In the Mansfield Independent School District, “controversial subjects” must be taught in “an impartial and objective manner,” the district’s guidelines declare. Teachers “shall not use the classroom to transmit personal belief regarding political or sectarian issues,” the guidelines add.
So did elementary school teacher Stacy Bailey break that rule when she told her students she was marrying a woman? Maybe so. And that highlights a huge problem in the way we regulate teachers, who are asked to teach about politics while pretending that they live above it.
Bailey was placed on leave last September after showing her new fourth grade students a picture of herself with her future wife. She filed a lawsuit against the district last week, alleging that it discriminated against her on the basis of her sexuality.
But school officials didn’t object to the fact that Bailey was gay, they said; the problem was her decision to share that fact with students, which broke the district rules on teacher political expression. To Bailey and her defenders, meanwhile, there was nothing political about her classroom behavior. Bailey was “born that way,” her lawsuit says, and she was simply telling her students who she is.
Yet in a country where gays still face enormous discrimination, coming out to your students is surely a political act. The real question is why so many schools require teachers — gay or straight — to remain in the political closet.
A few years ago, my colleague Emily Robertson and I reviewed school district policies on the teaching of controversial issues. Like Mansfield, many districts encouraged teachers to address such issues but warned them against imposing their own opinions in the classroom.
Of course, we don’t want teachers to propagandize students on hotly contested political questions. In practice, however, these policies have too often served to bar any teacher political expression, no matter the purpose, in school.
And our courts have approved such restrictions. In 2007, federal judges upheld the dismissal of an Indiana teacher who, in response to a student’s question, told her class that she opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The constitution “does not entitle primary and secondary teachers … to advocate viewpoints that depart from the curriculum,” the court ruled. Students, it added, “ought not to be subject to teachers’ idiosyncratic perspectives.”
But how can students learn how to behave democratically unless their teachers are allowed to do the same? That was the question that inspired philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn, who wrote the most famous testament to teacher freedom back in 1938.
“It is obvious that the teacher must be free to do what he is trying to get his students to do,” Meiklejohn wrote. “To require our teachers to say to their pupils, ‘I want you to learn from me how to do what I am forbidden to do,’ is to make of education the most utter nonsense.”
At the same time, though, Meiklejohn cautioned teachers against using their classrooms to indoctrinate students. Teachers should share their views only to help students come to their own conclusions, not to sway them in one direction or another.
“Our teachers must be advocates, but they may never be salesmen or propagandists,” Meiklejohn said. “The very existence of democratic schools depends upon that distinction.”
Did Stacy Bailey violate it? It’s hard to see how. Surely she believes in marriage equality, which remains a controversial issue across the country. But there’s no indication that she forced anyone to agree with her. But there’s no indication that she forced anyone to agree with her. She didn’t tell students they had to approve of her marriage, so far as we know, nor did she criticize people who disapprove of it.
If a student had raised an objection in class, and if Bailey had dismissed it instead of discussing it, her detractors would be on firmer ground. But nothing like that happened, so far as we know.
Was the photo that Bailey shared with her students “sexually inappropriate,” as her school district has alleged? Please. It showed Bailey and her partner in fish costumes from the children’s film “Finding Nemo,” which seems just right for fourth graders. Bailey never used the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” or “sex;” she simply told the class, “This is my future wife.”
But this battle is about all of our teachers, not just those who are gay. We need to trust them to discuss controversial issues in age-appropriate ways. And we need to let them speak their minds, so long as they let students make up their own. The very existence of democratic schools may depend on that distinction.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.” He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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