A book challenge is personal. A teacher hears someone telling them that their values—the values that led to their use of an instructional material—are offensive. Regardless of how the instructional material was selected for class use, challenges are most often aimed at the individual teacher, and, more often than not, these challenges come out of the blue. Complaints are made, not usually to the teacher but to the principal, superintendent, or school board. The teacher is summoned to the office, met at the classroom door, or called out at a school board meeting.
The teacher feels angry, inadequate, and maybe scared. Intellectual freedom circles and the courts describe this assemblage of events and emotions as a “chilling effect.” The chilling effect at best wears the teacher down, at worst drives the teacher from the profession, and in the middle has the teacher questioning every instructional material choice going forward, second-guessing the choice, and wondering whether it will be challenged. The chilling affects schools and districts as well, who don’t want the unpleasantness and work of another challenge, and who, figuring that one instructional material is good as another, look for instructional materials that are challenge-proof. Two favorite methods are developing new board policies or changing old ones to eliminate a belief in intellectual freedom as basic to the district’s educational philosophy or red-flagging texts—making teachers and librarians note books with “offensive” content like the parent committee that develops MPAA R-ratings for films does.
A challenge can be traumatic. If nothing else, it’s a professional reckoning. And, usually a lot of explaining, researching, refuting, and paperwork comes right along with it. It pays to be prepared. Make sure to have
- rationales for the texts you teach or keep in your classroom library,
- knowledge of your district’s policies for selection of materials and challenges to them (find these on your district’s website under school board policies and then instruction or curriculum), and
- a collection of NCTE policies such as Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Instructional Materials, Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs, the Students’ Right to Read, and NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write.
Hopefully, you’ll find some peace being prepared. And, should the challenge come, do begin your defense by contacting the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center.