Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I Was Accused of Teacher Malpractice

I had a very jarring experience this week. After a lesson in my creative writing class on Wednesday that was not significantly different from one I've given dozens of times before, two students confronted me after class and accused me of a professional ethics violation, specifically of using my position as a teacher to share my political views. When pressed, they conceded that the views were not actually necessarily mine, and may have been balanced, but that the lesson involved politics and was therefore inappropriate. That's simply a misunderstanding of the nature of the violation they'd originally accused me of, but that didn't stop me from freaking out. I could imagine angry parents confronting me, or worse, going over my head and blind-siding my principal or superintendent with allegations of professional misconduct which could have severe repercussions. Outside of my classroom and the contract day I am quite politically active (as anyone who has read this blog before can infer), so I could imagine that someone, not knowing the lengths I go to in order to keep my views out of the classroom, might believe that I crossed that barrier I work so hard to maintain. I immediately shot off an email to my principal, both to document the incident and to warn her in case she was confronted by parents. Then I spent the evening allowing myself to get more and more worried about the situation. By midnight, it seemed sleep would be impossible, so I came downstairs and drafted a letter to my students explaining the situation. I still couldn't fall asleep until after 3:00 am. The next day, Thursday, I brought the letter to my principal and spoke with her about the situation. She was very supportive and encouraging, which made me feel a lot better. She read the letter, encouraged me to tone it down a notch, and advised me to send a kind of permission slip about the lesson home to parents next year in advance (good advice which I will follow). I read an abbreviated version of the letter to the students, and it seems the incident has blown over, though I can't be sure it won't explode at some point in the future. I wanted to share the letter here so other teachers, parents, friends, etc., could understand both my rebuttal and why I was so panicked. I apologize in advance for the length, but, as you can imagine, I had a lot to get off my chest.

"Well, my dear creative writing students, it’s 12:17 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Today (technically yesterday) I made an error in judgment and I want to apologize and explain something. So (cue trumpets), with much fanfare, please accept…

An Apology and Explanation

Yesterday, before beginning the reading of the 3rd chapter of the novel I’m writing, I meant to remember to say, albeit briefly, that there would be some references to things that are political in the text, but that the character’s views were not my own, and that if the prospect of hearing about anything political made anyone uncomfortable, they could be excused from the assignment. Once I’d passed out the copies I simply forgot.

After class, some of your classmates came to me, concerned that I was trying to share my own political beliefs. I must immediately say that I firmly prohibit any kind of witch-hunt to try to figure out who these students were. I appreciated their honesty and I think their concern is valid. Please allow me to try to explain why I also believe it is misplaced in this instance.

First of all, there’s a general misconception that teachers can’t talk about anything political. This is, on its face, not only incorrect but impossible. We couldn’t do our jobs if we avoided any topic which relates to politics. Every novel we teach is political. All the history we teach inevitably has political bias. In fact, in recent history even science has been politicized. One could argue that everything you read in school is biased toward English-speakers by virtue of being written in English, or biased toward Americans because of the way words like “color” and “theater” are spelled. The complete absence of bias is a myth, and fleeing from politics is not our job. However, we have an ethical obligation to avoid using our positions as your teachers to try to inculcate you into our own political beliefs. I take this very seriously. I do not tell students how I vote or how they should feel about specific issues, and I encourage all of you to let me know if you believe I’ve been intentionally or accidentally biased in my presentation of any information.

That being said, the explanation given by the novel’s character for the fall of our civilization could be easily misconstrued to reflect my beliefs. I can only ask you to trust me when I say his politics do not mirror my own. I understand that skeptical students would wonder why they should believe that and not feel they were being doubly deceived. If you’ll allow me, let me provide one uncontroversial piece of evidence. The character in the story expresses a fatalism about the fall of our civilization. Of course, he is speaking from a different, fictional setting in which this has already occurred. I think I can safely share that I do not believe this to be any kind of inevitability, or that the fictional story is some kind of prophecy. I am a teacher. This is an inherently hopeful profession. I would not do this job if I believed that we are all doomed. If you can accept that I differ from the character in this way, I hope you will also believe me when I say that we differ in other beliefs as well. I cannot, however, itemize all the ways I agree and disagree with the character because, to do so, I would have to expound on my own politics, which would be inappropriate.

So why, you might ask, if the assignment creates a situation wherein students can only trust that their teacher isn’t preaching his own politics, would I continue to offer up the assignment? I believe its value exceeds the risk. As developing writers, there is a value to the practice of editing and revision that can only come with repetition. You will be editing and revising one another’s work. I feel it’s important to lay the groundwork for that by modeling the proper way to receive feedback. On a deeper level, I think it’s essential for students to see that I, too, am involved in the practice of writing. Across this country there are hosts of English teachers asking students to write while not participating in the endeavor themselves. Maybe it’s not a hobby they enjoy. Maybe their work demands so much time they simply cannot fit it into their schedules. I shouldn’t judge them. But I know that, as a student, I would question the authority of any writing instructor who didn’t write, just as I would question a literature instructor who didn’t read literature or a P.E. teacher who refused to exercise.

