The Politics of Teaching: #BlackLivesMatter Edition

On a social media group for educators, a teacher asked for clarification about the legal grounds for an administrator requesting that the teacher remove #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQ+ support posters from their room.

The responses were illuminating since they tended to drift toward larger and different concerns about ideology and of course the standard claim that teachers should “not be political.”

This was a discussion among teachers in South Carolina, where I taught public high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s; I also attended SC public schools from 1967 until 1979.

Not to be simplistic, but my experience teaching in SC, and my subsequent two decades working with public schools and teachers, has shown that what is technically legal isn’t as important and how administration—supported by community standards—views what is “allowed” or “banned.”

Therefore, at the root of this teacher’s dilemma is the fundamental problem with the term “political” and how teaching and education are framed as “not political” (or more clearly, how teaching and education should not be “political”).

Public schools tend to reflect and perpetuate community, state, and national norms, what we often call “culture.” Rarely, in fact, are public schools mechanisms for confronting, rejecting, or reforming traditional assumptions and behaviors.

As I noted above, during my public school teaching career from 1984 until 2002, my principals allowed prayer over the intercom each morning despite coerced and organized prayer being prohibited in the 1960s (NOTE: Prayer by individual choice has always been and remains allowed and protected in public schools; forced or coerced prayer was prohibited, not individual prayer by choice).

Because of state law and community standards as well, students were required to stand during the morning Pledge of Allegiance (and some teachers required students to participate, speaking the words with hand over the heart).

In that situation, teachers monitoring students in order to make them comply with the Pledge was never seen as “political,” even though not monitoring by teachers and students not participating often were seen as political acts.

Recall the controversy in the NFL over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem; Kaepernick was always framed as injecting politics into sports, but the NFL playing the Anthem was never confronted as what it most certainly is—a political statement.

If we return to the teacher’s dilemma about having #BLM and LGBTQ+ posters in their room, we must confront two important aspects.

First, we must begin to educate everyone about the term “political,” especially as that contrasts with the term “partisan.”

In situations with a hierarchy of authority—such as teachers interacting with students—those with authority (teachers) must remain neutral in terms of “partisan” advocacy. In other words, teachers must refrain from making partisan endorsements in the classroom, never advocating for a specific political party or candidate.

However, every act a teacher does or does not do is a political act since “politics” is the negotiation of power in any human interaction. Teachers are sending political messages when they are agents of any rules or laws.

Complying with rules, laws, or social norms are often seen as “not political” when in fact they are just as political (endorsement) as when people reject or break with rules, laws, or social norms.

Again, while a teacher is being compelled not to display support for #BLM and LGBTQ+, those teachers who have no social justice messaging in their classrooms are equally political; silence and taking a so-call neutral pose are the politics of compliance, rendered “not political” or invisible because of the support of authority (not because they are in fact “not political”).

As I have examined before, demanding that anyone conform to not being political is a political demand. Administrators in public schools requiring teachers to monitor student participation in the Pledge is political; administrators requesting teachers remove social justice messaging from the classroom is political.

Let’s be clear that all of these circumstances are political, and therefore, the reason that teacher is being asked to remove the social justice messaging is clearly not to render the classroom and school “not political,” but to insure that the teacher, students, and classroom conform to the politics supported by the administration, community, and state.

To teach is to be political, and instead of pretending there are options (preferred options) for being “not political” in classrooms and schools, teachers and administrators must be more intentional and open about the moral and ethical implications of education—that schooling is continually sending political messages, some endorsed by authority and some discouraged or silenced by authority.

Howard Zinn’s dictum that we cannot be neutral on a moving train is apt for being a teacher; silence, absence, and compliance send messages of support for the conditions that currently exist.

Removing #BLM and LGBTQ+ messaging as well as not having that messaging in class suggests that the current state of the country is equitable or that the inequity is acceptable (to those with power at least).

We teachers and all educators are political agents in everything we do; our task is not to be “not political” but to be intentional and ethical/moral in the politics of our roles as educators and our stewardship of authority over children and young adults.

I regret the dilemma faced by the teacher being asked to remove social justice messaging from their room; I recognize that solving that tension by determining what the legal basis is for removing or keeping those messages is tenuous, likely to fall on either side based on who is making the interpretation.

But I also must stress that, as Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” laws or rules can be unjust, and thus, breaking the law or rule can often be the moral/ethical way to behave:

[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Regardless of what the teacher is required to do with the social justice messages in the classroom, we cannot pretend that having those messages visible is political but removing them is not political.

All teaching is political and that means our work as educators is moral and ethical work each time we chose to do or not do something in the context of rules, laws, and expectations.