Thursday, May 17, 2007

Teachers and Free Speech

UPDATE: Jim has now posted, and eloquently, on some key issues I left to the side.

A teacher in Indiana who was fired for telling her fourth-graders that she "honks for peace" in January 2003 has lost her appeal.

Read the whole thing. It's complex and interesting.

Jim's edumacational blog hasn't hit this, so I will, albeit probably not as well as he would (and, I hope, as he will soon).

A few years back, I changed the way I taught my American Studies (combined lit and History) class to my juniors. I had not given a hint of my politics in all previous iterations of the class, but I felt like that was unfair. I ask my kids to lay their butts on the line and publicly state their views on critical issues all the time; why should I get to lay back in the weeds? So I self-identified as a liberal. I repeatedly and explicitly said that I didn't give a rip whether they agreed with my politics or not; unbacked papers that agreed with me would get bad grades, and backed papers that disagreed with me would get good ones. Indeed, the latter kind of paper is by far my favorite to read.

The early classes were fun. Henri and Jason were loud Republicans, and we'd get into productive arguments. I'd push them in their views, and in the process, I think I made them better Republicans. To be fair, I did the same to fellow Democrats if Henri and Jason didn't get to them first. That's where my bread is buttered...I gadfly my kids into providing evidence and reasoning.

But in the end, my plan to let the kids know my politics backfired.

Much to my surprise, Henri's dad called during second quarter. He said Henri thought he would love my class, but that he had since decided that the point of class was for him "to state my 16-year-old opinion so that Mr. RefPoet can take his 34-year-old opinion and beat me into the ground." Ick. That's not the way I want him, or any of my students, to feel. The parent gave me a shot-across-the-bow, saying "The classroom is not the place to espouse your personal political beliefs." I explained to him my rationale for doing so...that I didn't want the kids to feel like they were alone in laying their hearts on the line. But it didn't matter. While I wasn't espousing my political beliefs (I didn't and don't care if kids agree with me), I could see where a not-yet-mature kid could feel pressured to agree with me (on essays and the like). I tried to back off, but the genie was out of the bottle. That year's student evaluations were overwhelmingly positive, but I noticed the exception of two kids who wrote that they felt like the class was a means of relaying my political beliefs. I recognized Henri's and Jason's handwriting.

I have been completely mum on my politics ever since. I will argue all sides of every issue. The kids don't have a clue as to my politics--I know because I ask them periodically. And I think my classroom is better off for it. All backed views are welcome, and the debate is student-centered as it should be.

With this background, I feel incredibly torn about the Deborah Mayer case. I dislike both possible outcomes, much like I do for the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case that the Supreme Court will rule on shortly. While I don't think Mayer should have been fired, I think she made a mistake in stating her own views to her students. Why not respond with a question? When the students ask "Would you protest the war?" why not say, "would you?" I don't see how she helped kids' learning by answering the question. She could have dodged it. I do every time it comes up, and I even tell them why: "In this classroom, my opinions are irrelevant. Your opinions are critically important, and they are valuable insofar as they are backed by evidence."

To put it another way, my experience tells me that telling kids my personal views about something complex like the Iraq war is unneccessary: a teacher can play devil's advocate on all sides. In fact, stating one's opinion is often counterproductive to student learning. I therefore believe it should be avoided in almost all cases.

But a firable offense? No way. Mayer's firing was a sad and unfortunate decision, and the courts' support of it could lead to some yucky outcomes. Would the school board in Indiana have canned Mayer if she had brought in a "Support our Troops" bumper sticker? If she had asked her class to write a letter of thanks to soldiers? I highly doubt it. This means that, under the current decision, the school board would gain the de facto power to select the appropriate political perspective to teach, and fire any dissenters. That's no good either.

I don't feel put upon because of the speech rights I give up on the job as it is. For example, the Supreme Court's history of rulings tells me that I don't have the right to express my religious views while on the clock. As a government employee with a captive audience, it would violate the separation of church and state. Maybe it's because I've never worn my Christianity on my sleeve, but I've never at all been bothered by staying areligious at work. When I teach the First Amendment as it applies to schools, kids sometimes ask me why it doesn't bug me, and I simply say that I can have my beliefs without the kids seeing or hearing about them.

I feel the same about muzzling my political beliefs during class. It doesn't keep me from stating my views where it most matters. I've marched on my state capitol about education, I've emailed my elected representatives about the issues I'm most passionate about, I've ranted on this blog about political issues. I don't see how it's repression when I'm asked to refrain from my lefty rants when I'm with my captive audience of high school students.

