Why I’m Tired of Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird

Should high school English teachers still teach To Kill A Mockingbird? What classics should we teach in high school? What messages do these classics send to developing brains?

I’m tired of teaching “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The reasons why are actually simple.

The reasons and explanations for ditching To Kill A Mockingbird are plentiful. In this post, I am attempting to outline my thoughts about why the text is dangerous for high school students.

Personally, I have not taught Harper Lee’s book many times, but I am tired of teaching To Kill A Mockingbird. Here are my ideas.

Black Lives Matter

Most importantly, writers and educators have urgently and increasingly asked teachers not to teach To Kill A Mockingbird. In honest letters and articles, writers patiently explained why the novel is dangerous:

The reality is that we’ll have to let go of the false wisdom of Atticus Finch, and the haplessness of Tom Robinson, if we truly wish to educate young people who live in a world where it’s necessary to remind them that their lives matter.

People have weighed in, NCTE has published a statement, and teachers discussed the problem with finding new books. Educators graciously provided guidelines for teaching the book (if your school requires the teaching of it). Researchers challenged the story being used as a guideline for human dignity.

Black writers have weighed in about the portrayals of the white savior, themes of race and injustice, and to me, that should be the line. English teachers are trained (or should be trained) to be critical thinkers and readers. I am a white woman, and I was once a white child who read To Kill A Mockingbird as a moral guide. I must listen to other voices. The book provides a dangerous narrative about race relations.

To me, that knowledge is simply enough of a reason not to teach To Kill A Mockingbird. When Black colleagues take a stand and take time to explain why a book is harmful, it is my job as a white educator to listen. I cannot (and should not) keep teaching a book because I have materials for it or because it is easy for me to teach. As a responsible educator, I must listen to others with different life experiences than mine.

Honest Questions

I’ve mentioned several times that I am in graduate school (again) working toward a degree in English Literature; I’m about half finished. This degree combined with my first master’s degree in Teaching and Leadership has me asking several questions about the literature we teach:

  • Brain-based research shows teachers that high school students’ brains are still developing. At what point can developing brains interpret literature with dangerous messages and not apply the messages to their lives? That is, at what point can students understand that literature can be a product of its time period and a product of its author without internalizing the harmful messages?
  • Social emotional learning shows teachers that literature provides a gateway to SEL implementation. What if the piece of literature further reminds students of trauma, increases their anxiety because these problems of the “past” are still in the student’s present? What if instead of warning students about the dangers of racism, we instead reinforce dangerous ideas of white saviors, of not seeing color? Isn’t that actually harming SEL practice?
  • A safe classroom is necessary for students to learn. Brains struggle to learn when they are in danger. Regarding To Kill A Mockingbird and other “classics,” are teachers helping or hindering young brains? Who put this book in the pile of classics? The messages the book teaches are junk (see my list below), and by telling students that this book must be read, that this book is a classic, we are harming them.

As I reflect on why I’m tired of teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, those are three questions that swirl around me. I’m sure you have many more.

Further problems

The first time I taught To Kill A Mockingbird was my first year of teaching. I was in survival mode. Another teacher provided me with materials; I used those materials, graded assignments, and tried to function. That experience was in 2003, I think.

The next time I taught To Kill A Mockingbird was in 2016 (again, give or take a year). My students and I were reviewing because they were massively confused. One day, I wrote out all the characters on the board, and we summarized what each character did. The students shared their ideas, and I wrote. We filled the board.

Finally, I stood back, expecting to find a board full of knowledge, expecting to feel satisfied over what students and I created together. I was horrified.

To remember Burris, students had noted he was filthy and uneducated. His dad was a drinker. Mrs. Lafayette was an addict. People shunned Dill because he didn’t know who his dad was. Some kids couldn’t read. The teacher beat kids with a stick. Calpurnia hit Scout. And? Students knew very little about Tom Robinson or his family because those characters are not fleshed out.

I began explaining concepts to students, explaining how humans once behaved, how they once stereotyped. I remained horrified. Did humans “once”? Is all of that in the past? What story was I feeding my students?

As I looked at our summary on the board, I realized that this book had numerous flaws, lessons that impressionable young minds are not ready to critically consider.

Here are ten problems with the book that students might not be ready to understand.

Ignoring systemic failures.

