Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tough questions: new teachers and free speech

In life, most of us (save those, perhaps, that adopt an unabashed go-with-your-gut philosophy) experience the occasional moment of internal conflict and indecision. Usually, these happen to me at the store, when I'm trying to choose between Oat Flakes and Oat Clusters. Difficult waters to navigate--ingredient lists that extend far beyond oats, stunning illustrations of the magic of food chemistry, and so on. This is why it sometimes takes me a while to emerge from the supermarket.

But, once in a while, conflicted moments happen in the professional context. Last week, I was invited to appear on a panel at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). The topic of the panel was dealing controversial issues in the classroom, and I had been invited because the students had read my article on the Morin case.

Some quick background on the case--Richard Morin was a grade 9 teacher in Charlottetown, PEI. As part of a unit on "What religion means to different people," Morin decided to show his students a BBC documentary that was critical of Christian fundamentalism. Following parent complaints about the film and a dispute between Morin and the school administration, he was suspended, and was subsequently not rehired. After he lost his job, he launched what became a 20 year court battle, in which he argued that his free expression rights had been violated. In the end, he was vindicated, although fighting the case (he acted as his own lawyer) exacted a tremendous toll on his life.

In the panel discussion, I shared the stage (via Skype) with a school principal, a former teacher, and a school superintendent. The other three panelists, who went first, all urged a measure of caution when bringing up controversial topics in the classroom. They urged the students to consult with administrators and to discuss their plans with colleagues. They pointed out that it was important to know the curriculum very well, and to stick fairly closely to it. They also urged teachers to be cautious when students introduced controversial subjects into class discussion.

When it was my turn to say my piece on the panel, I echoed all of this advice. I felt sick at heart about the possibility that my article or my suggestions as a panelist could inspire a new teacher to embark on a course of action that would be disastrous for them personally. As a professor, I have tremendous autonomy to say what I wish to say in my classroom. As a new, probationary teacher, one's autonomy is obviously much more constrained and fragile. Surely, the story of Morin is in some sense a cautionary tale--after all, the man showed a slightly controversial film and lost his job. His only reward for exercising his free speech was an extraordinarily long court battle and a paltry court costs award. This is certainly not a fate that I would wish on anyone.

At the same time, though, I felt conflicted about my cautionary advice. I didn't write the article on the Morin case in order to make teachers more cautious! I wrote about it because it was an inspirational victory for teacher free speech. I wrote about it because it was an extraordinary case of a man who had fought to the end for an important principle. I felt, and I still feel, that the Morin case clears an important space for teacher free expression in Canada.

The whole question reminded me of something I'd read on this blog a few months ago. In Feburary, Amy Shuffelton wrote about how she had dealt with a sensitive issue that arose in her university classroom. As Wisconsinites, her students had wanted to talk about the protests in Madison. Amy recounted...
My immediate reaction was to tell them that I am not allowed to discuss politics in the classroom. A memorandum from the chancellor reminding us of that came around as soon as the controversy started. Not so easily put off, one of my students said Ok, but Professor Shuffelton, you can teach us about what’s going on. You can educate us.  
But I have no expertise on budgets or unions, I stammered. I only know what I’ve read in the newspapers. Well, one of them pointed out, you know more than we do. 
I came to the next class a bit more prepared and asked them whether they wanted to spend classtime discussing the assigned reading or what was going on in Madison. Madison, they unanimously agreed. No more dodges.
Later in the post, she described her experience teaching the class that resulted from her decision:
If the class was difficult, it also reinforced my belief that when there are pressing ethical and/or political questions at hand, it is always worth discussing them. My students were bursting to speak. They spoke well. They shared the information they had, and more than usual they spoke with genuine authority.
This is the sort of discussion that I would like new teachers to be able to hold in their classrooms. This is one way in which the space of freedom that is opened up by the Morin case could potentially be used.

The fact remains, however, that these kinds of discussions are dangerous for new teachers, and people have often been keen to remind me about this when I have discussed the Morin case publicly. A year or so ago, when I presented the case at a conference in Montreal, some teacher educators got quite annoyed with me during the Q&A. Some of them were very insistent in pointing out that Morin shouldn't have taught the lesson he taught. It was a bad idea to teach it. It was poorly planned. It was risky. It was indefensible.

From a prudential standpoint, I conceded, they were right. Morin, already an unpopular teacher when he taught this lesson, inflicted great damage on himself by showing the film. I then argued that it was the principle of teacher free speech that was important, and that it was vital not to get to get too wrapped up in the details of the case.

But perhaps the critical teacher educators were more right than I initially thought. Perhaps what one has to be concerned with in teacher education is the future of the people that are in one's class--the prospective teachers--rather than abstract principles like teacher free speech.

At the end of the PEI panel, we were all given a few minutes to say some last thoughts. I tried to split the difference between caution and courage, and I gave them generic but (I hope) worthwhile advice: "Be courageous, but be judicious." I believe that it is possible for new, probationary teachers to deal with controversial issues in the classroom without suffering Morin's fate. It will require attention to the curriculum, careful planning, and discussions with colleagues and possibly consultation with one's administration. It may also, in some case, require neutrality on the part of the teacher. If we are to follow Dewey's precept that the school is to be at least somewhat continuous with "real life," then it cannot be a zone that is swept clear of controversy and debate. Good citizenship involves dealing with controversial issues, and students might as well have some preparation for this task at school.

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