Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yet more follow-up on Press-Citizen opinion pieces

The other day I posted about a guest opinion piece in our local paper. I read the piece, which was written by a local teacher, as defending the district’s approach to teaching behavior that I had criticized in my own guest opinion the week before, and as suggesting that criticism of those policies somehow amounted to “negativity” that was unsupportive of teachers in the system. This prompted me to speak up in the comments on the piece, since I thought the piece did not directly confront the legitimate concerns that people (including me) had expressed about the district’s policies. More importantly, I thought it was wrong to suggest that criticism of district policies is somehow unsupportive of teachers. I don’t think opposing a school or district policy is unsupportive of teachers, any more than I think opposing a war is unsupportive of the troops.

At the same time, I sensed that the author and I had some areas of agreement. I emailed him and invited him to exchange emails to discuss the issue further, and offered to post that exchange on this blog. Yesterday, he wrote back to me. He said that his main point was that people shouldn’t criticize teachers for policies that they have no role in adopting, and on that I agree completely. He said that he was reluctant to get into any public exchange about the specific policies, though, and I think that’s understandable. I really appreciate that he took the time to reply. Here’s part of what I wrote back:

Thanks for clarifying -- I totally agree that no one should hold the teachers responsible for policy decisions that they don’t get to make. I have always tried to make it clear that my disagreements are with the policymakers (which sometimes includes the school principal, since she does appear to have some discretion in how PBIS and other programs get implemented at Hoover). I really do believe that the teachers -- because they’re actually *with* the kids all day -- are the people in the system who are most likely to treat the kids humanely and respectfully, and are often the people who take the edge off of some of the policies that I find objectionable. Which isn’t to say that they necessarily agree with me about everything or about anything -- I assume there is variation among their opinions on policy issues, just as there naturally is in any large group -- or that they are infallible.

Part of your article did seem to be defending the approach the schools have taken to discipline and to teaching good behavior, so that was the part that I thought was in response to some of the points I made. But if you were just trying to call out some of the more extreme commenters, I don’t have any disagreement with that. On the other hand, teachers are public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love, so I think they should expect to face some scrutiny and probably can’t afford to be too sensitive to criticism. On the whole, I stand by the idea that a robust public discussion of school policy issues is far, far better for the kids than is no discussion at all, even if it occasionally brings out the worst in some people.

I certainly don’t mean to drag you into the debate about whether PBIS or Social Thinking or 15-minute lunches are good policies. I can understand why a teacher working for the district would be reluctant to get involved in that debate. I think it’s unfortunate that teachers do feel that reluctance, since I think they would have a lot of good experience to bring to bear on those questions, and they certainly have some constitutionally protected rights to speak about matters of public concern, not to mention contractual and statutory rights to discuss working conditions. But realistically, I know that employees are unlikely to want to get involved in speaking out about their employers’ practices, especially if they disagree with them. All the more reason, then, that parents and ordinary citizens should speak up. From some of the responses I’ve gotten, it seems like a lot of people are taken entirely unaware by the idea that there might be different ways to approach teaching about behavior, and that some ways might convey different messages and teach different values than other ways. Unless someone speaks up to make those arguments, a real policy debate can’t ever occur.
It does seem to me that the environment for free speech on local school issues is less than ideal. More on that in an upcoming post.

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