Maintaining a teacher’s freedom to teach


It was recently reported that a group of Rockville Centre parents accused a high school social studies teacher of criticizing police during class, and wanted her to be reprimanded.
The district superintendent, without referring to the specific incident, wrote to parents, “Lessons and activities that create divisiveness or that marginalize anyone have no place in our schools.”
The teacher did not attack police officers or call for police departments to be defunded. To engage students in a discussion about police actions after the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, she shared statistics about police killings of Black men.
The superintendent is right that no lessons should marginalize a racial, ethnic or religious group, but it had better be OK to “marginalize” neo-Nazis and white nationalism. If the superintendent’s policy were implemented, that would mean eliminating from discussion any controversial issue that might challenge students to think, like women’s reproductive rights, racism in American society, climate change denial or citizenship opportunities for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients. It would allow a small group of parents to censor the curriculum, intimidate teachers into silence and cripple students’ education.
The irony is that the Rockville Centre teacher was following guidelines outlined in the New York state social studies framework. An essential component of social studies education is teaching students to “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims and evidence made on all sides of an issue, and resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at South Side High School in March 1968. Would he be banned today because his ideas on racism, militarism and poverty would make certain parents uncomfortable?
Other cases involving teachers’ rights and responsibilities have recently been in the news. In San Clemente, Calif., a fourth-grade teacher was investigated after she took part in the Jan. 6 protest at the Capitol in Washington. She was temporarily suspended, and then reinstated after an investigation found no evidence that she acted illegally in Washington or that she brought her political views into the classroom. I think her conspiracy-theory politics are crazy, but she has the right to be a teacher. The same principles that protect her also protect the teacher in Rockville Centre.
The Oneonta City School District upstate has a somewhat different issue that officials there are trying to sort out. Former students reported that a middle school social studies teacher gave them the finger and screamed obscenities when he drove by residents protesting the police shooting of a young African-American man. This case is difficult, because the teacher was acting, no matter how reprehensibly, as a private citizen. The district is now investigating him to determine whether there is evidence that his political views creep into his teaching, with students reporting that in lessons on the Civil War, he denied slavery played any role.
If the accusations about his teaching are substantiated, he is directly contradicting the state framework that reads, “Westward expansion, the industrialization of the North and the increase of slavery in the South contributed to the growth of sectionalism. Constitutional conflicts between advocates of states’ rights and supporters of federal power increased tensions in the nation; attempts to compromise ultimately failed to keep the nation together, leading to the Civil War.”
In a joint statement, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP and a school board vice president said, “We are disheartened to hear of the allegations that an Oneonta City School District teacher drove by the demonstration in Muller Plaza on Sunday, yelling obscenities and flipping off the crowd . . . While people have the right to disagree with the demonstrators, it is important that those who work for the OCSD remember that while they are entitled to their opinions, they represent the district, and their actions reflect on their competency in the classroom.”
The teacher is entitled to due process, but it appears he should have been investigated a long time ago. School administrators need to examine his lesson plans and monitor his teaching. If the district finds that racism not only shapes his politics, which is his right, but also affects how he teaches, he should be removed from the classroom, and the state should suspend his teaching certification.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.