I am at once furious and saddened by the firing of Brooke Harris, a teacher from the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School in Pontiac, Michigan. Harris engaged her students–who are mainly African American–in discussions about Trayvon Martin. Together, they planned a day of action at the school to show solidarity and raise funds for the family of Trayvon Martin. Although the principal signed off on the event, the superintendent refused it. When Harris asked for her students, who had written persuasive essays about the event that were published in the school newspaper, to be able to present their case to the superintendent, she suspended Harris. The students went ahead with the fundraiser in Harris’s absence. When Harris, who had purchased the supplies for the fundraiser, showed up to drop them off, this was cited as insubordination and Harris was subsequently fired. Teaching Tolerance–a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center–says, “The explanation given—she was being paid to teach, not to be an activist.“
Many of us who have condemned this act are centering their argument around the fact that Pontiac Academy is a charter school. Certainly this facilitated the ease with which Ms. Harris was dismissed, as the school is non-union. But teachers have been disciplined similarly for many years by public schools also. The bigger issues here, for me, are the looming myth of the neutrality of educators (indeed, education itself) and the underlying purposes of our educational system.
When I first started teaching, I began as a teacher of twelfth grade civics. I worried that my bleeding heart liberal views would leak into my lessons and unfairly influence my students. I believed that my duty as a teacher was to present the curriculum in an objective manner so that students could form their own opinions without my biases interfering with them.
I now believe differently. Education is inherently political, and by extension, teaching as well. The very curriculum we use, the standards that guide our planning, the textbooks assigned by the district, present a political agenda. One could make the argument that no knowledge is objective, which I believe as well, but one has merely to flip through the pages of a McGraw Hill or Pearson US History textbook to see that there is a blatant political slant–one that presents a one-sided, white-washed view of history, intended to build nationalistic sentiment (the very reason US History began being taught in our schools in the first place). An even uglier agenda of this content, some might argue, is to gloss over the brutal, but unescapable, reality of our violent and inhumane beginnings as a nation, the long-term genocide of Native Americans, and the imperialistic moves of the last few hundred years (disguised under euphemisms like “Manifest Destiny”). Still uglier are the events that were glaringly absent from my textbooks, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the even more recent forced sterilization of Native American women. One can only conclude (since what is found between the covers of these books has been judged to be what is appropriate for the learning of our children) that these events are issues that the powers that be would rather our children not engage with.
The issues themselves that have been left out of our education are not only political- many of them are also racial. And it makes sense that if we as teachers are not to engage with centuries, much less decades, old atrocities perpetrated by Americans, then it would be even less acceptable for us to do so with a recent racial atrocity like the Trayvon Martin case, or the many black men that have been killed by “police security” since January. This then brings up, for me, the underlying purposes of education in America–a fundamental issue that our children should be talking about in our schools, not something that is hidden under layers of standards, mandated curriculum, and standardized tests. Should our children be educated to be good little economic soldiers, as my friend Brian is fond of saying–citizens who go through the motions of life, learning the version of history, science, math, art, etc. that our government has decided is the safest? Citizens who do not question the status quo, who accept our society’s norms–and the entrenched inequalities that exist along racial, gender, language, ethnic, religious, and sexuality lines–as common sense? Or should our students have the opportunity to engage with real issues, to actively question why black men are routinely brutalized and killed by our police, why our prisons are disproportionately populated with people of color, or why someone would be judged to be suspicious merely by the color of their skin? Or even better, should our students have the opportunity to wonder about why it is that our schools actively condemn this kind of questioning? Are they afraid of what students will uncover as part of their investigations, of the conclusions they would inevitably reach? And of what students would then do with that knowledge, or because of it?
Granted, Ms. Harris took discussion of racial inequalities, or racialized justice, and extended it to events outside her classroom. In doing so, she was modeling a key feature of democratic society–civic action–and encouraging her students to use their voices and actions to raise awareness of an injustice. Personally, I applaud Ms. Harris for living the values of teaching for social justice and supporting her students as they begin to question their world and the oppressions that are accepted as common sense. I hope that you will help to spread her story far and wide, as it has yet to make it to major media outlets, and sign the change.org petition for her to be reinstated.