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Teachers: How to Talk to Students About Privilege, Legally

The phrase "white privilege" comes with the same kind of contextual and cultural baggage as the phrases "gun control" or "First Amendment" at this point. And it's also becoming the same kind of conversational third rail on social media. But some people are tackling not just white privilege, but gender, religious, and class privilege in some very important contexts: teachers are talking to their students about privilege.

And now that phrase is starting to come with the same legal baggage as those other two. A Florida middle school teacher was suspended after giving her students a questionnaire on gender, sexual identity, and religion as part of a lesson on privilege. So when and how can you talk to your students about privilege, and what can you do or say about it?

Academic Freedom

As a general principle, teachers have limited freedom in the classroom. While they retain some First Amendment rights, their curriculum must be relevant to and consistent with their teaching responsibilities, which will normally depend on the age, experience, and grade level of their students.

For the most part, teachers cannot promote a personal or political agenda in the classroom. And schools and teachers must strike a balance concerning the academic freedom to tackle important societal issues without undue restrictions on content or subject matter and the need to avoid politicizing the same issues.

Academic Privilege

When it comes to addressing privilege, those issues aren't just "hot button" -- they are central to students' identity and how they interact with the world. It's probably too much to expect teachers to never touch on the subject. So what did the Florida teacher do wrong?

Maybe nothing -- the school could've simply been responding to parent complaints that came in response to the assignment. But more likely it was the questionnaire. According to the AP, a school district spokesperson told local news outlets "the district doesn't collect such information on students." Such data collection, especially at the public school level, can be dicey as parents and students are wary of how that information will be used.

Privilege Communications

Your best bet as a teacher is simply to open a dialogue with students and have them fill the conversation. Or, you can try a simple exercise to illustrate privilege in non-race or non-gender terms. Better yet, you can take Emily E. Smith's advice, as she accepted the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award:

"So teach the texts that paint all the beautiful faces of our children and tell the stories of struggle and victory our nation has faced. Speak openly and freely about the challenges that are taking place in our country at this very moment. Talk about the racial and class stereotypes plaguing our streets, our states, our society. You may agree that black and brown lives matter, but how often do you explore what matters to those lives in your classroom? ... Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases. Donald Graves once said, 'Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.'"

If you have more questions about what topics you can legally discuss with your students, or if you've been reprimanded for discussing certain topics in the classroom, you may want to consult with an experienced education law attorney.

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