I'm also sympathetic towards this principal the article mentions:

A recent case from a Los Angeles charter school offers more evidence of the limits teachers face in choosing curricula or seeking redress of grievances. The school's administrators forbade seventh-graders from reading aloud at a February assembly the award-winning poem "A Wreath for Emmett Till," about a black teenager beaten to death by white men in 1955.

In an online guide to teaching the poem in grades seven and up, publisher Houghton Mifflin recommends telling students that it will be disturbing; administrators said they feared it would be too much for the kindergartners in the audience and then explained that Till's alleged whistle at a white woman was inappropriate. When social studies teacher Marisol Alba and a colleague signed letters of protest written by students at the largely African American school, both teachers were fired.

The second reason--"the wolf whistle is inappropriate"--is hopelessly lame. But the first--that kindgergartners aren't ready to handle the Emmett Till story--is reasonable to anyone who knows the Emmett Till story. Is it an affront to a teachers' free speech for a principal to reach and enforce this arguable, but eminently reasonable, opinion? I don't think so.

Yeah, I know it's a slippery slope. I guess that's why I'm unhappy with this decision...but I'd be unhappy with its opposite as well.


tommyspoon said...

Interesting stuff, truly. I agree that the classroom is not the place for any teacher to espouse their beliefs (political or otherwise). But I don't think that's what this teacher was doing. She answered a fourth grade student's question. Isn't that her job?

For me, this is the money question:

"If a teacher can be fired for saying those four little words -- 'I honk for peace' -- who's going to want to teach?"

Not me.

Shannin said...

It's such a fine line. I always worried about my mom - liberal & gay in a very conservative enclave. She was very closeted about being gay until her last year or so and then figured she wasn't going to hide any more. She got a lot of support, both from kids and parents, but it could have easily gone the other way.

TeacherRefPoet said...


We agree that the teacher should not have been fired. And, as I say, I don't think we have to answer student questions about our private lives. If the student had asked "Do you believe that Jesus was God?" well, she has to not answer. I think the same is true about controversial political issues. But fire her? No way.


I'm with you and your mom on this one. Who you are is different from what you believe.

MCMC said...


Good points raised in this post and case. We're on the same page re: the teacher in question.

I'm gonna push you on the other side of the debate about whether or not you should state your beliefs in class. In your description of what you did when you decided to "come out" so to speak, I saw nothing but a straightforward, integrity laden effort to create a vibrant classroom for students. And I would say that if a conservative were doing the same thing.

I've never believed that we should check values at the door in the public arena, and a public school classroom qualifies. Every teacher's teaching is informed by politics, even if they choose to be apolitical. Why not be open about it? It's the same principle that leads me to believe that every politician's work is informed by some ethical core (maybe religious, maybe not) so why not put that out there in the open so people know.

Finally, if the parents of these kids are right wingers tied into the network of blogs and parent organizations on the right, they might've been setting you up to make an example of you. That's exactly in the right's repertoire, even though they have no qualms about letting someone on the right teach their politics and values.

So I hope you'll reconsider. You're an awesome teacher. Laying your values out there and insisting that everyone backs stuff up with evidence is modeling the way our public conversations ought to go. I say do it more, teach other teachers how to do it (and strategically choose some conservative ones!) and let the great debates begin!


tommyspoon said...

I think TRP's answer is extremely clever and nuanced (much like the man himself). Unfortunately, it would not have worked on a fourth grader -- I see the break even point around the freshmen/sophomore year. This kind of "gotcha!" maneuvering always sets my teeth on edge. This tactic creates more problems than it supposedly solves.

I think this woman was guilty of nothing but answering a fourth-grader's question directly, with a follow-up about exhausting all peaceful means before going to war. (Mon dieu! Are we so insane that we cannot agree on this simple point?) She makes a remark about letting a TV teach the class, and she has a point: we are human beings and should be allowed to make the occasional mistake or casual remark. To expect anything else is unreasonable, IMHO.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Spoon and MCMC:

I'm grateful to have smart friends who push me. You've called on me to ask the critical question of exactly why I'm doing what I do for a living, and what my goals and agendas are. That's always a useful thing to do, and I appreciate you having me do it.

My goals and agenda are to create thinking citizens who are able to communicate, both verbally and in writing, clear and articulate points of view that are backed by evidence.

When I teach English, that means they're using text to support perspectives on a text. When I teach History or Civics, that means kids are taking points of view on critical issues and using statistics, stories, and experts to show they're right.

