While traveling in the Midwest, I visited Illinois State University, which has an excellent teacher education program. A leader of that program recently wrote me while in a state of distress. One of her best students, she said, was just fired by her district. Why? One parent objected to a book in her classroom.

Who will want to teach when teachers’ lives and reputations can be jeopardized by one angry parent? Maybe that is the point: Demonize public schools and their teachers to build support for vouchers, where uncertified teachers are hired and the Bible is the beginning and end of all knowledge.

Here is an excerpt from the letter I received:

Tonight, I’m writing to you to share the story of the most amazing teacher I have ever worked with in my nearly 25 years in education–except she is no longer a teacher as of last Thursday. I know you have committed your career to fighting injustices like hers, so it is my hope that you might amplify her story in the fight against misinformation and teacher defamation.

As a teacher educator at Illinois State University, I met Sarah Bonner 10 years ago when she was in my action research capstone class as the final requirement for her master’s degree. During the year I worked with her, I was struck by her approach to education, and I encouraged her to continue working toward a doctorate degree. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to work closely with her, co-designing a framework that paired literature and inquiry as a way to expand 8th grade students’ in rural Illinois worldviews; co-teaching alongside her to maintain my connection to the classroom and to continue to evolve our work; guiding her in her dissertation work where she connected with teachers who were interested in transforming their own teaching; watching her mentor emerging, new, and experienced teachers; and witnessing the blossoming of students under her guidance–especially those who are often marginalized in largely conservative, small schools. I can honestly say that I have never had the opportunity to work with a more compassionate, innovative, and thought-provoking teacher. She’s by far a better teacher than I was when I was still in the middle school classroom, and working alongside her has pushed me to be an even better teacher educator than I was before.

For this reason, I cannot begin to describe the devastation that I experienced when I learned less than two weeks ago that not only was she being attacked by our local conservative “news” station, but that her district advised that she seek union representation to represent her while they investigated the story. She received this news on Wednesday, March 15. By Friday March 17 she learned that she was being put on paid leave the next week so they could investigate–and they hadn’t even talked with her yet.

What was the story? As a part of a book tasting day, Sarah consulted NCTE, ALA, and Good Reads to find award-winning and notable books that would reflect her students’ interests–and checked out nearly 100 books from the public library. One of those books was Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay.” A student picked up the book, a sex education book for LGBTQ+ youth, snapped some pictures of its pages, and sent those pages home. Rather than approaching Sarah with questions or concerns, this child’s parents alerted the media outlet, and a witch-hunt began.

Suddenly, the wild and false allegations began: Sarah was requiring this book; the book was a regular part of her classroom library; she was sharing pornography with children; she was grooming children. And then, they went to her class website, which shared a link to Common Sense Media’s Netflix Documentary page, which so happened to feature Moneyshot, and now she was encouraging students to watch and learn about porn. Ironically, this film hadn’t even been released when she was last in the classroom. The story just kept growing until this award-winning teacher realized that she could not go back to that community again. And so, by this past Thursday, she had officially resigned. In just over a week, a teacher’s reputation, livelihood, and life was completely upended.

Sarah is fortunate brcause she’s got the deep knowledge and experience to bounce back and counter the current narrative. Unfortunately, this kind of experience is not unique, and too often teachers who aren’t equipped to handle it take huge hits. It’s impacting their mental health, their careers, their entire livelihoods. We have a narrative around a teacher shortage. We don’t have a teacher shortage—we have a shortage of respect and support for teachers. And we live in Illinois, a liberal state that requires LGBTQ+ history and contributions to be taught by 8th grade. Too many people are watching the antics happening in states like Florida and thinking those are outliers. They are not. Sarah is an award-winning teacher. She is a leader in and on the executive board of the National Council Teachers of English. And yet, she will no longer impact the lives of so many students.

Democracy is in peril as we continue to bow to pressures to restrict the books students can read. We cannot normalize allowing a few loud voices’ the power to destroy careers and lives. I have attached the statement she wrote and read to her board upon her resignation.

