying both: They want to diversify their educator workforce while also asking educators to “erase a significant part of themselves, their communities,” says Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development.

“This undermines and puts all of the recruitment efforts that have been going on across this country in jeopardy,” El-Mekki says.

This Has Happened Before

Throughout the history of public education, there’s been a presence of over-policing Black students. In addition, Black teachers are surveilled and policed in terms of what they can teach, what they can say, and whether they can show up and share their authentic selves and lived experiences.

“It’s almost like, as a Black educator, you have to put your authenticity to the side, both your experience and who you are,” El-Mekki says. “That’s not always wanted. And that is a consistent pattern of that in our schooling system, unfortunately.”

A new RAND study looked at the new restrictive policies in those 17 states. It found the limitations were met with a lot of confusion, despite one in three — or more than 1 million — public school teachers working in the 17 states with active restrictions. For example, of the survey participants, 34% were located in one of the states with active restrictions, but only 12% reported that their state had a restriction.

Regardless of what state they’re located in, 24% of teachers said that these limitations have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or teaching practices, jumping to 28% when looking at respondents located in states that have restrictions. 

But district bans were the top motivator, as opposed to state bans, likely because of their local or more personal nature. Among teachers who said their district enacted restrictions, 63% said the ban had influenced their instructional choices.

Further, the report found that teachers of color — along with high school teachers, suburban school teachers, and teachers whose classes deal with race and gender topics — were more likely to be aware of or influenced by these limitations. Particularly, Black teachers were significantly more likely to be aware of restrictions than white teachers, with 37% of Black teachers saying their state had restrictions compared to 27% of white teachers.

These limitations have consequences. Happy Teacher Revolution, a virtual and in-person platform, provides a space for teachers to discuss common issues with each other. And, despite the name, the platform isn’t limited to “teachers,” but includes anyone who professionally supports students — school secretaries, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals.

And these limitations were a topic of discussion even before the pandemic, says Danna Thomas, founder of Happy Teacher Revolution, who previously worked as a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools for seven years.

“Spaces like this are important and even more in demand for educators because of the censorship, and really, the lack of autonomy for educators,” Thomas says. “That has been a huge issue for teachers, now more so than ever.”

We Could See Even Fewer Black Teachers

States across the country that want to recruit more Black and Brown teachers and create a more diverse educator workforce are the same states that are imposing these restrictions.

Wanting to hire teachers while also asking them to “erase a significant part of themselves is a poor recruitment strategy,” El-Mekki says. “And it’s also a poor retention strategy.”

It’s almost like, as a Black educator, you have to put your authenticity to the side, both your experience and who you are.


These could impede the diverse teacher pipeline El-Mekki and his collaborators have been working toward, and it could also impede the overall teacher pipeline. People join the teaching profession to help students connect the dots between why we’re here and how we move forward, and you can’t do that without learning where we came from as communities or a country, El-Mekki says.

“I just don’t see how you wring your hands and lament the lack of teachers, and at the same time, really try to restrict their teaching in such oppressive ways,” El-Mekki says. “It’s incomprehensible, and it’s so illogical.”

Doing a Disservice’

Both the pandemic and these restrictions are shaping new teachers. 

In fact, Thomas says she is more likely to hear that new teachers reporting a lack of support around preparedness and emotional demands of the job, like working with students who have experienced trauma firsthand, rather than pedagogy and practices.

In states with active restrictions, Black teachers were more likely than white teachers to say they felt the limitations, according to the RAND report. And, for subject-area teachers, 50% of social science teachers said they felt the limitations, followed by 39% of English/language arts teachers. 

In survey responses, around 70 teachers mentioned that the limitations targeted critical race theory. They emphasized they don’t teach CRT, but with the limitations in place, were worried they might falsely be accused of teaching it while discussing race, history, and figures who are people of color, according to the report. 

In addition, a different set of roughly 70 teachers mentioned restrictions around LGBTQ+-related topics, like feeling hesitancy about discussing same-sex marriage or different family structures, displaying pride flags in their classrooms, and using educational content featuring LGBTQ+ characters.

Beyond race and gender, the topics teachers reported feeling targeted were current or historical events — like immigration, voting, elections, vaccines, climate change, and gun safety regulations — as well as scientific topics, religion, and social and emotional learning.

Oftentimes, due to these limitations, educators are sharing frustrations, concerns, and feelings of anxiety and overwhelm through Happy Teacher Network channels, Thomas says. There’s also discussions of gaslighting and self-sacrifice.

“Moral distress has been huge. The body feels it,” Thomas says. “What’s been really interesting is witnessing and hearing and learning about different teachers’ physical embodiments of what [the restrictions] have been like. For some teachers, it might be exhaustion, or these stress-related illnesses.”

Plus, studies have shown that when early childhood education teachers are experiencing burn out or low job satisfaction, they are more likely to suspend students of color than white students, and boys more than girls, Thomas says. Not talking about these explicit things that impact students, teachers of color, and LGBTQ+ teachers does a disservice to everyone involved, Thomas says.

“It’s not the right direction that we need to go in terms of reimagining not only academic success for our students, but also the sustainability for our educators,” Thomas says, “because what happens is you can’t show up with wholeness in the work that we’re doing.”

This Isn’t the End, But Kids Are Fighting Back

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the end of controversial, partisan-driven curriculum and classroom restrictions.

As we head into another election cycle, it’s easy to dismiss the weight of the ongoing culture wars, since they largely fell flat in the 2022 mid-term elections. But, El-Mekki says, it’s not just the presidential cycle to consider, but also local and state school boards.

“People who think that it will [go away], they’ll be blindsided again,” El-Mekki says. “If we study history at all, this is not going away. Patterns and tactics may change, but American racism endures.”

If we study history at all, this is not going away. Patterns and tactics may change, but American racism endures.


But there is hope. Students are fighting back. Florida high schoolers are threatening to sue DeSantis over his ban of AP African-American Studies. Pennsylvania students protested the school board’s ban of “anti-racist” teaching materials in classrooms. Teens around the country started banned-book clubs. 

“Students keep raising their voices, keep organizing, but we also have to be a model,” El-Mekki says. “We also have to show, yes, we’re right here with you, and we’re fighting for you, on behalf of you, on behalf of all of us.”