Guest Post: I’m a Teacher Wasting Valuable Time on Iowa’s Nonsense New Laws

A banned book display at the Reading in Public book store in West Des Moines. Some of the books in the display were recently pulled from shelves in the Urbandale School District. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Guest Post

August 28, 2023

School started last week. It was crazy—but, like, actually crazy.

Typically, before it actually starts and during our back-to-school meetings, we go over the standard back-to-school spiel: Be welcoming, get to know kids, remember to finish trainings, explanation of this year’s initiative (which is NOT another thing to add to your plate, but rather a component of what we already do). We go through a whirlwind of info while also trying to set up our classroom and get our materials and lessons in order.

This year before school started, however, it was an entirely different crazy: a pull-your-hair-out-and-have-the-overwhelming-desire-to-scream-out-loud kind of crazy.

Because of the recent legislation in Iowa (SF 496; the book banning and the student pronouns one), we spent hours already of our very short few days before school starts asking questions about what we can and cannot teach, and what we can and cannot call our students based on their preferences. We asked a lot of questions with very few definitive answers from the intentionally vague language of SF 496.

We found out that our curriculum that had been worked for over two decades by veteran teachers has to be totally removed—like, literally removed. The books cannot literally even be on school grounds because they have a reference to “sex.”

This bill, however it was sold to everyday Iowans, is wasting our valuable time as teachers, and parents should be furious about this wasted time.

Because of this, we cannot provide the very best education for our students in high school. These conversations are happening in middle and elementary schools as well. There is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of worry, because the law makes clear to educators that we will lose our licenses if we have what the law considers inappropriate content in our books.

While there is absolutely a line for age appropriateness that we should discuss in detail and with understanding, that actual line has been blurred by extremists in our state—leading countless parents to believe that their little first-grader is being assigned “Playboy,” or that their senior in high school is reading “50 Shades of Gray.”

Emphatically, that has not happened, that is not happening, and it will not ever happen.

Yet here we are, sitting through a district meeting in which our superintendent reads out what SF 496 states is a sex act in incredibly graphic detail. Ironically, it is a thousand times more graphic than any of the material students have available in school libraries and assigned coursework. The law’s language is so graphic, in fact, that I couldn’t even have students read it to explain to them why I had to remove an entire shelf of books from my classroom, or why we cannot read a novel that was approved by our board seven years ago.

The narrative around books in school insists students are reading smut. They are not. There are books in curriculum and in the library that reference sex and that depict sexual assault. Yet, this law and its proponents boil down entire narratives—real or fictional—into two categories: sex or no sex. It’s honestly perverted to think in such a way.

Can you imagine boiling the Bible down to the passages about masturbation, sex, rape, and incest? No! And that would be absurd to do! But that is what is being done. That is what teachers in Iowa are required to do by law—literally, lest we lose our licenses.

Stories about survivors of sexual assault, stories that may give students who know someone who is a survivor or is survivor themselves and may give them hope to carry on, are considered “sex” to those who crafted and championed this law. Those stories are now banned completely. It’s heartless. Stories are being winnowed down into perverted depictions of their actual content.

The Iowa state legislators do not plan on giving further guidance to their “depiction of a sex act.” The law provides no actual guidance whatsoever that leaves—seemingly by design of these legislators—teachers and administrators scrambling to figure out how to interpret the law.

How descriptive can language in a story be before it is considered “pornographic?” Mind you, this should be obvious, but from my vantage point it must be stated clearly: Books are picked, in any district, by professional educators and teacher librarians for their renown, for their quality overall, their professional reviews and their accolades—NOT for how many sex scenes there are.

Furthermore, everything I write about really only applies to high school libraries and curriculums. What book in any elementary school or middle school for that matter has broached the subject of sex in detail and then also depicted graphically, rather than subtle references?

Additionally, who actually believes that were a book to contain a reference to sex—not sexual assault—an educator would actually stop and discuss it at length with their students? It’s crazy. It is absolutely crazy to believe that. It simply doesn’t happen. Truly, most of the time students miss it, and most of the time it is not even important to mention, and in reality teachers implicitly know that it would be a line too far to talk about with their students. Though I argue real conversations about assault in a safe school environment are important, those two subjects have been grossly conflated by extremists in our state.

And unfortunately, all of this frustration, the time spent debating and weighing the options about a book, has come at the cost of a quality education for our students. We are now sent back to the drawing board this year to somehow quickly read and vet new books AND develop high quality lessons to follow them with, on top of questioning what names we can actually call our students.

Do I need to get parent permission to call Jonathan “Jonny” instead if he asks and it is not listed in our records? (The answer is yes, by the way, again at the cost of my license if I do not.) It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy. So much time has been wasted for the entirely wrong reasons.

It’s impossible for me to look at a bookshelf in my classroom and think, “Yep, those right there are the roots of all of our problems in the USA right now. Books. Those are the ones to blame.” It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.

I was told to pull books from my classroom library that might have a reference to sex that someone could come after me for having. I had to remove 20+ books from my classroom because ultimately people who want to ban books fear them, and think they are dangerous.

  • “Kite Runner” is not dangerous.
  • “1984” is not dangerous (it’s dangerous for fascists).
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not dangerous.

Do I believe there are nefarious voices in our community on a vendetta against public educators? Absolutely. They’re already here. The law is here, after all.

Your public school teachers are working hard for your kids. We care deeply about them. We don’t indoctrinate students. We give students access to information and facts, and they get to weigh themselves against that data. We don’t teach them WHAT to think. We teach our students HOW to think. Our time is being wasted on lies meant to erode public education.

History doesn’t look kindly on those who ban books.


Jonathan Bethards teaches English at Indianola High School. He can be reached by email here.


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