Here is Sarah Bonner’s statement to her school board:

Thank you to the Heyworth Board and Administrative team for allowing me to speak this evening. If you know anything about me as a professional, you know that this is not the way I would have chosen to be here tonight. Twenty years ago when I was given the keys to my very first classroom, I knew teaching was my calling. And, while I’ve taught in previous school districts over the years, Heyworth was the place that allowed me to become the professional I was meant to be.

Throughout my time here, I earned both my Masters and Doctorate degrees with the help of district tuition waivers. I became the National Council of Teachers of English (or NCTE) Media Literacy Teacher of the Year in 2018 along with the national Outstanding Middle Level Educator award the following year. I wrote and published a book through Teachers College Press to further the teaching field. Additionally, I hosted and supported numerous future teachers from Illinois State University as they began their journey into the classroom. Lastly – most importantly – I had the opportunity to connect with the best kids I’ve ever worked with in my career.

Our community – or even our nation – may never know the gravity of what teachers bear on a regular basis. For me, I not only worked tirelessly on designing and cultivating meaningful learning experiences for my students, but I also worked hard to maintain healthy relationships with students and families, upheld weekly and transparent communication among all shareholders, contributed regularly to the junior high teacher team, worked a second teaching job at Illinois State University to better support my family, served as the Middle Level Section Steering Committee Chairperson for NCTE, wrote a doctoral dissertation, published a book for teachers, along with being a partner, a mother, and a human wrestling with being newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

With all of this weighing heavily on my plate, I depended on national communities like the American Library Association and NCTE as well as reading communities like Goodreads to help generate texts that engage all readers with a vast collection of interests. The activity my students and I participated in last week was made up of close to 100 different books recommended from these spaces. Given the nature of the lesson compressed with a heavy list of responsibilities, vetting each and every single text for explicit details was impossible. Should the book in question be available to students? Yes. However, should this specific book have been a part of the 100 choices during this class activity? No. Simply put, the title was on the ALA Rainbow Reading Awardee list and I picked it along with a few others because I knew students in my class had interests. To make students, families, community members feel unsafe was never the intention of my decision making.

While I’m saddened by how the events have played out over the last week, there’s a piece of me that isn’t surprised. Being an innovator in teaching means that boundaries, perspectives, and ideas need to be pushed. When I realized years ago that our kids who would receive these amazing scholarships to these Big 10 schools were coming back the following year because they couldn’t adjust to life outside of a rural small town, I knew I needed to do something. I knew I needed to disrupt traditional learning practices to embody the needs of today’s world. Our kids deserve learning experiences that prepare them for our world and not just our town. However, being a changemaker often comes with a cost…especially if you’re one of the only ones willing to take risks and think differently.

London’s favorite soccer coach, Ted Lasso – the man who makes us all believe in the power of believe – said it best ”You know, people have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I saw this quote by Walt Whitman. It said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” All of a sudden it hits me. Of all those that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me… who I was had nothing to do with it. ‘Cause if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions.”
As I leave here tonight, I hope you will remember a few things:

  1. Sometimes things need to break in order to rebuild it stronger. Encourage
    curiosity. As you enter a space of healing, I hope the district and Heyworth community can find a place to listen and understand that you all want the best for our kids. Our teachers especially deserve to be heard and questioned in responsible ways.
  2. Remember to support your teachers moving forward. If I were them at this point, I would feel scared, unsafe, and paralyzed knowing that I could be next. Our teacher community needs reassurance that innovation is still supported and protected as time moves on.
  3. And, remember the good I brought to our kids and community by taking innovative risks in Language Arts. While I’ve been here, I have witnessed students stand up for other students with disabilities, fight against racism, organize trash clean ups, create documentaries that tell the untold stories of their community, advocate for safe spaces, strengthen their own beliefs, shape their own personal identities, and critically think about the world around them. With the work I’ve been able to do with students, I’m reminded on a daily basis that our kids will be the hope our future needs.

The Heyworth school district has lost a teacher who is dedicated to their children and her profession.