I cannot ignore the call from colleagues or students that To Kill A Mockingbird is dangerous to teach. It exudes white privilege, and it ignores systematic racism. Teachers should teach about systematic problems, but this book does not need to be the mode of doing so.

Other systematic failures are in the book, but teachers don’t always cover them: systematic court and law problems, systems of poverty, and social exclusion. Additionally, I would add the narrative of poverty in To Kill A Mockingbird is dangerous.

Doing well in school.

Scout’s father read to her, and she arrives at school, ready to learn. Characters like Walter Cunningham and Burris Ewell do not do well in school. They are malnourished and do not regularly attend school through no fault of their own.

Beating children in school.

Corporal punishment is wrong, and there is zero evidence to suggest the opposite. Miss Caroline switches Scout because she does not understand what Scout is communicating.

Which leads to. . .

Abusing children.

Uncle Jack, Calpurnia, Mrs. Duboise, and Bob Ewell abuse children in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Research shows that abused children exhibit certain behaviors. Scout’s fighting with other kids? Current research suggests she acts that way because she is physically abused.

Treating Boo terribly.

I followed the treatment of Boo after child abuse because the concepts seem related.

I don’t know if Boo has an official diagnosis. Hopefully, his treatment at schools and in society would differ today. His parents and brother have failed him terribly.

Should high school English teachers still teach To Kill A Mockingbird? What classics should we teach in high school? What messages do these classics send to developing brains?

Breaking the law. . to fix the law?

Heck Tate and Atticus shush up Boo’s killing of Bob. In fact, many readers romanticize how these upstanding men manipulate a crime scene and break the law. Boo is a mockingbird, after all, and we don’t want to kill him.

Explaining the power of language.

Atticus tells Scout that the term “n***** lover” doesn’t mean anything. That is not true. Language matters.

Dealing with rape.

Mayella has probably been raped in life. Since my initial reading, I always felt that one or more of her siblings were her and her father’s child. Mayella’s abuse is not explained in the book, probably because of the horrible lie she continues about Tom.

Lee loosely modeled Tom’s case after the Scottsboro Boys injustice. Teachers should teach the Scottsboro legal cases; I personally use Common Lit’s activity.

Misrepresenting addiction.

Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is addicted to morphine. She overcomes her addiction with the help of Jesse and willpower. The concept that willpower is enough to beat addiction is echoed when Atticus tells his children that she was the bravest woman he knew. (She is also a terrible racist.)

Addiction is more complicated than a disease that requires willpower. Upholding the “willpower” idea of drug addiction misleads students who personally might struggle with addiction.

Representing dated gender expectations.

A major theme of the book is that Scout bucks traditions with gender. Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra, the ladies at tea, and Jem remark on Scout’s lack of feminine behavior.

When Scout attends tea with the ladies, the women are not kind, merely presented as gossips.

Those are ten reasons that go beyond the dangerous racial tropes of the book for giving ELA teachers pause.

At what point does a piece of literature contain enough dangerous messages that we leave it in the past? After each chapter, are we willing to say, “Harper Lee wrote about these experiences, and people during that time period believed ___. Current research shows that message is wrong. What history has shown us is that this story is wrong.” Because—that is what we need to do. We teachers have dozens of inaccuracies, dangerous messages, and harmful lessons to undo when we teach To Kill A Mockingbird.

Which leaves me with one question: At what point can we acknowledge that this book is not timeless, is not perfect, and presents dangerous lessons?

Final Thoughts

For a few years now, I’ve seen educators discuss teaching To Kill A Mockingbird. So many teachers defend the narrative, emotionally attached to the story.

I am tired of teaching To Kill A Mockingbird. As I teach it, I must correct incorrect assumptions and lessons about racism, child abuse, addiction, and more. Other literature, better literature, exists.

I am tired of teaching To Kill A Mockingbird and other classics that portray dangerous messages. I’ve never banned books, and I believe that literature is powerful, that literature gives a unique perspective of our history. Literature shows where humans were, what stories we shared, and how we once understood the world. However, I do not believe that young students are ready to see literature that way. Teenagers, with their still developing brains, seek answers from literature; not until they are older can they see literature as adults see literature. As teachers, we must be aware at what answers we present students. We should provide them with diverse and interesting literature, literature in which they see themselves and their world. Whatever literature we give them, they will attempt to connect with the stories, the beautiful power of literature. They will seek answers from literature.

