The first time Matt Hawn suspected that he might run into trouble for what he was teaching was last August. His contemporary-issues class was discussing the events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where protesters had taken to the streets after a police officer was filmed shooting 29-year-old Jacob Blake in the back. Hawn showed his students a picture of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old accused of killing two people and injuring another during the protests, to demonstrate the concept of white privilege. “What are we going to do about racism in the U.S.?” he asked his students.
The principal of Sullivan Central High School, where Hawn taught, pulled him aside at a football game. Apparently, Hawn had mistakenly posted the images from his contemporary-issues class to another class he taught on personal finance. A parent had seen the materials and complained. Hawn corrected his error and apologized. A couple of weeks later, he heard from a county official, warning him that teachers are expected to provide students with access to varying points of view. “Of course,” Hawn replied. By October, the August lesson was circulating among students and parents on Facebook.
Then, in January, a group of rioters took over the U.S. Capitol. Hawn wasn’t quite sure how to talk to his students about what had happened, so he decided to focus on the 2016 election instead. He assigned an Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” which argues that Donald Trump was elected on the strength of white grievances. A parent complained about the slurs used in the piece and accused Hawn of not presenting multiple points of view. The central office issued an official reprimand. In April, to address the trial of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Hawn showed his students a performance by the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey, titled “White Privilege.” A couple of weeks later, Hawn received notice that the director of schools wanted him fired.
“There has been a lot of talk online that accuses me of moving to dismiss Mr. Hawn because he taught anti-racism lessons,” said David Cox, then the Sullivan County director of schools, at Hawn’s dismissal hearing. “Sullivan County Schools and I in no way condone racism of any kind.” (The school district declined to comment further for this story.)
Hawn is now contesting his dismissal. In a hearing yesterday, Ingrid Deloach, the assistant director of Sullivan County Schools, described what she perceived as “a hint of disrespect, and a very strong sense of arrogance” in Hawn’s attitude. Coates’s article “was a very liberal perspective,” she said, and although strong perspectives are appropriate for a contemporary-issues class, “maybe a more conservative stance would have been an appropriate alternative.” Because the hearing is ongoing, Hawn limited what he was willing to tell me: He claimed that he never told school officials, “There is no credible source for a differing point of view” than Coates’s assessment of Trump, but he would not elaborate on why the district’s letter of reprimand states that he did. Tennessee recently passed anti–Critical Race Theory legislation, banning educators from teaching students that any individuals are “inherently privileged, sexist, or oppressive” based on their race or sex. This may have shaped the environment around Hawn’s firing; the bill was approved by the legislature shortly before Hawn received notification of his dismissal. But the teacher was cagey about assigning political motives to school officials out of fear that they could use that against him in future hearings.
All of this is intensely personal: Hawn was raised in Kingsport, one of the three cities nestled near the Appalachian Mountains that anchor Tennessee’s northeast diagonal point. His parents also grew up in this community. He is contesting his dismissal because Sullivan County is where he wants to teach, and he hopes to be back in the classroom in the fall. But significant barriers lie ahead. I spoke with Hawn about how he got here and what comes next for him and education in his state. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: When you were growing up, was there a lot of racial diversity around you?
Matt Hawn: There was not. I don’t remember there being a nonwhite person at my high school the entire four years I was there.
Green: What kinds of lessons were you taught, either implicitly or explicitly, about race?
Hawn: We were taught the civil-rights movement, the differences in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the more quote-unquote militant Black Panthers. But that was really about it. Looking back now—and I just came across this term within the last 10 or 15 years—I was taught the “Lost Cause” fallacy: Slavery was a benevolent institution. The Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but for states’ rights. People in the South were defending their homes from northern aggression, and it’s hypocritical for northern states to point a finger at the southern institution of slavery when they employed children and workers in terrible conditions. I grew up thinking that.
Green: Did people talk a lot about the Confederacy? Were you surrounded by a lot of Confederate flags?
Hawn: I remember a lot of T-shirts and car tags saying The south will rise again, or that the Confederacy was our heritage in the South. Ironically, northeast Tennessee was known as the little Union. It turns out that one of my ancestors was a member of a Union group called the bridge burners, who would burn Confederate railroads and disrupt Confederate supply lines.
Green: Did you ever hear people using overtly racist language?
Hawn: Yes, absolutely. There were a lot of racial slurs directed at African Americans. There were a lot of homophobic slurs.
Green: When did you start to think that maybe that was not okay?
Hawn: I don’t recall me ever using those, even though I may have, to be honest with you. I probably did. Whenever I went to Boys State in my junior year in high school, one of the first people I met was an African American kid from Rogersville, Tennessee. They divide you into cities, and he and I ended up being in the same city. He became my best friend for a week down there. That really opened my eyes to see that there are people out there who may look different than me and have different lifestyles than me but who are exactly like my friends and me.
Then the first friend I made at Tennessee Tech was a homosexual African American man. I started to rethink some of the language and attitudes toward African Americans and the LGBTQ community. Whenever I started taking history classes at Tech, we started getting into more of the problems with race that America has. That was being revealed to me in a college class. And I thought, Why didn’t I learn this in high school?
Green: What made you decide to go back home after college, when you were wanting to be a teacher?
Hawn: I didn’t have a job. I had to have a place to live. So I moved back in with my dad for a year or two. My family’s here. Most of my high-school friends were here. I grew up here. I love it here. There are good people here. I like to think of myself as a risk taker—somebody who’s going to go out on an adventure. But that’s really not the type of person I am. I like to be comfortable. I like to be around my family and friends.
Green: Did the experience of having left home and learned about history change the way you viewed the people you grew up around?
