Saturday, September 05, 2009

It Will Be Our Fault

If I were a public school teacher, I think I’d be relieved if my principal forbade me to let my students watch President Obama’s back to school address on September 8. Sure, I’d make a show of outrage, maybe even write a sternly worded letter of protest, but deep down inside I’d feel the same kind of relief I felt when my wife, mother and mother-in-law told me my 2-year-old daughter was too young to be in preschool: It’s the right thing to do, but the higher ups won’t let me.

In 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War a public school teacher in Indiana was using an officially approved Time Magazine for Kids curriculum to discuss current events. She was required to teach that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction along with other historical “facts” about the relationship between our two countries. The curriculum included a short story about anti-war protests. When one of her students asked her if she would ever take part in one of these demonstrations, she answered, “I honk for peace” when I drive by demonstrators with signs reading I Honk For Peace.

A small group of parents raised a ruckus. The teacher lost her job and ultimately her home. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it, thus confirming the lower court decision:

. . . a teacher’s speech is a commodity that she sells to a school in exchange for a salary.

While this technically only applies to teachers in the 7th Circuit (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin) it could, and probably would, be used as a precedent in other parts of the country.

Thousands of teachers will air President Obama’s speech in their classrooms, but in our current political environment they will need to walk on eggshells to avoid having their lives destroyed for doing so. An opportunity for meaningful civics education will be missed if teachers are cowed into silence by a few exercised parents.

In 1988, Ronald Reagan spoke directly to students. So did George H.W. Bush in 1991. In both cases, objections were raised, but no one was censored over it, let alone lost their jobs. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton all also spoke directly to students without controversy. Heck, George W. Bush was famously sitting in an elementary school classroom when the tragedy of 9/11 happened.

And now there’s a controversy over the president of the United States speaking to students? Really? And it’s such a big deal that teachers' livelihoods will be threatened over it? Really? Really? Already, entire school districts have succumbed to pressure and banned the president’s speech. What the hell is going on here? This is the elected leader of the free world we’re talking about, not some dangerous fringe figure with the magic powers to brainwash children through the television.

The only conclusion I can draw is that a noisy minority of our fellow citizens has suffered a psychotic break with reality. They are calling our president a Nazi, a socialist, a communist, a terrorist, and a race-hater, sometimes all in the same tirade. They are openly and threateningly carrying guns to places where he appears. They are even insisting that he isn’t really the president. As outright crazy as this is, our constitution protects their right to engage in all of this insanity.

But it does not protect their right to censor the president, especially when, by all accounts, the subject of his speech will be the universally accepted values of hard work, setting goals and staying in school. As ludicrous as it sounds, this is the message they want to censor.

Yet in many parts of the country they are successfully doing so. A frothy fringe of parents has been hammering school districts, administrators, and even teachers for weeks now. And frankly, I can’t blame them for giving in. They don’t want to lose their jobs and homes. Our public educators are in a bind. They cannot speak out without great risk.

Thankfully, we as parents are free to speak our minds. And even better, the courts have held that students do not sacrifice their free speech rights once the school bell rings. It’s up to us as parents and students to support our teachers. If you want to make sure your child has the opportunity to hear the president encourage them to work hard and stay in school, then let your school officials know about it. If your school is already planning to broadcast the address, then thank them for doing it. If a teacher makes the mistake of actually voicing an opinion, stand up for her.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it’s clear that there are some very frightened people in this country. Change can be threatening. We have chosen a new political direction. The leader of the free world is now a man who might have been a slave only a few generations ago.

These sad people are so afraid that when they look at the president, they see a boogeyman from whom they must protect their children. They deserve our pity, but that doesn’t mean we have to let their irrational fears win the day.

Now is a time to stand up for our public educators. If a single one of them loses her job, it will be our fault.

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Mr. Man said...

Tom, you makes some good points. They are, however, only one point of view.. I am a part of that noisy minority that, when it comes to politics, I really would like to know what my kids are taught. I do feel better now that the WH is going to release the text prior to the speech is given.

A few years ago, the "noisy minority" was liberal dems screaming about Iraq, Katrina, and any number of issues. Those same people are now in power.

Without the noisy minority, we would have no liberty, we would have no democracy, we would have no freedom. I am personally glad that there are enough people who love and care about their children to be concerned about what they hear politically.

Thanks for the good post & discussion.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

As expected, well said! I can't believe your friend lost her job for saying she honked for piece. That is terrible. Luckily, my students are really too young to watch the speech and understand a whole lot of it, but I almost want to show it out of spite. My school district has been fielding phone calls and they have taken the stand that it is the teacher's decision to show it if he/she thinks it matches their curriculum and is found to be a "teachable moment". Parents are allowed to opt out.
There isn't too much out there (in the media) that is supporting his message...his message of responsibility, or at least I have not seen much other than a few comments on articles condeming it. I wonder if it is just a small group making a whole lot of noise (and the media loves noise), or if there truly is a whole lot of people who have the problem with our kids watching this speech and taking away a positive message.
As I said yesterday, I am so frustrated that this has turned into an issue. Really? With all the BIG issues we are dealing with and this is what's taking up our government's and media's time. Appalling!

Anonymous said...

For some reason people want to be angry just for the sake of it these days. Times are tough, so I guess it cathartic to throw stones at everything even when there is really nothing to be outraged about.

Maybe I'm just not well informed enough, or it's because my child is not school age, but I saw no big deal about Obama's talk to kids. As you point out lots of our past presidents have done the same thing.

