Tennessee teacher Matt Hawn fired for White privilege lessons

Tennessee teacher Matt Hawn fired for White privilege lessons

Matthew Hawn checked his phone to see if the wait was finally over.

It had been five months since he was fired for teaching about White privilege at a high school in rural Tennessee. Two months since he had fought to regain his job at an emotional three-day hearing, becoming a symbol of the acrimonious debate over the way race, racism and history should be taught in America’s schools.

Now — nothing. No announcements from the school district about his appeal effort. No messages from his lawyer. No texts from the friends and former colleagues who had sustained him through a lonely half-year of jobless limbo.

Could he return to teaching in his hometown? Apparently no one knew, although an independent hearing officer was supposed to deliver a verdict by the end of the week.

It was now Friday, inching past 4:26 p.m. on an October afternoon.

Hawn, 43, White and balding, sighed. Marloh, his German shepherd, started to whine. Hawn grabbed the leash, because no matter what, he still had to walk the dog.

Shrugging on a gray hoodie against the fall chill, he walked out his front door and down the long, sloped driveway of the house he had grown up in, Marloh tugging at every step.

A lifelong resident of Kingsport, Hawn was well aware his liberal views made him an outlier in his overwhelmingly White, mostly conservative community. But that had never mattered before. He had taught in the Sullivan County school system for 16 years without any trouble. And he had taught the class that got him fired, “Contemporary Issues,” for nearly a decade without a single parent complaint.

Then at the start of last school year, he made a pronouncement during a discussion about police shootings that would derail his career. White privilege, he told his nearly all-White class, is “a fact.”

Hawn apologized after at least one parent objected. But a few months later, he assigned the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The First White President,” spurring more parent complaints. This time school officials issued a letter of reprimand to Hawn for one-sided teaching.

After that, Hawn promised to stay away from the topic. But in late April, a student mentioned White privilege during a class discussion about the trial of Derek Chauvin — the White Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the Black man’s neck — and Hawn could not help himself. He navigated to YouTube and pulled up “White Privilege,” a scathing and profane four-minute poetry performance by Kyla Jenée Lacey.

“Oh, am I making you uncomfortable?” the Black writer demands at one point. “Try a cramped slave ship.”

“I will probably get fired for showing this,” Hawn joked before hitting play. Less than a month later, he was.

His firing comes amid a tsunami of conservative outrage about critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism in the United States that educators contend is rarely taught in public schools.

Hawn said he’d never heard of critical race theory until he was accused of teaching it.

But in May, the same month Hawn was fired, the Tennessee legislature passed a law banning it from its schools and forbidding educators from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive.”

At least 11 Republican-led states have now passed laws or approved resolutions censoring what educators can say about race in K-12 classrooms, according to a Washington Post analysis. Dozens more are considering similar policies.

Walking back up the hill toward his house, Hawn nodded to an elderly White neighbor mowing his lawn. The man nodded back, and they struck up a conversation about leaf blowers — Hawn’s was on the fritz. The man identified as conservative, like nearly everybody else in Kingsport, but he had once told Hawn he did not agree with the district’s decision to fire him.

The interaction reinforced Hawn’s feeling, building all morning, that he would get his $60,000-a-year job back. This was his hometown. These were his people. They knew him, and they knew what kind of a teacher he really was.

Hawn’s phone buzzed as he was about to step inside the house. It was an email from his lawyer. A glance at the subject line told him it was the verdict. Hawn, too nervous to open the file, forwarded it to a friend who had promised to read it for him.

Then he sat down at his kitchen table to wait a few minutes more.

From left, Drew Robinette, Kyle Simcox and Christian Thomas, who argued with Hawn about politics when they were students at Sullivan Central High School.

‘You leftist snowflake!’

Hawn had a reputation at Sullivan Central High for challenging his students’ conservative views.

That is why Kyle Simcox, now 22, decided to take Hawn’s class in 2016.

Simcox, whose family owns the Virginia farm that flies a tractor-size Confederate flag above Interstate 81, was raised by his grandmother on a diet of coffee, Bill O’Reilly and Fox News.

But six years ago he listened with discomfort as people predicted Caitlyn Jenner would go to hell for transitioning from male to female. He signed up for contemporary issues because he wanted to know: What did it really mean to switch genders?

