Letter: Teachers do not abrogate their right to free speech


This is in regard to the citizens’ complaint against a teacher in the South Whidbey School District, accusing him of indoctrinating students with his own personal beliefs. The complaint makes reference to a Zoom class taught wherein the teacher made comments critical of Donald Trump after the Capitol Insurrection.

I have not seen the video nor have I read the letter, but as a former public school teacher for upwards of 40 years in four different states, including more than 20 here in Washington, two main points.

First, a public school teacher does not abrogate his or her right to free speech by earning a teaching credential and by being employed by a public school district.

I taught high school American history for many years. While it’s true that public school teachers should strive to keep their personal opinions muted, the truth supported by facts is not an opinion.

With specific regard to American presidents lying, as this teacher is reported to have underscored about Trump, it has not been an uncommon event in our history. The president represents the American government and when this government lies, it’s the teacher’s duty to point it out. Otherwise we should purge the history books about our government’s lying about the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Scrub Watergate out. Redact Bill Clinton’s lying under oath. Bury Trump’s lying about Obama’s birth certificate.

Beyond separating fact from opinion, a public school teacher should not be afraid to give his opinion when asked for it. Students look up to their teachers. Teachers, particularly at the secondary level, are often asked their opinion by their students. This is particularly true in the social sciences, an area fecund with provocative topics.

I was asked once by a student in class, after a long discussion of Jim Crow laws in the south following the Civil War, to give my opinion on when America will have arrived at equality for all. I said when we elect a Black lesbian president. That was 20 years ago. It was my opinion and I was entitled to it.

A closely related issue here is academic freedom. Public school teachers have academic freedom. What does this mean? It means that even if a curriculum is prescribed by a jurisdiction or school board, teachers within broad parameters, have freedom to develop lessons within those curricula that are creative, challenging and engaging to students. Public school teaching is not a “follow the dots” enterprise. Great teachers create and teach great lessons.

In this context, I was alarmed to hear in a public discussion about two years ago someone make the statement that the Coupeville School District would not allow its teachers to assign extra credit work to students without board approval. I believe this to be an abrogation of academic freedom.

It is not infrequent that a little extra credit offered to a student who wants to explore a topic on his own inspires that student to become his own teacher. Extra credit is encouraging.

One of the best things a teacher can ever do is not thwart his students’ enthusiasm. What is feared here, that the teacher will act so irresponsibly that students can gin up their grades with fluff? This entirely misses the point.

The point is not points toward a grade. The point is encouraging the student and giving the teacher the flexibility to do so at the teacher’s discretion.

Teaching students to separate facts from lies and misinformation, to challenge the status quo by freely asking questions and giving their opinions, to go beyond the assignment, these should be our goals and we should support public school teachers who strive to accomplish them.

The alternative is censorship, repression, and a society of individuals who do not question those in power. Only striving for the truth keeps us free.

Steven V. Horton


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