The first days of returning to school after the COVID-19 pandemic were overwhelming. Like other educators across the country, those of us working in Albemarle County, Va., public schools were suddenly faced with fresh challenges that required our full attention and energy: implementing new health and safety procedures, helping students who had fallen behind academically during virtual learning and doing our very best to restore a productive learning environment for all.
It was at this exact time our school district decided to introduce controversial policies and mandatory teacher training based on critical race theory. The goal was laudable — to “become an anti-racist school system” — but the curriculum, in fact, produced the opposite result.
As assistant principal at Charlottesville’s Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, I witnessed firsthand how this training directed teachers to be racist by viewing each other and their students based solely on race and then treating each other differently according to the color of their skin. Indeed, this curriculum, based on Glenn Singleton’s book “Courageous Conversations About Race,” promotes harmful racial stereotypes. It also teaches that students of color are inherently disadvantaged.
I believe every person is made in the image of God and entitled to equal treatment and respect, so this content immediately set off warning signals. And I wasn’t alone. Fellow teachers and staff members repeatedly shared their concerns with me about how the curriculum created a racially divisive and hostile environment and about the hurtful comments other staff members made throughout the training, which denigrated them for being white.
I had to speak up. I expressed my deep concerns with numerous administrators not only about the harm this was inflicting on our staff but the cascading harm it would have on our diverse student body and families. I believed it would be beneficial for the administration and district supervisors to receive constructive feedback from someone on the ground, to hear what was actually taking place in the building and the negative effect this training was having on teachers and staff.
But my concerns were ignored. And then, an honest mistake — a slip of the tongue — revealed just how hostile and unforgiving the culture had become as a result of this harmful content.
In one training session, the group discussed the district’s race-related hiring practices. I commented on the topic, intending to use the phrase “people of color,” but as I was talking, I said “colored” instead. I immediately apologized, but one staff member would not accept the apology and berated me in front of the group.
Rather than accept it for what it was — a genuine slip of the tongue — the district treated me like a racist in need of further “anti-racism” instruction. District officials called me into meetings and demanded that I further address a situation for which I continued to apologize — yet my repeated apologies were never good enough.
They allowed some staff members to continue harassing me by calling me names — including “white racist b–ch” and “two-faced racist b–ch” — spreading rumors about me and even standing outside my office to intimidate me and anyone who came to talk with me. I reported this to my superiors, but the district ignored me and let the harassment continue.
The work environment became so hostile I had no choice but to leave a job I had excelled at and loved. As an administrator, I have a duty to advocate policies that protect my students and serve their and their families’ best interests. I took great pride in my responsibility to support faculty and staff under my charge by promoting a work environment of unity and acceptance, not hostility and division.
Unfortunately, standing on that principle cost me my job. With no checks or balances to protect individuals from a system that squelches all dissent, the school district created an environment so hostile that no reasonable person could be expected to stay.
But all is not lost.
If through my lawsuit against the district filed with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, I can help shine a light on all the other teachers and parents who have been vilified for speaking truth, or are grappling with this work the way I did, and bring needed change, what I went through will not be in vain.
This transcends all ideologies, backgrounds and political persuasions. My deep desire is for public educators to model for every student entrusted to their care how to love and treat each other equally with the dignity and respect every child of God deserves.
Emily Mais was assistant principal at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville, Va.