Talking Politics

Within the first couple of weeks as a new principal, I received a number of complaints from parents about a social studies teacher. The parents reported that the teacher was making numerous negative comments about the president of the US at the time and was incorporating her opinion into test questions. When I contacted the teacher and asked her if this was happening, she adamantly confirmed her actions and stated she could take these actions based on her first amendment right for freedom of speech. Oh great, here I was a new principal and my first controversial situation was dealing with an outspoken teacher over politics! I consulted with our director and we decided to get an official point of view from our legal department. I updated the parents that complained and we waited about two weeks for a written response from our legal advisors. The legal declaration was unequivocal: Students need to feel safe in a classroom. If you want to present an opinion, you need to offer both sides. Bottom line, the teacher was not protected by the first amendment in the classroom. Student safety and well being trumped individual freedom of speech. When I updated the teacher with the legal team’s response, she told me she was hiring an attorney and going to sue our school and me personally. Instead, she resigned three days later.

I had several similar situations over the past few years. Whether I agreed with the statements and actions or not, I informed each teacher in each situation that student safety and well-being comes first. In all subsequent situations, teachers fortunately accepted the legal response and appreciated a clear delineation. Now that I am back to teaching, I play it extremely careful. With the recent election, I asked students if they followed the election. As a math teacher, I referred to the electoral vote count. Within a day of the election results, a colleague shared that a student made a statement against the new president-elect. She asked, can I give the other side? Yes, she can present both sides. And she can use it as an opportunity for media literacy and teach students to check sources. But the overriding point is letting the student know that, like teachers, students can’t make statements that may make others feel uncomfortable and not safe.

As the political climate continues to be testy, teachers can use this as an opportunity to teach media literacy and advise students to check sources and research both sides of a story. As a math teacher, I have answered, “What do the numbers say?” and try to have the student respond to their own comments.

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