But, you might ask, couldn’t I have chosen to tell a story that was clearly apolitical? I would argue, quite simply, no, I couldn’t. I could have told a story set in a fantasy world completely dissimilar to our own with characters barely resembling human beings, or perhaps with anthropomorphized animals, and the politics within the story might have been a lot more subtle. That subtlety might have protected me from any accusations of impropriety. But I would argue that is actually a far more dangerous situation. As with advertising or any other form of manipulation, it’s when we are least suspecting of bias or ulterior motive that we are most susceptible. For the reasons mentioned above, I chose to share the book I really am writing. But I also went out of my way to try to make sure that the politics were as even-handed as I could make them and still explain the extreme setting of the story. Hence the explanation that both sides’ worst fear came true simultaneously. Frankly, if this book were ever to be published with my name on it, I might edit that portion to more accurately reflect my politics, but I felt that would be inappropriate for a classroom. It’s true that balance isn’t the same thing as a lack of bias, but I’d again ask you to believe me when I say I chose balance to try to present a believable dystopia without injecting the class with my own politics.

So, if I made any of you uncomfortable yesterday, I apologize for not giving you an out in advance. That was my oversight. And now for the announcement part (trumpets again, please): In our following unit we were going to begin a careful examination of some literature written by some writers who are far more talented than I could ever hope to be (well, I can hope, I guess. Teacher, remember). We’re now going to move that assignment up. This will not mean any extra work for anyone. It just shifts our schedule around a bit. The reason I’m doing this is that I plan on continuing to share from the novel I’m writing, as long as the majority of you are still interested in reading it. Those of you who are not comfortable reading my writing may choose to do the same assignment, providing detailed feedback chapter by chapter, to the works of established authors from the books I’ve chosen. If you want to escape all writers’ politics, I’m afraid you’re out of luck in a creative writing class. If you don’t feel comfortable hearing a story from your teacher because of his immediate presence in the room and necessarily conflicting roles as writer and teacher, I can only hope that I am modeling accepting that feedback by not demanding that you continue to read my work, and by modeling not being offended by that choice in the slightest.

One last note: The reason it is unethical for public school teachers to share their personal political views is not because we are paid with taxpayer money. If any of you attend a public university next year you will hear lectures from professors who are also paid with public funds and who do not shy away from sharing their personal views. The reason it is unethical for teacher like me to do that is because young minds are more malleable and more likely to be swayed by authority figures. So let me say something that I don’t believe is controversial at all: You cannot hide from politics any more than you can hide from questions of religion or identity or tastes in food or people’s opinions about next week’s weather. Your best and only defense is in greeting all opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether those opinions come from your teachers or your friends or your television, I encourage you to listen or read very carefully the opinions of anyone, alive or dead, authority figure or peer, and then decide for yourselves. I admit that the notion that you should think for yourselves is my personal political belief, but I refuse to accept that this belief is too controversial, because if it is, then I’m afraid all education is impossible.

Okay, now it’s 1:31 in the morning and I will be seeing you all painfully soon. Please accept my apology for the oversight and let me know privately if you would prefer the alternate assignment."

I hope this will put an end to the whole affair. Ultimately (and ironically), I expect that will be determined by workplace, local, family, and parental politics.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

... It should be "cue" trumpets, not "queue" trumpets. Unless, of course, you want the trumpets to all line up in orderly fashion.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Thank you (whoever you are)! That's what I get for writing after midnight on a school night, I guess. Although I did picture trumpet players in a line, so... cue the queue of trumpet players?

'abdul muHib said...

Interesting. Really good thoughts here. And I'm really sorry you went through this, Ben :-( I can easily relate and sympathize.

I think I see it in a different light, the issue. Not that you're wrong, but I see it from the perspective of a biology teacher in a very small private school. There are biology and science issues that have been politicized and made political by the Right Fringe, which is now The Right. I reject that, but that doesn't mean that they don't. So I am upfront in class in my embrace of science, and pointing out why Anti-Science ideas are wrong. I'm not going to apologize for that.

I am also up-front in my support of the religion of the vast majority of my students, though it is not my own, and of their country. I believe doing so helps me better relate to them.

And lastly, since I am Facebook Friends with some students (though I have them on the new Restricted category, so they see little of what I write except for the public bits), they are aware of my political views, I think. I think that's best that they know where I am coming from, so they can weed out the good from the bad (from their point of view).