One of his closest friends, Christian Thomas, now 23, signed up for the class too. He had been told his whole life that the South had been unfairly demonized for its role in the Civil War, that voting Republican was the right thing to do and that the other side was “all nonsense and Communism." He knew Hawn did not see it that way.

A third pal, Drew Robinette, now 23, did not enroll in the course. But he began searching for Hawn between classes, during lunch or after school so he could deliver the latest conservative talking points about the income tax, or which bathrooms transgender people should use. Then Robinette would demand: What do you say to that?

“I would seek him out,” Robinette said, “just because I knew he’d disagree.” When Hawn bested him, as Robinette said the teacher often did, the teen headed home to his deeply conservative father and uncle to ask for more arguments to throw at Hawn the next day.

By then, Hawn was used to this sort of thing.

Sullivan Central’s small number of progressive teens often chose Hawn’s classes, as did students who identified as LGBTQ, partly because Hawn kept a blue-and-yellow equality sticker pasted to the filing cabinet by his desk. But every year, a large portion of his contemporary issues class was White, conservative and spoiling for a chance to debate a real live liberal.

The makeup of the class was not surprising in Kingsport, a town of about 54,000 nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that is about 90 percent White. The median household income is roughly $43,000, well below the national average, and most Kingsport residents work at a large coal gasification plant owned by Eastman Chemical. The town is staunchly Republican, mirroring Sullivan County, where 75 percent of voters chose Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

The high school was even less diverse in the final years Hawn taught there: Its student body was approximately 95 percent White, 2 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Black and Asian.

The politics were just as lopsided, said Simcox, who eventually came out as a Democrat. During the 2016 election, Simcox stuck a Clinton-Kaine bumper sticker to his car — until other students ripped it off and burned it.

The general hostility to liberal ideas did not bother Hawn. He loved teaching teens like Simcox and Thomas, or spending his free periods arguing with cocksure kids like Robinette. The students reminded him of himself.

Hawn had been a Young Republican as a teenager, so devoted he rose extra early each morning to watch Rush Limbaugh. He grew up believing that everybody has the same opportunity in the United States and that anyone who fails did not work hard enough.

His political transformation began during the Iraq War, shortly after he graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a degree in finance. Judging the conflict unnecessary, he started looking for other perspectives and wound up reading about everything from the Black Panther movement to universal health care. He thinks his Type I diabetes — he was diagnosed at age 13 — also contributed to his shift to liberalism, because it led him to empathize with other people’s pain.

Hawn, who always wanted to be a teacher, landed a job with Sullivan County Schools in 2005 after a stint in construction. At first he taught only economics, but later added classes on world history, personal finance and contemporary issues.

The latter, focused on current events and with no set curriculum, soon became his favorite course to teach. Often, he let the students choose what to discuss. The open environment fostered exchanges like one Hawn had with Simcox in 2018 about then-President Trump’s request for a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Simcox, an ardent supporter of the military, argued for the idea.

“But most democracies don’t do this,” both men remember Hawn saying. “Usually countries like China or Russia or North Korea do military parades.”

Simcox, whose relatives have served in the Army and who would serve himself after high school, lost his temper. “I’m out of here, you leftist snowflake!” he shouted, and stomped off.

Hawn waited until the next day and raised the topic again. If you care so much for the military, he asked, why not take that money for the parade — because it’s going to cost a lot of money — and give it to the VA?

The question, Simcox said, hit like a punch, leaving him without an answer.

Robinette remembers a similar moment during an argument about fiscal policy, when Hawn explained that Tennessee’s high sales tax led some in his family to do their grocery shopping just over the border in Virginia, where groceries are taxed less because the state also taxes income. Robinette, still a fervent Republican who voted for Trump in 2020, said that was the first time he considered there might be drawbacks to Tennessee’s disdain for an income tax.

And Thomas, who also remains conservative although he dislikes Trump, said he will never forget a debate with Hawn over whether the United States should welcome Syrian refugees. Midway through arguing against the idea, Thomas stopped talking. He realized he did not actually agree with what he was saying.

“It made me think, from that point on, that I can change my mind on issues,” said Thomas, who is majoring in history at East Tennessee State University because Hawn’s class inspired a love for the subject.

Before meeting Hawn, Thomas said, “I don’t know if I could have been the type of guy to listen to other people’s arguments, or see from their point of view.”


Hawn discovered the concept of White privilege during President Barack Obama’s tenure, he said, and began mentioning it in class.

