Monday, September 13, 2021

What's Too Controversial for the Classroom

John Wallis was a fresh new teacher, hired to teach drama, world mythology, and speech and debate at Neosho Junior High in southwestern Missouri. He hung a gay pride flag and a sign saying "In This Classroom, EVERYONE Is Welcome." He was told a parent complained, so he took the items down. Students asked why. He explained, said the flag did not represent what he would teach in his class, and went a bit further:

“But I followed it up by saying, ‘If you have a problem with the flag representing me, or students who identify as LGBTQ+, then you can probably find a different class,’” said Wallis. He said that prompted more complaints from parents.

He was then asked to sign a letter saying he would keep his "personal agenda on sexuality" out of the classroom, including no displays of any references to gender or sexuality. 

Not the first or last teacher to be out of a job over personal beliefs in the classroom, but we're definitely into an era in which it's getting harder to see where the line is. (And we should note that the line's presentation via the press is also muddied up because we can never be certain that we're getting all of sides and all of the details visible at ground zero.)

There are certainly limits to a teacher's speech, both legal and ethical. Legally, teachers are government employees and that means they don't enjoy the full freedom of speech in a classroom as a private citizen on the street. That is exactly why a classroom teacher cannot legally lead her students in prayer--because that would constitute a government endorsement of a particular religious faith. And yes, there's a deep irony in the fact that the same people who want to erode that particular barrier want to erect an iron-clad one around teachers who bring "controversial issues" into the room.

The "How To" for handling controversial issues in an academic way is not all that tricky. I taught American Literature, which means I taught religion, race, gender, etc etc etc, and my basic template was, "I'm not here to tell you whether the osquolots were right or wrong, but I want you to understand how they saw the world and how that affected how they wrote about it." And then I'd make the osquolot case as clearly as I could. 

That seems pretty straightforward, and yet it does not guarantee smooth sailing. For some parents, it will be too controversial to talk about the osquolots at all, as if they had some sort of valid viewpoint. These parents often end up home or private schooling, so that their child never has to encounter an idea that those parents disapprove of. Mostly this story ends with parents learn that it's nearly impossible to raise a child who believes only what you believe.

But that's the academic area. It gets trickier when, like Wallis, and like too many students, you are dealing with topics that are not merely academic. For some non-zero number of parents, a teacher who simply walks into the classroom delivers an unspoken message of "I'm gay and I'm free to walk around and be a teacher in a school" and that message is controversial enough. A non-zero number of parents will find it too controversial is a Black teacher lives their Black life in the classroom in front of students. 

This is the problem with "don't be controversial" directives, pleas to "just teach facts" and "don't push your opinions"--they too often mean "just be in the classroom in the same way you would if you were a heterosexual white person." 

All good teachers know that connecting with students, building a relationship, is critical, which means you have to bring part of your story into the classroom. It's a tricky balancing act. You don't want to be that teacher who overshares, whose students know you were on a date last night and how it went, but you also don't want to be an impersonal robot who apparently gets clicked off and leaned in the closet at night. "Students have to know you care about them" is time-tested advice, but it requires that them to know that you can care about anything. Plus, in some cases you are one of the few adults in their orbit, so you're a bit of a role model; how to have an opinion about something without being an ass is a good skill to model.

Side note: All of this is easier if you live in the district where you teach and students see you out in the community (is there anything as exciting for a young student as discovering that your teacher buys groceries and wears jeans). It's just one more reason that you really ought to live in the district where you teach. End of side note.

LGBTQ students, students of color, students with any number of challenges-- they all benefit from seeing teachers like them in front of a classroom. So do all the other students. And that means seeing what those teachers care about, living their lives. I kept pictures of my family on my desk all the years I taught; why shouldn't a married LGBTQ colleague be able to do the same?

We are stuck in an age of agitated groups, most of them currently on the right. Is there anything we can't raise a fuss about. I was watching an episode of Daniel Tiger yesterday with the Board of Directors, and it was all about sharing when you play with someone, and I realized sadly that this would be controversial content because some folks don't cotton to sharing which sounds a little socialist and in this world you fight for what's yours and you hold onto it. And folks who cry controversy over things like actual facts, rendering science ands history classes an uphill struggle. And folks who think children shouldn't learn anything that their parents don't know or believe. And folks who don't believe in vaccines.

The missing factor in all of these "teacher leaves the classroom" stories is an administration with a backbone. Because it certainly seems as if the answer to "What is too controversial for the classroom" is "pretty much everything." I've worked under controversy-averse administrations, and "don't do anything that will get me a phone call" is a terrible administration policy, especially in times when some folks are intent on whipping up controversy for their own political gains. Drawing that fuzzy, ever-shifting line is part of an administration's job, but they have to have the nerve not to fold to every single parent phone call.

I have no idea whether John Wallis was destined to be a great teacher or not. But I do know that as districts have more and more trouble filing positions, "Go in that classroom, but don't be gay or Black or any of this other stuff on our list in front of the students" is not a great recruiting tool. Nobody's career dream is to be an empty suit. 


  1. I'm curious. You state, ""I'm not here to tell you whether the osquolots were right or wrong, but I want you to understand how they saw the world and how that affected how they wrote about."
    You presumably use this neutral sounding idea as justification for exposing students to the viewpoints of those You find acceptable - Blacks, LGBTQ, etc. When you were a teacher, did you also propound the ideas of those you found unacceptable (but others may find acceptable) - e.g. devout Chistians ? If not, then isn't your neutral sounding template more doctrainaire since you are only exposing students to the viewpoints you agree with or at least find acceptable?

    I understand the need to bond with your students. But can you acknowledge the slippery slope when bringing your values into the classroom ?

    1. Not sure what in that description would indicate that I only used this construction for viewpoints I agreed with.

  2. I had many gay teachers growing up whose identities were very clear. They didn't hang up flags but they were absolutely not empty suits. You don't need a flag to make a point and in fact a great suit can go a long way in making a point!

    1. You and I grew up in different times. I have known gay teachers who were quietly gay, just as I've known straight teachers who kept their personal lives secret. I also knew a board that fired a teacher for being gay (we know this because as the ensuing lawsuit revealed, they lacked the cleverness to couch the dismissal in any other terms). It would be nice for everyone to have the choice. The flag strikes me as a quiet way to make the point about a safe space, the alternative being to talk about it regularly. The real question is not if he could have delivered his message another way, but if this way crossed the line.

      I do agree with you about the suit.