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SPECIAL REPORT PART 3: Retired SD educators worried about recent political and cultural pressures on teachers
Amid the flurry of recent debate over race-based education standards and curricula in South Dakota schools, most teachers have been relatively quiet.
Many are constrained by media policies in their school districts, or they express concerns about the repercussions if they publicly engage in political discussions. The reluctance comes as supporters of anti-CRT measures speak of political indoctrination happening in state classrooms, catching teachers in the crossfire of a broader culture war.
“It creates a chilling effect on how they approach their classes, where they’re way too cautious and there aren’t solid discussions,” said Sandra Waltman, director of government relations and communications for South Dakota. Educational Association.
Retired teachers are more open to expressing their views. South Dakota News Watch reached out to three former history and government teachers to get their perspective on Gov. Kristi Noem’s efforts to influence the public school curriculum, including an executive order that bans the teaching of ” inherently divisive concepts”. Here are their voices from the classroom.
“It’s a little scary for those who are still teaching”
As part of his world history class at Parker High School, where he spent the 34 years of his teaching career, Phil Bjorneberg would occasionally show students the 1993 film ‘Schindler’s List’, the Oscar-winning portrayal of the Holocaust by Steven Spielberg.
Before doing so, he sent letters to his parents informing them of the film’s sensitive content, not only profanity and nudity, but also graphic depictions of brutality against Jews by the Nazi regime.
“In all my years doing it, I don’t think anyone ever said no,” said Bjorneberg, who retired in 2020. “I was grateful for that.”
Looking at legislative action involving public education, the Black Hills State University alum worries that teachers in South Dakota in the future won’t have the same freedom. He fears that banning “intrinsically divisive concepts” will result in a sanitized version of historical events rather than the raw reality of human behavior.
“Does that mean teachers can’t talk about slavery, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement? said Bjorneberg, who taught US government, US history, world geography and world history at Parker, about 20 miles southwest of Sioux Falls. “How deep does it go and who makes these decisions? It’s a little scary for those who are still teaching.
Bjorneberg once asked a German exchange student, “Did you talk about Hitler at school?” The student replied that teachers in Germany went into detail about the atrocities that were committed during World War II rather than trying to whitewash these events. “It’s kind of like that old saying,” Bjorneberg said. “Those who do not want to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
The most effective teachers, he said, use state standards as the basis of the curriculum and use their training and instincts to add pedagogical knowledge, with the goal of instilling a passion for inquiry and dialogue. deeper among their students.
Bjorneberg remembers teaching about the Ku Klux Klan and the killing of civil rights activists depicted in the movie “Mississippi Burning,” emphasizing to his students that he was alive when those events happened. “Wait,” one of the students replied. “Did it really happen?”
In a community with a 95% white population, he found these candid conversations valuable. Bjorneberg, who also led Parker’s successful track and field and cross-training programs, added that the administration is supportive of his efforts in the classroom.
“Standards and programs offer guidelines, and you add what you think will improve that,” he said. “I don’t think being told specifically what you can and can’t teach is a good thing. Would I still be teaching what I taught all these years if I wasn’t supposed to? I think I would have, yes. If it caused any problems, we would handle it as best we could.
“The manual is there as a framework”
Sandi Hurst thought the actual words of former slaves from the southern United States were a good way to present the true and honest history of the nation.
The longtime history teacher at Memorial Middle School in Sioux Falls showed her students a documentary called ‘Unchained Memories,’ in which actors read the memories of former slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s .
“It painted a picture of slavery that we as teachers couldn’t convey,” said Hurst, who retired in 2021. “I’m sure there were people who may not have been comfortable with all the images and all the stories, but he was an accurate picture of what happened.
Hurst began teaching at Memorial Middle when it opened in 1995 after earlier stints in Hartford and Sioux Falls. She views recent efforts by Noem and state lawmakers to control the program as harmful interference in the teaching profession.
“This puts history teachers in an exceptionally difficult position,” she said. “When you use terms like ‘intrinsically divisive concepts’, the wording is so ambiguous depending on a person’s perspective and could spur history teachers into possible action if parents or students are not aware. agreement with what is taught. Based on this decree, a teacher could be accused of having done something illegal.
She taught standard and accelerated history and was especially proud of her students’ research projects for National History Day, several of which were selected for display at the national competition in Washington DC.
“Teachers teach the concepts and encourage students to be critical and independent thinkers,” Hurst said. “You can only do this by looking at all facets of historical episodes, including causes, backgrounds, and perspectives of all peoples.”
Her favorite part of the school days was the class discussions, which allowed her to act as a moderator when students expressed their views. She noticed that Native American students who hadn’t always participated became more engaged in sessions about the Indian Removal Act or Wounded Knee, allowing white students to hear perspectives they might not have. encountered otherwise.
“The textbook is there as a framework,” Hurst said, “but there are so many other things that we can contribute as well, depending on the needs and interests of the students.”
“You can’t teach from the point of view of only one race”
Jim Holbeck thinks he became a better teacher when he learned to respect the opinions and experiences of those he was trying to inspire.
One such lesson took place during an elementary class he took in graduate school, where the professor explained that Thanksgiving art typically includes pilgrim hats and Indian feather bands. “The teacher was like, ‘Are these stereotypical images?’ “recalls Holbeck. “And it made me think of an Indigenous child sitting in the classroom and what he or she would think.”
Opinions on this issue have evolved for Holbeck, a former Harrisburg High School superintendent who serves as director of board development for Associated School Boards of South Dakota. Before coming to Harrisburg, he taught government and American history for 27 years in rural communities such as Bridgewater, Viborg, Parker and Clark.
“It’s not very difficult to have conversations when you’re in an all-white, mostly Christian classroom,” Holbeck said. “I remember the first time I had a black student in my class teaching US history and worried about how that student was going to feel when we talked about slavery. I think that’s the big picture here. You cannot think that we are going to teach history from the point of view of one race, one religion or one party. You have to understand that there are also other students there.
In addition to seeing increased diversity in the Sioux Falls School District, where Hispanic and Black students make up more than a quarter of enrollment, Holbeck is working with schools with large populations of Indigenous students. He emphasizes that racial and ethnic sensitivity and awareness should not be confused with bias or “racial shaming” on the part of educators.
“We’re going to cripple these teachers so they’re afraid of what they’re able to talk about because the kids or the parents might complain,” Holbeck said. “When I was in school, my parents worked very hard in their lives and sent their children to public school with the belief that the teachers were going to give them a good education. Now we have this Burger mindset King, where people say, “I’m going to order my own public education and pick whatever I want on my burger,” and that’s not a positive change.
Even though Holbeck launched a state Senate campaign as a Democrat in 2012, his government students were oblivious to his political affiliation during his teaching days. This is how he wanted it.
“I wasn’t teaching them to be a Republican or a Democrat,” Holbeck said. “I didn’t want my own beliefs and philosophies to be imposed on the children, and I don’t want today’s teachers to do that. I tell teachers, “You don’t have the prerogative to stand in front of the students and impose your belief on a social issue as to what is right and what is wrong. The company hasn’t fixed some of these issues, and we’re not going to fight them in our halls.
About Stu Whitney
Stu Whitney is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A resident of Sioux Falls, Whitney is an award-winning journalist, editor and novelist with over 30 years of journalism experience.