Teachers have a right to free speech, too (with a poll)

You may have noticed one thing about our so-called free society: there is one group of professional, well-educated, articulate people who have been de facto forbidden to speak aloud about their views. Those people are our teachers. In particular, if they dare to express liberal, socially conscious views in ways that risk a difference of opinion getting back to parents or, jebus forbid, donors and community activists, we all know what will happen: they will be fired. The teachers know this, too — almost all of them willingly self-muzzle, because it has been repeated over and over to them that actually having a social conscience will damage their relationship to their students.

It’s all a big lie.

It’s really an attempt — and so far, a very effective attempt — to silence a whole class of people who might say something enlightened about society and teaching. It’s disgusting to see how often it works.

Here’s a perfect example: Elizabeth Collins was a liberal, concerned teacher who created a blog to express her views about stuff she cared very much about, such as writing, teaching, and activism. Read it, it’s good stuff, and it’s obvious she cares passionately about those subjects. She also wrote about her experiences as a teacher, taking care to avoid naming the school or any individuals by name, but still being free about criticism and praise while protecting people’s privacy.

I know, most of you are already going “uh-oh”, and you already know where this is going. I also know that a lot of you have absorbed the recieved wisdom and are thinking that she deserves anything that happens to her, that she should know better than to talk about her teaching. You in the last group…you’re a bunch of assholes, and you’re part of the problem. Go away. I want teachers to write openly and frankly and honestly about teaching, and you don’t.

Yes, Elizabeth Collins was fired.

Her story is getting the expected responses, like this:

Enjoy unemployment you liberal, Dem, socialist, borderline commie hack that can’t tolerate an opionion that differs from your own. You got exactly what you deserved. Keep blindly following Obumbler. How’s that working out for you?

I don’t see that Collins demonstrated intolerance; she’s the one fired, not anyone else. If you want to see intolerance, look to the rich dogmatic conservatives who flexed a little muscle and expelled a thoughtful person from the school.

In a Feb. 24 posting, Collins wrote about unfounded accusations that teachers can face. Referring to the Whites’ e-mail – without naming names or spelling out the context – she added, “I realized I was dealing with some hard-core provincialism – not to mention intolerance of anything but ultraconservative views.”

Collins was crossing swords with prominent members of the local Catholic community. In 2009, James White received the Sourin Award from the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute for exemplifying Catholic ideals. (Cardinal Justin Rigali was given the award the year before.) He is also a trustee on several Catholic school boards, and James and Megan White and his construction company, J.J. White Inc., are donors to several Catholic schools, including Notre Dame de Namur.

The school showed the document to Collins and she wrote a reply in which she said that at the March 3 meeting, the Whites had “proceeded to harangue me, raising their voices, pointing at me, slapping the table.” She added that James White had demanded her resignation and threatened to sue the school.

He certainly does represent Catholic ideals in his little crusade to get anyone with different political views fired! And is anyone else surprised that it is conservative Christianity behind the firing? The Whites and their smug arrogance and tiny little minds are the problem here, not Elizabeth Collins. It’s too bad there isn’t an easy way to dethrone such vile thugs from their undeserved positions of respect in these communities.

We need to do more to protect teachers from this kind of bullying, this policy of silencing their contributions to society; actually, though, it’s an asymmetric silencing, because teachers who express conservative views, who echo the dogmatic stupidity of their communities, do not experience this kind of oppression (unless they cross the line into physically injuring students, and even then the community tends to rally around them). You can be an openly Republican gay-hating commie-bashing environment-trashing teacher, but if you’re a lesbian socialist civil rights activist in most parts of the country, you know what you have to do: you have to be very quiet and not raise a fuss if you want to keep your job.

And please note, I’m not talking about what you do in the classroom — there are reasonable restrictions on what you can do there, and there is also a specific set of tasks that you are expected to complete in order to do your job — but entirely outside the class, in your private life. There aren’t many jobs with those kinds of repressive restrictions. You can be a plumber or a carpenter or a taxi driver or a farmer or a Republican politician, and you can get off work and drink or gamble or vote for Ron Paul or Barney Frank, and be open about your views, and it won’t usually trickle back to your boss as a sign that you aren’t fit to unclog drains or plant asparagus. But write on a blog about social justice, civil rights for gays, or your support for public health care, and watch out — there are people who will decide that you are a bad influence on children.

Never mind that there are better reasons to keep devout Catholics away from kids than to so restrain liberal Democrats.

Again, this is not about a teacher keeping a Bible or Chairman Mao’s little red book on their desk, and flogging it to the students (either of which are reprehensible). It’s about what a teacher does on their own time, outside the school, and somehow we’ve got this attitude that teachers must be social ciphers in all circumstances. Teachers should have a right to be Christians or Communists (not that Collins is the latter, and I have no clue about her opinions on the former), but so far, the only privilege they’re usually granted is to be ideologically mainstream.

There is a poll associated with this story. The wording is good: does she deserve to be fired, which makes it easy for me; no, I don’t think she does, because no employer has the right to police the thoughts of its employees, and thoughtcrime should not be punishable. There’s a different question that isn’t relevant here: Does a private school have the right to fire someone for causes like this, and then I’d have to say that yes, they do. Because private schools can be pocket tyrannies. It just means that you shouldn’t work for such wretched institutions.

Did the teacher deserve to be fired for the blog post?

Yes 42.9%
No 50.5%
Not sure 6.6%

One other aspect of this story that really bugs me is that some parents have the idea that their kids should not be criticized: a teacher is supposed to somehow teach without ever giving any kind of discouraging word when a student is wrong. I hate that attitude. Sorry, students get to be told when they’re being little jerks, or being obtuse and failing to follow simple instructions, or even when they’re being narrow-minded little bigots. Teachers are smart in being able to get those messages across without being demeaning, as comes across clearly in Collins’ blog, but no, you can’t require that teachers be supportive of bigotry and stupidity. It’s kind of a violation of the job description.