Being a teacher has never been easy. But the current willingness of some lawmakers to crack down on what is taught, especially as it relates to history, race, and LGBTQ+ issues, is unprecedented in recent memory. How are these political debates affecting our children’s teachers and their work in the classroom?

Download Transcript

Annie Mulligan (Houston Chronicle)

Annie Mulligan (Houston Chronicle)

In this episode of Into the Fold, we speak with two public school teachers about their experiences teaching in a time of cultural and political division. Nelva Williamson, a veteran educator of 42 years, teaches Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies, AP U.S. History, and AP World History to grades 10-12 in the Houston Independent School District. Jesus Sosa, who made a mid-career change to education, teaches Social Studies, World Geography for English language learners, and Mexican American Studies to grades 9-12 in the Richardson Independent School District.

Politics and LGBTQ+ Youth

More than 25 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have already been filed in the current legislative session . For Jesus Sosa, the bills not only reflect a conservative cultural ideology, but they also reveal a cynical political strategy of using fear to garner voter support.

“It’s very unfortunate that politicians are using ‘scare tactics’ to get their supporters to vote for them,” says Jesus. “To me, it feels like politicians are using gender and sexual orientation issues to make the claim that teachers are indoctrinating kids into believing things their parents oppose. That’s the word I hear a lot, ‘indoctrination.’”

This hostile rhetoric is damaging to the emotional well-being of youth that identify as LGBTQ+, an already vulnerable demographic, he says. It takes a toll on him as well.

“It’s definitely exhausting,” he says. “It’s exhausting to keep up with ‘what are they trying to do now?’ or ‘what are they trying to get us to do?’”

 Jesus hopes to provide a respite from these uncertainties by creating a safe and supportive environment in his classroom.

“My LGBTQ+ students like going into my classroom because they see representation. They see the rainbow flag and the words ‘Love is Love,” he says. “I have over a dozen letters from my students saying ‘Thank you. I feel loved in your classroom. I feel seen. I feel heard.’”

African American Studies and Uplift

While teachers in Florida are facing a state-mandated ban on the proposed AP African American Studies course, Nelva Williamson has yet to confront this kind of push-back.

“Because Houston is a very diverse city, I have not had anyone object to the fact that I’m teaching AP African American Studies,” she says. “My campus is also a ‘majority-minority’ campus. The parents are very supportive of the program, as is the administration, so I’m not coming up against any opposition directly.”

Overall, the experience has been positive for both her and her students.

“This class is the first time that many of them are having the opportunity to take a deeper dive into the history, culture, and traditions of the Black community. It is really resonating with them,” says Nelva. “It has really been refreshing for me and eye-opening and uplifting for my students to see themselves in history as a vital part of the creation of this nation.”

She remains vigilant, however, to the growing controversy that surrounds the teaching of history and race. She worries about the possibility that Texas lawmakers will follow Florida’s lead.

“I am mindful of how I talk about more conservative issues,” she says. “I temper how I talk about those issues, but that effort can be stressful. I still have to tell the truth and not sugarcoat anything.”

Well-Being and Resilience

Managing stress is key to Nelva’s and Jesus’s endurance as educators.

“After school I just unplug. There are times when I just don’t listen to the news,” says Nelva. “I dim the noise that is going on all around me and focus on myself and keeping myself ‘straight.’”

She also prioritizes her mental well-being by getting outside and walking, reading books that have nothing to do with history, and enjoying the company of her dog, Mr. Bentley.

Jesus also makes time for himself and unplugs from the never-ending news cycle.

“It also helps to talk with other teachers. We’re all in the same boat,” he says. “We all care about these kids.”

Respecting the Teacher’s Voice

If they had the opportunity, both Nelva and Jesus would offer the same simple advice to Texas legislators: Listen to us.

“The first thing I would tell anyone setting policy is to listen to the teachers,” says Nelva. “Listening to the parents is just as important, but also listen to the people who are in the classroom.”

Jesus agrees.

 “Listen to the teachers. Listen to the students,” he says. “Be careful. Otherwise, you’re going to be turning a lot of good teachers away from the profession.”