Ethical Educator

The Desperate Outburst
School Administrator, January 2018

Scenario: In the days after the 2016 presidential election, a high school teacher considered well-respected and highly effective feels desperate about the outcome. He sees increasing reports of students harassing others and making racial slurs. He posts a lengthy letter for his students to read that says in part: “If you backed the president-elect, you aligned yourself with someone who is racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, homophobic, egocentric. … That choice says something about you.” Several parents complain to the principal and aim bitter attacks at the teacher. How should the administration respond?

Maggie Lopez: 
The administration needs to work with the teacher to address his posted response. There is no clarity on whether the teacher’s letter was posted on his school or home media page or on his personal time or work time. Either way, teachers are role models for students and although the teacher has the right to his opinion/freedom of speech, as an educator he also has to consider his responsibility to his students. 

The teacher could have addressed the students’ bully behaviors and his growing frustration with his students, in a different manner. In a way, his posting just further demonstrated more bullying behavior. There should be policy on conduct/expectations related to staff use of social media, and clearly there is law governing freedom of speech. Legal counsel can weigh in to help leadership determine next steps for addressing the teacher’s posting. 

As the 2016 election results have now evolved into a new era of leadership for our nation, responses are being played out through demonstrations, social media and a variety of other scenarios. This evokes emotional response in students and staff.  It is a challenging time! As educators, we should ask ourselves, “As our students matriculate through these years and eventually become adults who can vote, how will they remember how we as teachers handled the media infusion and controversy presently bombarding us and the students who come to our school house doors?”
Meira Levinson:
The parents are right to complain, as the teacher made a significant error in attacking his students’ character on the basis of their presidential vote. This teacher would have been on solid ground in posting a letter that challenged students’ behaviors. He could have told them both that he expected better of them as friends, classmates, and citizens, and that they risk disciplinary action for violating district and state anti-bullying regulations.

The teacher also might have been justified in posting an open letter that affirmed his commitment to civic values of equal respect, anti-racism, freedom of conscience, democracy and rule of law and that challenged his students to do likewise. But he is wrong to tell his students that their support for Donald Trump demonstrated a necessary failing on their own part.

The teacher is wrong for a number of reasons. First, his students might have supported Trump despite these features rather than because of them — say, because they wanted to ensure pro-life justices were appointed to the Supreme Court. Many supporters of President Obama, for instance, voted for him in 2012 despite the fact that he authorized warrantless drone strikes that killed U.S. citizens, not because they identified as the kinds of people who supported extra-judicial killings.

Second, these features are not actually unique to Trump among the presidential candidates. Had Ted Cruz been elected president, the same descriptors of “the president-elect” could apply, and they likely also describe some former U.S. presidents.

Third, this reminds us that if President Trump poses an existential threat to democracy, it is because he disrespects democratic constitutionalism and rule of law in favor of strong-man authoritarianism, not because he is simply racist and egocentric. The time may (have) come for teachers to challenge their students to be upstanders for the American civic experiment. But it should be on grounds that go beyond the personal failings of any one individual — and this teacher needs to recognize that, as well.
Sarah Jerome:
The teacher has an opinion shared by many, but obviously not all. Whether the teacher is right or wrong in his opinion does not matter. The teacher must create and insist on an environment in his classroom where each student has the opportunity for informed debate on issues and civil discourse. 

The teacher may not be able to control all environments where racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, homophobic, egocentric behaviors are evident, but in his classroom, he can insist that all people are treated with respect and where racial slurs and harassment of others are not tolerated.

The teacher can set the example for how thoughtful, reasonable, informed, mature adults conduct themselves in a diverse society. And the teacher must respect diverse opinion and allow  and even encourage — civil discourse of differing views.

The administration needs to support the teacher by guiding him to remember that his students are a "captive audience." The teacher is in the classroom to educate, enlighten and encourage reflective citizens who respect each other’s right to make informed choices.

Modeling this behavior for students is a critically important role for the teacher. The administration can bring the teacher's focus back to the real impact he can have with his students  not by forcing his opinion on his students but by modeling good citizenship for his students and giving these students the opportunity to practice these citizenship skills in the classroom and in their lives outside the classroom.

Shelley Berman:

Probably more than any election in recent history, the 2016 presidential campaign was extraordinarily contentious, antagonistic and emotionally disturbing, provoked not only by the candidates and their campaign staffs but also by Russian interference and the actions of extremist groups that sought to further inflame and divide the country.

In this kind of environment, teachers must remain respectful of differing viewpoints, create a climate of thoughtful dialogue, and engage students in an examination of factual evidence. One thing they should not do is enlist students in their own political perspective or attack students for their political opinions. We are not here to teach students what to think, but how to think critically.  Therefore, it is essential that we are aware of and careful about imposing our own biases.

Although this teacher has a First Amendment right to his opinion of the president-elect, he is accountable to his students and to the school community for maintaining both the integrity of his position and his composure. Above all, he has a professional obligation to create an emotionally safe environment for his students. He clearly violated that expectation by attacking his students for their opinions and labeling them as prejudiced toward others.

However, this teacher’s concern about harassment and racial slurs is a worthy issue to address. There is no place in our schools for racism, anti-Semitism, prejudice against Muslims, bigotry, bullying, discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, hatred or violence. It is not the responsibility of only the administrators to make it unequivocally clear to students and the community that expressions of these sentiments by word or deed are not acceptable; it is the collective responsibility of the faculty. Educators should take a stand for the values of justice, respect, tolerance and acceptance of difference.  One of the essential ways to communicate those values is to model them. In this case, despite his concern about harassment and racial slurs, the teacher undermined his stature and his instructional leadership by criticizing and labeling his students for their political preference.

The administration needs to respond immediately by meeting with the teacher. Given the teacher's positive reputation, he may be able to address the situation by writing a letter of apology to students and their families and by demonstrating his understanding of how he had violated their trust. Still, he has compromised the confidence and respect that students and families have in his instructional abilities and it may take time to rebuild that confidence. In addition, a letter of reprimand to his file would provide documentation to deter any future occurrence. However, if the teacher remains adamant in his position, the administration needs to consider more significant disciplinary consequences.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; and Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.