Saturday, January 9, 2016

Fired for Competence

You may have heard this story already. You're going to hear it again, and you should. And that's the point. Because one of the things we need to understand about the world is that it includes people who do bad things for stupid reasons.

Jeena Lee-Walker is bringing a lawsuit in federal court because, she says, she was fired from her job teaching English in an Upper West Side high school for teaching a unit that administrators feared would "rile up" students.

Lee-Walker's unit was about the Central Park Five case,a particularly egregious miscarriage of justice. If you've forgotten the 1989 case, it began with the savage assault and rape of a 28-year-old investment banker in Central Park on a night during which widespread attacks were occurring throughout the park. The police pinned it on a group of five juveniles, whose confessions were taken under circumstances less-than-consistent with any kind of proper procedure. Their stories did not match and there was no physical evidence to tie them to the assault, but they were none of them exactly model citizens, and so they were convicted, serving from six to thirteen years for the crime. Then, in 2002, a career rapist already in prison confessed to the attack. DNA evidence, physical evidence, his account of the attack-- they all confirmed the confession. Oh, and he declared that he had acted alone. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated. In 2003, they sued the city for malicious prosecution, but the city under Mayor Bloomberg refused to settle, and in fact still had not settled in 2013, when Lee-Walker was teaching her unit. That settlement didn't happen until 2014, under Mayor de Blasio.

Lee-Walker says her bosses were concerned that her unit was not balanced enough. I am not sure how one works balance into an account of these events. The most common defense of the wrongful conviction is that the Five were all Bad Actors, but the "Well, I'm Sure They Were Guilty of Something" approach to criminal justice is just, well, stupid and wrong. The response to a crime, even one as awful as this (and it was a truly brutal assault), is not to round up some bad actor Black and Hispanic kids and call it a day. There is no legal principle of "If you commit a crime of any sort, you are thereafter criminally liable for all crimes that occur in your general vicinity." I don't know what kind of balance you bring to a study of this event, or what Lee-Walker's bosses felt she was missing. And in all fairness, at this point we have only heard her side, so maybe she was depicting police as evil demons who ate babies while interrogating the Five. But that wouldn't be a problem with balance so much as with accuracy.

But as Lee-Walker says, "The facts are the facts." She refers to "the documentary" which I'm guessing is the film by Ken Burns, a film-maker not exactly known for his slipshod ways or sensationalizing style. In other words, Lee-Walker didn't just pull this unit out of her butt, but leaned on the work of respected sources.

The court documents indicate she was fired for "insubordination" which generally means "we ordered you to do X and you said no," and that ended a six-year teaching career.

Lee-Walker allows that some of her Black students became riled up, and all I can say is Good For Them. I wish students would become riled up more often, particularly when confronting the notion that injustice still rears its head in the world on a regular basis. American history is filled with things that people ought to get riled up about. Getting riled up is the first step toward learning more and coming to some understanding of why the injustice occurs, and that, with luck and effort, leads to actually doing something effective about the problem.

Of course, that involves connecting students to the real world, and education is filled with administrators who want to cut all connections between the classroom and the world, studying everything as a cloud-wrapped abstraction. It is one of our most self-defeating impulse in education-- and then we're surprised that our students don't see any relevant value in what we are trying to teahc them.

That's our job. A competent teacher connects the learning to the world, or the world to the learning, and this can and should include the business of getting riled up. We should be teaching students what to do when they get riled up about something. And we should be showing them things that are worth getting riled up about. Any time students are riled up-- that is a teachable moment.

So while I'm reluctant to wade into these stories where we've only heard one side, it's hard for me to imagine how Lee-Walker was doing anything but her job. She was teaching at the ironically-named High School for the Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, and I'm forced to wonder if that name isn't short for High School for Some of the Arts, A Bit of Imagination, and Just Enough Inquiry. There are so many lessons for young residents of New York City to learn from the story of the Central Park Five; it makes no sense to fire a teacher willing to approach them.


  1. Once again, I find myself reminded of the prescience of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451: "We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, something real?" I read it with my 8th graders every year, and every year it seems to be more tangible and more accurate to the world around us. Terrifying. Thanks for keeping us bothered about what's important, Peter!

  2. When education is insulated, and scripted, we are endangering our democracy. Freedom of information and the exchange of information is the foundation upon which we build, piece by piece, our individual knowledge base of experiences. When censorship occurs, we do a great injustice to truth and disservice towards preserving our freedoms. A teacher should be given the latitude to decide what their student population can handle, and be responsible for them learning from events taught in context and appropriate measure. We all are connected, are part of the ripple effect of actions and time. Much of the time truths are quite disturbing and should prompt change for the good.

  3. Sad, isn't it? But are we surprised? If you or your organization receive public tax dollars, then you're going to have to deal with the politics of it all coming from the top down. I can imagine a principal or superintendent worried about a teacher unleashing a Black Lives Matter tumult...and one succeeds in a public bureaucracy by keeping things nice and quiet.

    This is also how Huck Finn gets banned from so many's easier to placate the diversity crowd rather than intellectually engage students.