This Tennessee teacher was fired for teaching a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay: 'We're not challenging our students'

This Tennessee teacher was fired for teaching a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay: 'We're not challenging our students'

Critical race theory, which argues that racism of the past affects institutions in the present, has become a source of hysteria on the MAGA far right — and Republicans in state legislatures in the U.S. have been pushing bills making it illegal to teach CRT in pubic schools. One of those states is Tennessee, where teacher Matt Hawn was fired not long after its state legislature passed an anti-CRT bill. His offense: teaching an essay by progressive journalist/author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In an article published by The Atlantic on August 17, journalist Emma Green explains, "Tennessee recently passed anti-critical race theory legislation, banning educators from teaching students that any individuals are 'inherently privileged, sexist, or oppressive' based on their race or sex. This may have shaped the environment around Hawn's firing; the bill was approved by the legislature shortly before Hawn received notification of his dismissal."

After the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol Building, Hawn — who was a teacher at Sullivan Central High School in Sullivan County, Tennessee — assigned his students to read a Coates essay that The Atlantic published in October 2017. It was headlined, "The First White President" and, Green notes, "argues that Donald Trump was elected on the strength of white grievances."

Green writes, "A parent complained about the slurs used in the piece and accused Hawn of not presenting multiple points of view. The central office issued an official reprimand. In April, to address the trial of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Hawn showed his students a performance by the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey, titled 'White Privilege.' A couple of weeks later, Hawn received notice that the director of schools wanted him fired."

For her article, Green interviewed Hawn, who grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee near the Appalachian Mountains. Hawn recalled that where he grew up, it wasn't uncommon to hear racial slurs.

When Green asked him about his decision to teach Coates' 2017 essay, Hawn said, "I asked them to give me some reasons why the United States elected Donald Trump. The students said, 'He's a good businessman. His use of social media. What he says resonates with voters. Russian interference. The Clinton campaign's failure to schedule events in Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio. He's not a politician.' We were going to explore all of those things."

Green asked Hawn, "When you introduce something like Ta-Nehisi's 'First White President' article, is your goal to convince students to see the way in which white identity politics shaped the Trump presidency?" — to which Hawn replied, "No. I don't try to persuade my students at all. I just want them to be able to understand and develop those critical-thinking skills that they can take out into the world whenever they leave high school. I've taught this class for a little over a decade. I've never graded a student based on their attachment to an idea that we discuss in class. That's not what I'm looking for. My goal as a teacher is to have them be able to evaluate a claim, think critically about it, and then articulate how they feel about that claim."

Green also asked Hawn if Tennessee's anti-CRT bill makes him "fearful about what you teach in the classroom?" The teacher responded, "I don't know if fearful would be the right word. I just wonder what we are doing if we're not challenging our students — if we're not giving them these new ideas to discuss and debate."

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