Oh, and my point about tort reform on your last post is like most issues in how it affects someone personally. I just finished paying my wife's malpractice insurance for the next year just before I read it, so that may have influenced my comment somewhat. Yes, 2% is not profound, but it is a start. I would love to know what is included in that calculation, but I'm sure there is a lot of other collateral damage related to malpractice suits and judgments.

My wife is a staff pharmacist in a hospital and it pains me that we need to pay for insurance in the event a doctor writes a script, something goes bad and my wife is named in the lawsuit because she is the one who dispensed. Sure she has the obligation to provide clinical advice, but at the end of the day she cannot prescribe. There are plenty of savvy lawyers in the world that can get a jury to ignore things like 'facts'.

Medical mistakes happen. Unless it is a malicious act, which at that point it should default to criminal proceedings, people shouldn't be at risk of losing their homes and life savings. So, that, for me anyways, is an important aspect to reform.

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Mr. Man, thanks for dropping by.

I have no problem with a loyal opposition. I hope I've lived up to those standards over the last 30 years when my political values were not being represented in DC. What I'm decrying in this post are the folks who have taken their fear of Obama far beyond politics into the realm of demonization. They seem to find it impossible to believe that they might even share some values with him -- like hard work and staying in school.

I appreciate your wanting to know what your child is being taught about politics, but do you really believe that Obama, following in the footsteps of all the presidents before him, is planning a political speech? I'm not putting you into this category at all, but I get the feeling that there many people who are simply afraid that their children will see that he is not a demon, but rather a decent man with whom they disagree politically.

From what I know about you, I believe we share far more values than otherwise. We both try to be good men, we love our children, and we love our country. I believe this is true our about president as well, just as I believe it about George Bush.

Personally, I've never tried to filter what kind of political speech my daughter is exposed to. In fact, as a preschooler, she vociferously told anyone who would listen that she was going to vote for Bush. In 1969, my parents took me to downtown Columbia, SC to see Richard Nixon. It was a big deal to see the president, yet somehow I managed to not be brainwashed. In a democracy I believe it's important that our children be exposed to every side of political debates. We owe them our honestly held opinions, but they do not owe us their agreement. My only wish for my child when it comes to politics is that she learn to think for herself and she can only learn this by being exposed to the full range of political thought. I suspect you wish the same thing for your children.

During the 2004 campaign I was very active on behalf of John Kerry, so much so that I wound up being quoted on the front page of the Seattle Times. The next time I saw my father, who is a life-long Republican, he said to me, "I disagree with you, but I'm proud of what you're doing."

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks PD! Your wish is my command.

I think you're right on when you point out that the media loves noise. It's illustrative that several thousand people rallied in downtown Seattle yesterday in favor of healthcare reform, but since there was no counter protest to speak of, it didn't even make the newspaper . . . I guess that's why we have blogs!

Teacher Tom said...

Yeah PJ, I agree completely. The bar for proving malpractice must be set much, much higher.

Maya Catching Butterflies said...

My 5-year old daughter brought a book home from the school library that I thought was totally inappropriate for her age. I said to my daughter, "Maybe you should speak with the librarian and ask what she recommends for your age." Her response, "That's what I asked her and this is what she gave me." Clearly me and the librarian don't see eye to eye on what is and isn't appropriate for my daughter. Though, that's okay, people have differing opinions and I let my child know that. The librarian wasn't at fault she merely did what she thought was right.

I speak with my children every single day and because of it, I'm aware of what they're hearing and taking in. It's incidences like these that open up the dialogue. I'm all for ANY president of US speaking to our children. I may not always agree with their politics but I think as a parent my children should know that it is okay to hear other opinions, reflect on them and then have a discussion. I don't understand why parents are so opposed to HEARING another opinion and then having a discussion at home about it. Are we teaching closed mindedness or what.

Tom, thanks for this post.

Jason, as himself said...

Brilliantly put! Thank you.

glassgirl said...

"Frothy fringe." VERY nice.

Tom said...

I am so glad that I am out of the K 12 system and am now teaching at the college level. Academic Freedom is an important thing and we should cherish it.
With that said, when I did teach high school, I found out how to unplug the Channel 1 television and saved my first hour students from that mess.
Great post.

Anonymous said...

This was great. I am glad Pumpkin linked to it. I remember there being a "thing" when RR spoke, but NOTHING on the level of this. I understand parents being sensitive about what their kids hear, see, inhale, etc., but children don't really live in rarefied air. Parents might love thinking they do, but they don't. All day long, various people are saying things to your children that you may know very little about. Some of it is a good thing, some of it not.

This was an easy political jab because when it comes to kids it is easy to jab, & easy to get parents worried. ~Mary

jlo said...

I, too, am a public school teacher and I will be showing the speech. I am looking at it as a motivation for my students. They do not have a political agenda, but they know who the President of the U.S. thought is if they can hear from him how important education is, it might mean something. Parents shouldn't be puitting thier political views on 7 year olds. Great post.

Unknown said...

I am just amazed and deeply saddened that people feel so threatened by this. I feel like it is a wonderful thing. A leader of our country telling kids to do their best and be in charge of the education they receive. That is awesome. I can't understand the hoopla. Thank you for writing this!

shrink on the couch said...

Frightened by change? I think they're just pissed off that they were beaten. Sore losers.

I had not heard of the Indiana teacher who lost her job. Yikes. You teachers earn my respect on a daily basis. That's a fine line alright.

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