Monday, March 06, 2006

Teachers and Personal Opinions

Several years ago, as I was passing the doorway to a science classroom, a seventh grader said, “Hello, Mr. Fiske, you old fart.”

I chuckled inside, but managed a stern face and said, “Come on, Bobby, let’s go to the office.” I wasn’t Bobby’s teacher at the moment, but I took charge of him anyway and marched him to the school office. There, I filled out a referral slip, on which I wrote, “Bobby called me, in front of about 20 students, ‘An old fart.’ While he may be right, I thought his choice of words was inappropriate for Dana Middle School.”

Bobby got a detention and was told to apologize. When he did I broke a rule and put my arm around him, saying “Bobby, I don’t mind what you said. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. Just don’t say words like that in front of other students.” We became good friends after that. I am sure he did not change his opinion. But the office personnel had a lot of fun with the referral.

Having taught graduate and undergraduate students in college and all grades from six through twelve in public schools, I have loads of experience with political and other opinions in the classroom. My inner person guided me with a sense of fair play. That is, if I expressed an opinion, I gave the opposite view as well. No one knew how I voted in elections.

That is why I (and other teachers should be) was so offended by the actions of one Jay Bennish of the Overland High School in the Denver, Colorado area. In his lectures to tenth graders, this teacher expressed a great deal of anti-Bush, anti-U.S.A. venom with no opportunity for rebuttal, according to tapes made in his classroom. The remarks appeared to be off-topic as well as ‘off the wall.’ There was no fair play involved.

It is my opinion (others may disagree) that the American tradition allows for dissent and for both sides of an argument to be presented, even at the tenth grade level. This is especially important in America’s public school system.

Mr. Bennish’s lawyer argued on a TV news program that the teacher had the right of free speech. Not so. What if Mr. Bennish used his 55 minutes with students to preach the Gospel? He would find himself out of the school district on his ear. And he should be. He is a geography teacher.

So, okay, I was brought up in the Louisville, KY school district where teachers utilized fair play every day. Maybe other school districts are not so inclined. But I suspect that fair-minded people can be found everywhere.

Maybe I am just an idealist.

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