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Another spring is upon us. As March winds its way to its end, many people experience a looking forward, a moving toward a newness and freshness that Spring brings: blooming flowers, greening trees, fecund gardens. This is the time of year that the maxim “hope springs eternal” feels more truth than cliché.
In an earlier era when I was a public high school teacher, this time of year was also a time of looking forward. The students had made their course selections for the upcoming term; thus, the planning for the next scholastic year could proceed: assigning teachers’ classes, considering new curricular offerings, revamping current courses as needed.
Late March also was the time that many faculty members began to consider their futures; in particular, they had to decide whether or not they would continue as classroom teachers. For most of staff the answer was “yes.”
It was a choice I made 32 times. This year, if I were still a public school instructor, though, I feel my decision would sadly be “no.”
My calling was to be a teacher; it was not to be a political pawn. The current state of public education is, frankly, a ruinous imbroglio engendered by the divisive, polarized nature of our endangered democracy. In particular, a variety of blitzkriegs from the political right against our public schools encumber today’s teachers.
For instance, the epidemic of curriculum transparency bills being foisted upon our educational systems tamper the joy of teaching and suppress the creativity effective teachers need to foster learning in their pupils.
Laura Meckler of The Washington Post reports, “Lawmakers in at least 17 state capitols and Congress are pushing legislation that would require schools to post all instructional materials online.”
Their goal, at least in part, is to enable parents who distrust their children’s schools to carefully examine teaching materials — enabling protests or, in some cases, giving people fodder to opt their children out. That includes materials on race and racial equity but also any other topic that might spark disagreement.”
Fortunately, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed House Bill 1332, Pennsylvania’s version of a transparency bill promoted by House Republicans. If such a law were enacted, it could lead to such stringent adherence to “published” curriculum and lesson plans that a teacher might not be able to alter lessons and materials to address student needs.
My calling was to be a teacher; it was not to be a political pawn.
For example, suppose for a minute that one of my former students who now serves as a local Republican state House representative, and who was a sponsor of House Bill 1332, wanted to do a research paper on racism in the U.S. during the Reconstruction Era.
I would have had to answer his request with, “I’m sorry, G_ _ _, but we are not permitted to address that topic in our school.” Or suppose my student had been having trouble with the concept of dramatic irony and needed more instruction to master the idea. “G_ _ _, the posted materials say that we can spend only two sessions on this topic; I’m afraid you will need to find out more on your own.”
Ridiculous? Perhaps, but not if the reactionary zealots have their way.
In commenting on such proposals, Tyler Kingkade, national reporter for NBC News, writes, “ . . . teachers, their unions and free speech advocates say the proposals would excessively scrutinize daily classwork and would lead teachers to preemptively pull potentially contentious materials to avoid drawing criticism. Parents and legislators have already started campaigns to remove books dealing with race and gender, citing passages they find obscene, after they found out that the books were available in school libraries and classrooms.”
It has grown beyond ridiculous.
The New York Times editorial board responded to the challenges school teachers are facing. In “America Has a Free Speech Problem” the board writes, “Since 2021, 175 different bills have been introduced or pre-filed in 40 state legislatures which target what teachers can say and what students can learn, often with severe penalties. Of those, 13 have become law in 11 states and 106 are still under consideration. All told, 99 bills currently target K-12 public schools, 44 target higher education and 59 included punishment for violators, according to a running tally kept by PEN America.”
If you think such actions would have little effect on teachers and their students, consider these recent occurrences.
A week ago, a Mississippi public school assistant principal was fired for reading the #2 best selling beginning reader book on Amazon, I Need a New Butt! by Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird. Toby Price was terminated because he “did not demonstrate ‘professional standards’ or maintain an environment free from ‘unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement,’” Superintendent Delesicia Martin wrote in Price’s termination letter.
In supporting the fired educator, PEN America, a literature and human rights free expression organization, deemed the decision to be “a threat to the freedom to read, learn, and teach.”
In positioning the act of reading a book as a violation of ethics, the district is implying that any educator could be terminated under similar circumstances, whenever an anonymous source feels a book read to students is ‘inappropriate’ for any reason.”
By the way, the kids’ response to the book? “The kids loved the book. They kept coming up to me and telling me how funny they thought it was,” Price said.
Also a week ago in Pennsylvania’s Southern Lehigh School District, a poster hung by a teacher “ … prompted complaints. And that, in turn, sparked a debate on whether the district should craft a policy to determine which classroom signs are appropriate, which cross the line into inappropriate commentary — and, finally, who gets to determine the difference” according to a story in The Morning Call of Allentown. “This sign on a classroom wall sparked complaints. Now some want Lehigh Valley school district to restrict what teachers can post.”
The text of the picture-less poster? “You Belong. You Matter. We Are All Southern Lehigh.”
Let teachers teach. Let instructors construct creative lesson plans that help their students learn. Let our schools be places that encourage free and broad thinking, that provide places for young minds to explore and question and develop comprehensive thinking skills. Let public education provide the backbone of our democratic process and our nation’s original ideals.
Keep intolerant, mossbacks and their myopic, parochial opinions out of our public schools. Otherwise, more and more and more of our talented teachers, when asked in March if they will be returning to the classroom, will be saying “no.”
Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].
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