Education News

Rio Grande Valley Teacher Uses Her Own Disciplinary Action To Push Discussion Of Race, Identity In The Classroom

One poster said Black Lives Matter; another said the room is a safe space for LGBTQ+ students. A third is a feminist message written in Spanish that says, “Your fight is my fight.”

Taylor Lifka created this bitmoji classroom for the first day of virtual learning at Roma ISD.

When a high school teacher in the Rio Grande Valley was told her administrative leave was over, she declined to start teaching right away.

9th grade English teacher Taylor Lifka delayed returning to the classroom to make sure she and her coworkers won’t be put on leave again the next time a parent complains about signs in the classroom stating Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ students are safe.

The Roma Independent School District placed Lifka on leave on Sunday, Aug. 23, the day before the start of the school year. Administrators told her they received complaints about some of her virtual materials and needed time to investigate them.

At issue was a cartoon graphic called a bitmoji classroom, with a desk, a whiteboard and several posters with slogans that Lifka said were intended to make her students feel welcome.

"It’s an opportunity for kids to enter my space who might feel closed off to the world right now and feel like they can take a deep breath when they sit down in my class, and they can focus on the lesson, which is always about English," Lifka said.

One poster said Black Lives Matter; another said the room is a safe space for LGBTQ+ students. A third is a feminist message written in Spanish that says, “Your fight is my fight.”

"I told my assistant principal point blank that the moment I take down these posters is the moment that I tell my kids in the back that they don’t matter," Lifka said. "And I was never going to be okay with that."

Lifka posted the bitmoji classroom to her personal Instagram account a few days before school started. From there, the picture started making the rounds on the internet. Then Marian Knowlton, a Republican politician, posted the graphic on her Facebook page as an example of the education system's "Leftist indoctrination."

"The whole point of it was to allow parents the right to exercise their parental authority in what their children are learning," said Knowlton, who deleted her post after it was shared on multiple Facebook pages and sparked heated debates.

"(In the graphic) they were talking about inclusivity (but) I didn't see anything there that might represent certainly my values or what I believe in," she added.

Knowlton is running for a state House seat in a reliably Democratic district that stretches for 200 miles from Roma, along the U.S.-Mexico border, up to Atascosa County, where Knowlton lives.

Her original Facebook post erroneously identified Black Lives Matter as a Marxist group. Black Lives Matter is a decentralized movement focused on anti-racism and stoping police violence against Black people, not ending capitalism.

One of Knowlton's followers commented that the graphic pushes political opinions on students and teachers should leave social issues to parents.

But Roma parent Sylvia Barrera said Lifka's feminist club provided a haven for her daughter.

"More teachers should embrace (the idea of inclusive classrooms like Ms. Lifka)," Barrera said in Spanish. "All of Roma ISD should be an inclusive space, a space where children, teens and teachers feel comfortable and accepted."

The Roma High School student council wrote a letter of support for Taylor Lifka, calling on the district to reinstate her.

More than 99% of Roma students are Hispanic, and many students have expressed support for Lifka.

"The posters are just virtual posters. I didn’t see the big deal of making a big fuss about it," said Analee Garcia, 16. "Me and my mom and dad and sisters personally didn’t see a problem with the posters. So, it was a shock to know that Roma is very inclusive and didn’t see the good in the posters."

Analee was in Lifka's class last year, and said Lifka was one of her favorite teachers. She and her friends circulated a petition to help get Lifka reinstated.

The Roma High School student council also posted a letter calling for the district to lift Lifka's leave.

Halfway through the first week of school, Roma ISD officials did just that. They told Lifka she could start teaching and post the graphic in her virtual classroom, provided it "did not distract from the educational process."

District officials declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement that the leave was not intended to be a reprimand.

But Lifka said that wasn't enough, and decided not to return to the classroom yet.

"What I’m looking for right now is for the district to say when another parent calls and says, ‘We don’t believe in this,' they’ll say, ‘What Ms. Lifka is doing follows our protocol and our procedure and our policy that we support anti-racist spaces, and we teach tolerance in our classroom,'" Lifka said Thursday. "This was never just about my job. It’s a call to our community and our district to say ‘What matters?'"

Friday afternoon, Roma ISD released a second statement that outlined plans to review district policies while adding that "real change takes time."

"While we feel we do work every day to treat each child, staffer, parent and community member with respect, we know there is always room for improvement," Roma ISD Superintendent Carlos Guzman said in the statement. "We are committed to this process."

Lifka said late Friday she was impressed with the district's plan and will return to the classroom soon.

"I'm going to be taking a few days to process all of this and care for my physical and mental health," Lifka said. "I think it's important to note that in order to care for others we must also care for ourselves."

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter at @cmpcamille.

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