Life in small town America

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The value of a teacher

Over these 45 years as an educator, I have met some amazing teachers. On occasion, some of those teachers have held after school or additional responsibilities such as advising or coaching for small or no stipends, never an hourly rate, because schools could not afford to pay them for their time. If we paid teachers minimum wage for these extra assignments, schools across the US would be bankrupt.

Some of these very teachers are experts in their fields and are held in high regard among their peers on a national level. However, in their local school systems, some have been taken to task for giving their time and expertise to students by allowing students space to create and think and grow as individuals.

Students need space to think and speak and grow and learn. Student publications give them that place to develop their passions for life. Sometimes, students write about things that make adults uncomfortable. Was it not Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a governmentI should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter’? Why, yes, it was. With that thought in mind, I often wonder what motivates administrators and school boards to take teachers to task for giving students voice in their student publications. (Full disclosure, I am a certified principal and elected school board member at the time of this writing.)

If we are to raise a nation of thinking, creative, positive adults, we need to give them space to challenge what they see that is going on in the world around them. We cannot challenge it for them.

In recent weeks I have seen numerous posts that bash students for speaking out about school safety.  Some of those posts have been acerbic and accusing students of being used and manipulated by adults. Funny, though, the very people who do not want students to speak or write about their concerns are the very people who are chomping at the bit to censor students who do speak their own minds. Yet, these very folks scream foul when people try to censor their speech. When we do not listen to students, we run the risk creating of students who do not listen to adults.

In the past five years, I have seen the exponential rise of teachers being threatened with dismissal and non-renewal of contracts as well as being suspended without pay because these very teachers, who teach the Constitution and First Amendment rights, refuse to censor students. How do we teach students that words matter if we do not let them use their words to grapple with the volatile issues that surround us in this country?

Kids are angry, as they should be, about the things going on in this country. I remember being angry in the 60s about war and unrest and riots. I was a teen then. One thing I was able to do in high school was to find my voice on the school’s newspaper staff. It helped me negotiate my passion. Yes, I taught journalism for more than three decades as a result of that experience. It also taught me that those who speak up can create change in the world.

When a teacher takes the time to give students the opportunity to develop voice, we need to honor that teacher and we need to make sure we do not ask that teacher to throw away a whole career because we are miffed that a student published something that might make the school look bad. Student publications are not public relations tools for the school.

What makes the school look bad is the denigration of highly respected teachers who help students learn more than content in the textbooks (which is often erroneous.) When that controversy plays out in the local media, social media and school board meetings, the students lose, the community loses and those who try to thwart the free voice of students by dismissing the teacher, lose.

To all of the publications advisers I know, this is for you. You are valued, you are respected, you are worthy of praise for educating a future thinking electorate. We support you. Press on.