But then, there are the moral issues. Let us not kid ourselves: the sole biggest place where kids learn culture and morals is at school, in the modern world. And it is a misnomer to suggest that this is all from their peers. We, as teachers, play a big role in that. Many schools in America actually overtly support patriotism, though that is considered ethically repugnant in certain religious traditions. Or do I overtly support gay rights, or covertly, because some of my students might be gay, and I want equality for all? Or do I covertly come against homosexuality, when the majority of the students and their families and their religion would come from the same perspective? These are choices we have to make all the time. And even if the vast majority of school districts in America would say a teacher should support gay rights, it *is* an ethical decision, and a political one. It just happens to be the ethics and the politics of the majority.

Benjamin Gorman said...

What the what? My long reply disappeared. Testing... testing... Is this thing on?

Benjamin Gorman said...

Okay, I'll try that again. Jed, I was just acknowledging that I agree. A lot of the things we do are biased. For example, at the beginning of the year I make it clear that my classroom is a safe place for LGTBQ students, and that I won't tolerate homophobic slurs. I explain that students can have whatever views they want regarding homosexuality, but that it's my job to teach, and that in order to do that I need to create a safe place for all my students to learn. And that's true, but it's still a political act. Similarly, when they remind us to do the Pledge of Allegiance in class and, despite my qualms (not about my allegiance to my country, but about ceremonial pledges) I lead it, that's certainly a political act. I recognize that there are more subtle and more pernicious forms of enculturation we do that have even deeper political consequences. Teaching kids to obey school rules may affect the way they interact with other authorities outside of school, for good and ill. And teaching them to read critically in political, too. I'm teaching them not just reading, but a way of thinking that might be in conflict with models their parents would prefer.

I think our attempts to be apolitical are analogous to a journalist's attempts to be objective. A journalist is doomed to fail. Just by writing in a certain language, and by needing to explain specific things to a specific audience, they bias their stories. But they should continue to try, and, when they know they can't, they should reveal their conflicts of interest which might be informing their reporting, so that readers can judge for themselves. We should do the same.

'abdul muHib said...

Wait. They make you lead the pledge of allegiance? I'm actually rather horrified at that. I thought that was just an elementary thing!! That is a *very* political act. There are many religious groups in America whose theology flies in the face of that idea!

Benjamin Gorman said...

I think there's a state law about it. Or maybe it's a local school board policy. I'm sure I don't have to do it, but that's a lot of pressure and I don't have strong feelings about it. It just makes me uncomfortable. I do feel badly for the many students who have to sit through it, feeling as though all eyes on on them, when they don't participate for religious reasons. Personally, I think we should recite the preamble to the Constitution. It's far more inclusive and lends itself to learning real history, rather than a pledge that has been amended to out communists but masquerades as something more historical. The Pledge actually obscures our understanding of our nation's history rather than illuminating it.

'abdul muHib said...

There should be a state law exempting teachers for religious reasons.

So how do you deal with the grammatical error in the second clause of the constitution? ;-)

Benjamin Gorman said...

Even if there isn't a law exempting teachers, any teacher could refuse and that would hold up fine in court. The problem is that we don't teach in court, and there's an outsized pressure on every teacher to either lead the pledge or spend time and energy explaining to students, parents, and the community at large why they are the anti-American teacher (as I'm sure they'd be painted immediately). Have you heard the Supreme Court's defense for the references to God on money and in the pledge? They say it's permissible because it's ceremonial and without meaning. That should be offensive to believers as well as non-believers; essentially, we get to have "In God we trust" on our currency precisely because God, in that context, is a meaningless term. But I'm not going to explain that to my students, because it should produce outrage, and I don't want it directed at the messenger.

As for the error, which one? Do you mean the questionable comma in the second amendment, or the weird capitalization throughout the whole document?

'abdul muHib said...

It's the very first sentence, the second grammatical clause. It's a game- see if you can find it! :-)

Benjamin Gorman said...

In the preamble itself?

'abdul muHib said...

Yes.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Do you mean the missing comma after "We"?

'abdul muHib said...

No. But I'll go ahead and go for it- a more perfect union.

Benjamin Gorman said...

What? That shouldn't have a comma. There should be one after "we," since "We" is the subject of the sentence and "the people of the United States" is a parenthetical clause describing "We." Where would you put the comma in "a more perfect union"?

'abdul muHib said...

No, the concept argued by another was the problem with perfect. You can't be *more* perfect.

Benjamin Gorman said...

The root of American Exceptionalism, perhaps? We presume we are already perfect and that anyone who says otherwise is insufficiently patriotic, but then that same politician can propose policy changes in order to make the country even more perfect.