A woman speaks at a wooden podium. She looks out to the audience with both of her hands outward in explanation. Behind her, the corner of a screen can be seen.
K-12 Educators in the Crosshairs panelist Elissa Malespina speaks at the Marsal School of Education Wednesday evening. Georgia McKay/Daily. Buy this photo.

About 50 students and community members gathered at the University of Michigan’s School of Education Wednesday evening for a panel titled K-12 Teachers in the Crosshairs. The event featured two former high school educators, Matthew Hawn and Elissa Malespina, who were fired from their jobs as a social studies teacher in Tennessee and a librarian in New Jersey, respectively. Both were fired for speaking out to students in their respective schools about systematic racial issues and encouraging students to read books by LGBTQ+ authors. The event was sponsored by the Arts Initiative, the School of Education, the National Center for Institutional Diversity and the School of Art & Design and was intended to inform the public about the backlash educators all over the country currently face for speaking out in academic settings about issues they believe are important.

Hawn was fired from Sullivan Central High School in Tennessee for teaching about white privilege as a part of a critical race theory curriculum in 2021. Hawn’s firing came less than a year after the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill banning critical race theory in public schools. Malespina was fired from her position as a librarian at Verona High School in New Jersey in 2022 for promoting the reading of banned books. 

During the panel, Hawn said he had intended to have open and intellectual discussions with his students. Hawn told the audience he still doesn’t feel that what he did should have caused him to lose his job.

“People think that I’m an activist because I was trying to have a conversation with my students about what’s happening in the world,” Hawn said. “I was just doing my job.”

Following the panel, LSA junior Siena Weisbrodt told The Michigan Daily that she attended with the Program on Intergroup Relations. According to Weisbrodt, the program’s views about equality in education align with the views discussed by the panelists. She said she appreciated the panelists sharing their personal stories and offering students advice on how to learn more about the challenges educators face. Weisbrodt said especially for students interested in pursuing a career in education, it is important to hear about ongoing controversies in the U.S. public education sphere.

“It’s important to not only know what you’re getting yourself into but also that you have support and that there are people here who want to help,” Weisbrodt said. “Even though it’s a really difficult time to be an educator, it’s also a great time to build a community around that.” 

Malespina urged students and staff to pay attention to their school boards and to vote in local elections for school board members who will represent their values. She emphasized the importance of school boards and their power over both curriculum and how teachers are treated in a district. 

“Make sure you know who’s on your school board,” Malespina said. “Make sure you vote for (members of the) school board. We need more teacher voices. That’s how we’re going to make things better.”

Daily Staff Reporter Maleny Crespo can be reached at mcrespo@umich.edu. Daily News Contributor Lauren Kupeliancan be reached at laurkup@umich.edu