MCMC: Why is it necessary for me to give my own views to accomplish these goals? I've tried it both ways. In the process, I've found that my classroom isn't any less vibrant or challenging when I don't give my views. In fact, it's a little bit more so. I put on a split personality, egging on my lefty students by channeling Rush Limbaugh one moment, then pushing my conservative kids by imitating Janeane Garafalo the next. Everybody has to talk, and everybody has to think. They get that I'm just playing devil's advocate all day, every day, and with every student.

Even as a student, I've found that keeping mum works better than "coming out" as a liberal. In fact, I have memories of two pretty lousy classes--one in college, one in grad school--where professors pegged me...ME! too conservative, and in each case it helped to turn me off of an entire discipline. More on those later, maybe, but suffice to say that I don't want to do that to even one kid.

I think your point--that all teachers have their own baggage and biases, so they should be laid out--is more effective at the college level, when students are more grounded in their own views. For most of my kids, their nascent views, whatever they are, would be too beaten up by a teacher who openly disagrees.

Or, to put it as a question: why is a HS classroom where the teacher talks about his/her politics more successful than a HS classroom where the teacher doesn't? I just don't see it.

Incidentally, I don't believe the parent who contacted me had a political axe to grind. He had heard that his kid was uncomfortable in class, and he called me about it. We've had the conservative blogger types go after some of our teachers in the past, so I know what that looks like. This wasn't it. I didn't capitulate for political reasons; I modified my teaching style because what I was doing was ineffective for a subset of my kids, and it's my goal to reach them all.

Spoon: We agree the teacher should not have been fired. It was reasonable to answer the student's question: I just think it would have been better to dodge it.

I taught 6th grade in a rural, conservative community in 1992. I worked with kids through the GHWBush/Clinton/Perot election. They badgered me for my opinion, but even in my first year of teaching, I realized it would be counterproductive to give it during the unit. I told them my opinion didn't matter--it was theirs that did. I asked them who -they- would vote for and why. The result: my response to the student question -started- a conversation rather than -ending- one. My way induced more learning. Like it or not, kids of this age will view me as having all the answers--and I'd rather have them thinking than imitating me.

The day after election day, however, I answered the question. But by then, the unit was over, so I didn't have to worry about kids suppressing or changing their beliefs to make me happy. (And yes, kids at that age will do that.) Instead, I'd hit them with every issue I could at a level that they could understand and let them decide.

To use the teacher cliche', I'm a guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.

MCMC said...

First, TRP, let me say that I think your motives for teaching are just awesome. When I think of the kind of public education system we want in our world, it's one based on that set of values. If we could create that culture in public education, our public lives would be so. much. better.

Second, I grant that it's possible that it doesn't matter whether or not you put your own views out there. Fair enough.

It does seem to me, though, important for students to learn that there are no neutral parties. Everyone brings a core set of beliefs to any public dialogue. What's key is to understand what that core set of beliefs is, and how to push people respectfully to consider other points of view and evidence to the contrary. That may not even involve speaking up on every issue your students discuss. It may mean a kind of "who I am, where I'm coming from" exercise that allows you and your students to name what shapes what you have to say in public conversations about political issues. And I think you can speak to all of this without having to be the "sage on the stage".

But if what you do now is working, who am I to say, "fix it"? Thanks for your awesome work.


TeacherRefPoet said...

I do try to lay out some goals:

You will write and think clearly.

You will back all opinions with evidence.

You will listen to all, especially those who disagree with you.

I guess that's a set of values, but I don't think they have anything to do with my politics. But it's good to get that out there.

Fawn said...

Thanks for posting this--very interesting!

You touched on this in a comment, but I wonder about smaller towns / communities. Even in Portland, the folks I work with are likely to see me out in the community if I am politically active. I work with adults and am not in the classroom, so personally don't worry about this as much. However, I wonder when you live and work in the 'Couve (should I capitalize that Mr. TRP?), if things will change.

I think for teachers in smaller communities, they can choose how they talk politics in the classroom, but not what their kids know about their political and personal lives.

TeacherRefPoet said...


Once I'm out of the classroom, all political activities, etc. are fair game. Students who encounter me at a march will get that this isn't happening in the classroom, I think. Besides, students who encounter me at a rally certainly agree with me politically! (Unless there are dueling marches, I guess.)

The same is true of religion. I try to be areligious in the classroom, but I have a right to my faith outside of it. Students who encounter me at church, or who see that I have ashes on my forehead after a morning Ash Wednesday mass, or who see me wearing a yarmulke or Sikh headwear...well, they get it. I really believe that.