When young students try to find themselves and their world in a book like To Kill A Mockingbird, adults have a bad situation. When I read the book as a young girl? I related to Scout because her uncle beat her. My family saw beating children as a norm, and adults often used the excuse that I could have it worse. I related to Scout because she was beat at school, and I was damn lucky not to be beat at school. This book shushed me.

What if I had read a book where the main character confides in an adult that they are abused at home? Literature is powerful, and it has the power to change lives. Such books exist.

Should books like To Kill A Mockingbird still be read? Sure. I have never suggested banning a book. It should not be taught as a moral guide, as a book where students relate to the characters, which means it should not be taught to high school students. To present the book that way is harmful to those who are already hurting, those who hurt because of the dangerous ideas presented in To Kill A Mockingbird.

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  • Robin Brinkler

    This is truly insane.

    • Lauralee (author)

      Hi Robin,

      I think that mode of thinking, “this is truly insane” is not necessary in education. Looking at the type of literature we teach requires critical analysis.

      The Internet is full of comments about the teaching of TKAM from other people if you don’t care for my approach. A simple search will yield many articles.

      Good luck.


  • Robin Brinkler

    Sorry, perhaps I was too harsh. I’m a fan of apostrophes and liked your defence of their correct usage.

    Regarding “To Kill a Mockingbird”, I think that it only reaffirmed my understanding, when I read the book as a youngster, that the problems depicted in the book were still with us at the time, and are still with us today; I don’t agree that a developing brain cannot distinguish literary analysis on a work of fiction from how they should treat other people.

    “I think that mode of thinking, “this is truly insane” is not necessary in education.”

    If someone was gardening with a piece of cheese as their trowel and wondering why their cabbages were always cheesy, the mode of thinking “this is truly insane” being unnecessary would still result in cheesy cabbages.

    Best regards


    • Lauralee (author)

      That’s nice, Robin. I’m not sure what we are talking about with apostrophes, however.

      I am looking at this situation from a different perspective than you are. I am looking at this with a trauma-informed lens. I am not talking about cheese; rather, I am talking about students who are enduring trauma and are reading a book that celebrates trauma. This matter is quite serious to me, and if you would look at NCTE or any other statement (primarily from Black educators), you would see that many educators are rethinking this book.

      I am not sure of your goal here. You think my writing is insane, and you have said so. I have approved your comments. In the post, I have included numerous links of people begging educators to take another look at this book. I invite you to join us.


      • Robin Brinkler

        Dear Laura,

        Please remove the comments from your blog?

        Kind regards


  • Robin Brinkler

    On reflection I had not read your article in full, and I apologise, my comment was insensitive.

    I don’t feel that removing the book from the curriculum will help avoid any harm the book might do, if current thinking is indeed correct. I dont think the current thinking is balanced, and believe that actually continuing to teach the analysis of the book would further the healthy discussion of both its merits and flaws and provide a richer learning experience than removing it.

    Wishing you the very best.

  • Robin Brinkler

    I messed up and missed an apostrophe too.

    • Robin Brinkler

      Dear Laura,

      Please remove the comments from your blog?

      Kind regards


  • Skylar

    I’m a student myself (a freshman to be exact) and I came across this while writing a report on whether I believed that schools should be teaching this book. At first my answer was yes. After reading this I soon realized that I was terribly wrong, and everything that you said was right. I’ve read the book in class and have related with some stuff regarding trauma. But I would’ve never thought that the book was that bad. I think that maybe because I’m so young and naive that maybe I wasn’t able to truly understand the meaning and messages the book provided. So thank you for writing this, without it I would’ve thought something that I didn’t know the true meaning of thinking.
    Sincerely, Skylar

    • Lauralee (author)

      Hey Skylar,

      That sounds like an interesting assignment—to evaluate what should be taught in schools. Did your teacher assign that, or did you choose that topic? Either way, it’s a large decision with lots of factors, literature to be taught in schools.

      TKAM has some really neat connections and symbolism. Plus, I think that for many years the book was inexpensive to purchase in large quantities for schools and that combined with the ease of creating lesson plans, it was taught. However, the more educators evaluate and the more voices we consider, the more problematic the text becomes.

      I appreciate that you were open enough in your mindset to adjust your perspective as you did research. That’s the start of a budding writer—an ability to change after receiving new information. Good luck on your report, and thanks for stopping by my blog.


  • Andee

    I’ve always admired your blog posts and have followed many of them religiously. I have a few thoughts I was curious if you would entertain me as I will be teaching this story in a few weeks. Eek!

