There is very little that can serve as fodder for today’s outrage machine more than an error, a lapse in judgment, or a poor decision made by a classroom teacher. It is the nightmare scenario not only for most teachers, but also for principals and other high-level bureaucrats within the education system.
The past few weeks have provided two such incidents in the metro Atlanta area. The first has become an issue in the Georgia GOP gubernatorial primary.
A Cherokee County high school math teacher told two students their shirts with the slogan “Make America Great Again” were not permitted in class, as a violation of the school’s dress code. The teacher also shared her personal opinion about the campaign slogan to the class.
The school system issued a statement indicating “The school’s Principal immediately met with and apologized to these students and their families.” The Cherokee County school superintendent also apologized on behalf of the district.
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The system refused to comment on discipline that the teacher may face. In a video statement given to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the teacher is less than apologetic. Despite banning shirts with a political slogan, she blames others for making this situation political. She states that “people can wear President Trump T-shirts. It’s the statement ‘Make America Great Again’ that’s the problem.”
Her words hardly match those released by the Cherokee County School District. According to the video, she is being kept out of the classroom. That’s still not good enough for at least one candidate for governor, who plans a protest at the school this week when the students have returned from fall break to demand she be terminated.
(I’ll save giving him the publicity by not mentioning his name. This will also keep me from suggesting that any candidate that wants to have a protest but waits until minors will be present is being deliberately exploitative.)
Meanwhile, over in DeKalb County, a middle school teacher has been removed from her classroom due to an assignment involving profane rap lyrics. Her assignment broke down the lyrics to a song, line by line, and asked the students to rewrite the lyrics in a more positive light.
I can’t say I’m familiar with the song in question, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the teacher believed her students were. Regardless, as the DeKalb superintendent told WSB-TV, “we encourage teacher creativity but we expect instruction to be … age appropriate.”
Both cases involve judgment calls that teachers made. Both resulted in teachers being removed, at least temporarily, from their classrooms. And both involve fodder for social media that likes to beat up on classroom teachers for the exact policies many of the same folks demand.
Go back to the recent debates over the adoption of Georgia’s Performance Standards. They were almost scrapped because they became tied up in the Common Core debate, and were inappropriately labeled as “curriculum.” The argument was that classroom teachers know what they need to teach, and don’t need to be told by bureaucrats.
Then there is the ever present yet unanswered question of how to set accountability standards to show results for the money invested in education. We’ve systematically rolled back testing requirements, but also the number of subjective evaluations by school administrators over their classroom personnel. We don’t seem to care much for objective or subjective evaluation of our classrooms these days.
There’s also the ever present “local control” argument, the one that says a locally elected school board knows community standards best. This was the main rallying cry used to kill the constitutional amendment for Georgia’s proposed Opportunity School District. It’s an argument that holds until a statewide candidate for governor believes that lib’rul Cherokee County needs a potential statewide elected official to step in to enforce the right to help Make America Great Again.
We have an electorate that wants our teachers to be completely untethered, but then wants to beat up on the entire education system when one teacher goes rogue or makes an error in judgment. We also have a student and parent population that knows traditional and social media are just a text or post away should they feel aggrieved.
We should understand that this is exactly the system we’ve demanded. Teachers are given wide latitude, at least in theory. But most are also unlikely to be willing to push the educational envelope for fear of becoming the subject of a news story and/or litigation.
We need to find a way to encourage our teachers to take more chances to improve student performance, not less. Part of that process would require us to keep our outrage in check when an incident makes its way into media.
Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.