Hawn: A little bit. I almost wish they had that same opportunity—that they could get out of East Tennessee for a year or two and meet a more diverse group of people and realize that we all want the same things: We all want our families to be safe. We all want our kids to have a good education. We all want a good job and security. There really aren’t that many differences between us all.
Green: Do you feel an obligation to be the teacher who helps your students understand that—to expose them to some of the ideas that you didn’t have exposure to when you were in high school?
Hawn: I don’t necessarily feel like it’s an obligation to give them exposure to the things that I didn’t learn. But my class on contemporary issues allows me to introduce them to new materials and a world of different perspectives that they can critically evaluate for themselves. I look at my job as someone who brings in material for the kids to evaluate on their own and create their own understanding about these different perspectives.
Green: When you’ve introduced articles and videos about racism or white privilege to your students, generally speaking, how have they reacted?
Hawn: It’s new to them. We have had some really good discussions about race in the United States. What I try to do is to look at claims that people make, and then we evaluate those claims. For a lot of my students, it’s stuff they already know. And for a lot of my students, this is the first time they’re getting the opportunity to even assess something like that.
Green: One of the pieces that you shared with your students was an article from my former colleague, Ta-Nehisi Coates, called “The First White President.” He argued that Donald Trump fueled his political rise with white grievance, and that Trump’s supporters gravitated toward him because of his whiteness and his white grievances. At one point in your correspondence with school leaders, you stated that you didn’t see a credible source that you could offer that would present a different point of view.
Do you believe there’s no credible alternative point of view to this argument that Donald Trump was elected because of white grievance?
Hawn: Well, first of all, I never said that. I was never presented with that question.
Green: So they just made it up.
Hawn: I can’t answer that.
Green: Okay. Let’s reframe this a little bit. Do you think there are other credible explanations for the election of Donald Trump besides his whiteness? Other reasons that people might have had for voting for him?
Hawn: Absolutely. And we were going to cover those in class. That was actually how we began this conversation about the 2016 election. I asked them to give me some reasons why the United States elected Donald Trump. The students said, “He’s a good businessman. His use of social media. What he says resonates with voters. Russian interference. The Clinton campaign’s failure to schedule events in Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio. He’s not a politician.”
We were going to explore all of those things.
Green: But those conversations got stopped in their tracks because of the pushback you got from the school administration.
Green: The students you’re working with live in a county where 75 percent of people voted for Trump in 2020. I’ve got to assume that most of the students in your classroom are regularly hearing very pro-Trump, pro-Republican points of view at home. How do you think about reaching and challenging these kinds of students about Trump and race without making them feel like they’re evil or stupid or like their parents are evil or stupid? How do you teach them without making them shut down or unwilling to engage?
Hawn: I’ve given a lot of thought to that. I don’t ask the students to subscribe to any ideas. I don’t ask them to base their opinions on materials that we read. I just ask that they critically evaluate it and understand it. We evaluate claims. That’s all that we do. We compare what each student comes up with and we have good discussions about those things. I’ve never asked my students what their political affiliations are.
Green: When you introduce something like Ta-Nehisi’s “First White President” article, is your goal to convince students to see the way in which white-identity politics shaped the Trump presidency?
Hawn: No. I don’t try to persuade my students at all. I just want them to be able to understand and develop those critical-thinking skills that they can take out into the world whenever they leave high school. I’ve taught this class for a little over a decade. I’ve never graded a student based on their attachment to an idea that we discuss in class. That’s not what I’m looking for. My goal as a teacher is to have them be able to evaluate a claim, think critically about it, and then articulate how they feel about that claim.
Green: One complaint leveled against you by a parent was that you exposed students to materials that use foul language. Do you think parents should have some say over the kind of language that their high schoolers are being exposed to in the classroom?
Hawn: We want our parents’ input. It is a public school. With more parent involvement in a child’s education, the child performs better.
Green: Do you think that it’s legit for a parent to say that any material that includes a curse word or a racial slur should, by definition, not be taught in a high-school classroom?
Hawn: That’s their right. With the video, I tried to introduce a very powerful piece of art, just like To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted our students to hear what she had to say and what claims she was making. And actually, one of my standards is to evaluate the tone and language the author uses and whether it obscures their point.
Green: Was there ever a point when the political environment that you were teaching in made you second-guess your decision to introduce materials about racism and white privilege?
Hawn: No, I don’t think so. My kids are really bright. They want to be able to have these discussions. We should give our kids a lot more credit. I believe my kids can handle this difficult subject material. It does them a great service academically. I wasn’t scared or shy about that.
Green: Did Tennessee’s recent anti–Critical Race Theory bill make you fearful about what you teach in the classroom?
Hawn: I don’t know if fearful would be the right word. I just wonder what we are doing if we’re not challenging our students—if we’re not giving them these new ideas to discuss and debate.
Green: Has this experience made you sad or cynical about what the job of a public-school teacher in Tennessee has become?
Hawn: It does make me wonder about what we are trying to do for these kids academically. I believe that teaching is a very noble profession. I love it. I pride myself on giving my students a safe space to discuss and evaluate new materials and ideas. They can do it respectfully. And they can come to their own conclusions.
Green: Would you ever leave Blountville and teach somewhere else?
Hawn: I’ve thought about it in light of these past few months. But there are still good people here. There are still kids here—this may sound conceited—who deserve to have a teacher like me. I don’t know the answer to that question. I wish I did.
My family is here. I have a little 4-year-old niece whom I absolutely adore. I would hate to think that leaving this area and going somewhere else to teach would mean missing out on her life when I could be a teacher here.