    I wonder, have you thought of having students evaluate and reflect on the very issues you bring up about the novel? Do we, as educators, not have a duty to teach students to see things from different perspectives and to discern for themselves their interpretations? Would that not be more valuable than not teaching it all together? I do love TKAM and relate to many things throughout the story. I like to see the honor of Atticus (which I know has also been argued if it was honor or duty to his profession), but I do think he has a lot of admirable qualities. That being said, I would hate for kids to miss out on that as well. Are there ways we can merge the two? Explore the dangerous ideas with the valuable lessons?

    Just a thought and would love to hear your perspective!

    • Lauralee (author)

      Hi Andee! Thanks for your perspective.

      I think your question addresses why we teach literature. Do we teach literature to see different points of view? If so, I think a novel like Dear Martin or All American Boys will cover racism and inequality in the court systems much better, and the perspective will be from an author who writes (unfortunately) from experience. Harper Lee’s perspective is incredibly rooted in the white experience, probably why Tom is not fleshed out well.

      Do we teach literature so students can identify with characters? Again, this book is problematic from this angle too if you are a Black student. I’ve provided some links in my post from Black writers discussing the danger of reading underdeveloped characters. What about students with parents fighting addiction, students living in poverty, students surviving abuse? All of those students are reading a book that portrays their life circumstances in inaccurate, dangerous ways.

      Sure, I guess Atticus is admirable. I loathe the part of the story where he allows his brother to beat Scout. Allowing someone to physically assault a child is nightmarishly wrong.

      Finally, I don’t know if kids are missing out. Overall, is TKAM that wonderful of a story compared to other texts? I can think of a dozen books that cover similar themes and concepts that don’t contain such gross a marginalization of people in pain. I suppose a teacher could outline all of the outdated and dangerous misconceptions of the story and then discuss the concepts. I guess I’ll ask you: at what cost?

      Again, thanks for sharing your perspective. I always enjoy talking to other ELA teachers. Lauralee

  • Mary Palmer

    WOW! You really opened my eyes. I had never thought that deeply about the underlying messages in the book. Your thoughts were so interesting. I must tell you I started reading your article completely disagreeing with the idea of not reading the book in school. By the end I found myself in agreement with you. Thank you for opening my mind !!

  • sara

    Thank you for your article! It’s been very helpful. I am tasked (to possibly) teach this novel next year. I JUST read it for the first time and my instinct tells me that there are many other (more recent) books that tackle racism, sexism, ‘white savior complex’ better. i will need to convince my department head of this; she’s been teaching this novel every year for years. So much has changed since 1960! That was a long, long time ago. And, though well written, even the writing isn’t rich enough to be a reason to keep reading this novel. – It isn’t, say, Shakespeare or Charlotte Bronte.

    • Lauralee (author)

      You are welcome!

      If you are looking for more sources, I do believe that NCTE and other organizations have published materials about this book. And, I largely agree. The book is well done, but I would not consider it a classic at all.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog, and good luck with your department head.


  • Vintaro

    No all of you guys who agree with this are wrong. its themes make total sense. Misconceptualization is very common for people that lack critical thinking skills which is pretty much a key factor of why its in school curricula. This book is a goldmine of topics, themes, and quotes to dig deeper on. and any Misconceptualization of the themes here can be adjusted by the ones teaching it AKA YOU! So congrats on becoming a teacher but your clearly not doing it that well if you thought you could escape being “tired of teaching something” If this comment doesn’t appear that’s a sign that you know I’m right but don’t want to discuss the topics I bring up. ( also think of the amendments ( HINT HINT COUGH COUGH THINK ABOUT IT)

    • Lauralee (author)

      Hey Vintaro,

      I am not sure what your conclusion is. A “misconceptualization of the themes” doesn’t necessarily apply. The themes are quite evident in TKAM, but overall, more and more readers find them troubling.

      Teachers across the USA are removing this book because of its outdated notions and dangerous ideas regarding race relations, child rearing, and concepts of a “hero.” In a funny way, I think TKAM has played a role in what is developing: Teachers and students are questioning it. They are finding that the book is not what students need.

      Education, like society and life, changes. I am proud that my classroom reflects such a change.

      I encourage you to read the links I provided. Many Black educators and students have written about the harm this book perpetuates. I hope you take the time to read their work.

      Take care,

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