He always presented White privilege as an incontestable truth, although he said he urged students to do their own research and challenge him if they disagreed.

His classes began focusing more on race during the Trump years, especially after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and Floyd’s murder three years later.

At the same time, though, the tolerance for those kinds of discussions was shrinking in Kingsport, said Gloria Oster, 68, who taught high school English to Hawn and thousands of other students in the town before retiring in 2005.

During her 30-year career in the classroom, Oster said, she assigned Sullivan County students books she thought would challenge them. That included Toni Morrison’s acclaimed “Song of Solomon," which details a young Black man’s quest for cultural identity. Once, Oster said, a White mother approached her to complain about the inclusion of the book on a summer reading list, but concluded she trusted Oster to teach it the right way.

Now that parent would probably post a diatribe to Facebook, Oster said. Or complain to the superintendent.

“Parents have just gotten to be too hyper about any little thing that doesn’t align with their political beliefs,” said Oster, who identifies as a liberal. “They don’t want to allow their children to entertain any other ideas or notions that might run counter to what they believe.”

When Oster read about Hawn’s conflicts with the school system, she reached out to him on Facebook to offer her support. They began getting together for lunch or dinner at local restaurants.

Eventually, Hawn told her about the first mistake he had made — and how it triggered the torrent of trouble that followed. It came in late August 2020, as he was trying to upload a video of the day’s contemporary issues lesson to Google Classrooms.

In the video, Hawn compared the fates of Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse. Blake, a Black man in his late 20s, was shot seven times in the back and side by police in Kenosha, Wis., leaving him partially paralyzed. Rittenhouse, a White teenager from Illinois, drove to the same area of Wisconsin and shot and killed two men, wounding a third, before surrendering, unharmed, to the same police force. A jury later acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges under the state’s self-defense law.

“My question to you, and this is going to be a tough one,” Hawn said to his class on Aug. 27, 2020, “is how is that not a definition of White privilege?”

Tired after a long day of hybrid teaching, Hawn accidentally uploaded the video to the folder for his personal finance students, where a parent spotted it. The parent immediately contacted Sullivan County administrators to complain.

And someone slipped a 17-minute snippet of the video to Chad Conner, 48, a lifelong Sullivan County resident who runs a marketing agency and is known for his participation in town and county politics. Conner was stunned by what he saw.

Hawn was leaving no room for discussion, Conner said, instead forcing students to accept his personal view of what happened in the Blake and Rittenhouse cases and what it meant for the country. Conner, a Navy veteran, said he believes White privilege may exist in some cases, but that it is not an appropriate subject for teachers to discuss in school.

“I don’t think color should be an issue ever in the classroom," Conner said in an interview. “I don’t have kids, but I do have to live in the community with these kids. … I’m very concerned with what they grow up to believe and what their outlook on this country is.”

Conner later posted the video of Hawn to Facebook.

“Local teacher teaching kids about why they have white privilege and why the cops should be defunded,” Conner wrote. “Is this acceptable behavior for someone responsible for shaping the minds of our children?”

Sullivan Central’s principal, Mark Foster, pulled Hawn aside at a football game the next day. As Hawn recalled it, the principal asked, “Why are you talking about White privilege in personal finance?” Not long after that, Brent Palmer, the school system’s assistant director of schools for personnel and operations, sent a warning email.

“In many of your statements, ‘this is a fact,’ you leave little room for discussion,” Palmer wrote. “Going forward, I would ask that you provide space in your discussions for students to objectively express their various opinions.”

A lawyer for the school system, Chris McCarty, said Palmer, the principal and other officials could not discuss the case.

Hawn removed the video from the personal finance folder and apologized to those students and their parents. He also stopped the contemporary issues lesson on Blake and Rittenhouse, worried the topic was too sensitive to discuss in a virtual format. Hawn would pick it back up when he returned to teaching fully in person, he decided. But he never got that chance.

Just after winter break, a Trump-supporting mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead in its wake and more than 130 police officers injured. In response, Hawn assigned his contemporary issue students the Coates essay on the 2016 election, in which the well-known Black writer argues that White racism drove Trump’s ascendance.

Four days later, a parent emailed the school board to complain that the article’s explicit language was inappropriate and that Hawn had failed to offer an opposing viewpoint.

On Feb. 3, the school system issued a letter of reprimand to Hawn for “neglect of duty and insubordination.” He had violated the Tennessee teacher code of ethics, which states that an educator shall “not unreasonably deny the students access to varying points of view,” Ingrid Deloach, the assistant director of Sullivan County Schools, told him.

“Your job is not to teach one perspective,” Deloach wrote. “Your job is also not to ensure students simply adopt your own personal perspective.”

Hawn fumed at this characterization of his teaching style. He had planned to assign several more stories about Trump’s election, he said, including a piece from The Hill that examined Trump’s skillful use of social media in firing up his base.

Hawn appealed the reprimand, appearing before the school board on March 4 to argue it should be removed from his personnel file. But the board was unpersuaded, voting near-unanimously to uphold the sanction. Only one board member, Hawn’s former AP History teacher, abstained.

Then came late April.

The trial of Chauvin had just wrapped up, and students in Hawn’s fourth-period contemporary issues class wanted to talk about the guilty verdict.

Faith Jones, now 19, remembered asking: What if Chauvin had not been found guilty? Wouldn’t that have been an example of White privilege?

Hawn decided to let the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey speak. He clicked to YouTube.

Jones and several other students in the class later said they remember a group of White boys throwing up their hands in anger during the poem.

“The video is definitely very confrontational and doesn’t sugarcoat, the point of it is to be in-your-face-harsh,” said a White 18-year-old in the class, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from her conservative family. “I think that’s what really upset the boys.”

One of those boys complained to administrators, his classmates said. Within two weeks, Hawn was fired.

In the letter of dismissal, Director of Schools David Cox called the Lacey video “inappropriate” and wrote that Hawn had failed to learn anything from the previous reprimand.

Hawn wrote a letter to school officials begging them to reconsider.

He now realized, he wrote, that his discussions of White privilege “would be more appropriate for a college level … course” and promised to expose his students to “varying points of views."

It did not work. In June, the school board voted 6 to 1 to uphold his termination.

Hawn appealed again, sending his case to an independent hearing officer.

If he got his job back, Hawn knew things would be different. He’d read how Tennessee’s new law imposes financial penalties — which can stretch into the millions — on school districts whose teachers break the rules, and how offending educators can lose their teaching licenses. He would have to avoid any mention of White privilege, he decided. He would probably have to steer clear of race altogether.

Still, even in a watered-down, limited way, Hawn longed to teach again.

He prepared frantically for a three-day hearing in late August, at which he and roughly a dozen former students — including Simcox and Thomas — testified that he was a devoted teacher who deserved another chance.

They were countered by a teenager, identified only as “T.S.," who was in class on the day Hawn played the Lacey video. The teen said that he and his friends felt belittled by Hawn for voicing objections to the poem.

“Some students disagreed with the video,” T.S. said, according to a hearing transcript obtained by The Washington Post. “Hawn blew it off like it didn’t need to be discussed.”

Citing T.S.'s testimony, the school system argued in a filing submitted to the independent hearing officer that it was not Kingsport that had grown less tolerant of opposing political views.

It was Hawn.

‘You okay?’

The wait was over.

Hawn, who had been paying his bills through a GoFundMe set up by his sister, listened as a friend relayed the hearing officer’s verdict over the phone.

The 10-page ruling concluded that he had “acted unprofessionally … was insubordinate … and [failed] to [present] varying viewpoints, despite knowing he was to do so.”

Hawn was not getting his job back.

He called his father, Mike Hawn, who had been on edge all day. The retired systems analyst for Eastman Chemical thought his son was wrong to have played a video that included so much swearing. But the 68-year-old thought everything Matthew said about White privilege was true. One of his other children, Leanne Carrington, was married to a Black man. She had shared hard stories about the way her husband was treated because of his skin color.

“Hey,” Matthew said to his father, working to steady his voice. “They’re still letting me go. They upheld the decision.”

His dad paused. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. I mean, I’m disappointed, but," he said, trailing off. “You know.”

His next call was to one of his sisters, Laura Hawn, who asked if he would keep fighting.

“I don’t know,” Matthew said. “I mean, I guess I will. I mean, right now I can’t … right now, I feel kind of defeated."

In the coming weeks, Hawn would file yet another appeal to the school board — try one more time to get his job back.

But that Friday, after calling his mother, all he could do was sit in silence at his kitchen table.

His head slumped forward until it reached his outstretched arms. He let it rest there, hiding his tears.
Tennessee teacher Matt Hawn fired for White privilege lessons
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