Censorship: The Real Problem With Education

It has been a while since I have posted to my blog, and there is a reason for that. I hope, that as I write this post, I will be able to explain why that is.

My most recent post, dealing with how to use OneNote Staff Notebook at the administrative level, was originally written for, and published by, Microsoft for one of their EdTech blogs. I was really excited about being published there, as I have worked harder on getting the staff at my school integrating technology than I have worked on anything in my professional experience. I have poured my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into this endeavor, and having Microsoft recognize that effort, and want to show off a piece of it, felt like a powerful accomplishment.

So you can imagine my disappointment, and frustration, when less than 24 hours after it was posted, I was notified by the legal team at my county office that the post needed to come down immediately or I would be subject to consequences including termination from employment. That post (which you can read a modified version of here) was a celebration of the hard work of our staff, our administration, and myself. Furthermore, it was a celebration of the great things going on at both my school and my county. It was positive publicity, shared globally, of our advanced use of technology in classrooms, and dedication to our students. And I was threatened to be fired for it.

The reason for the threat was that it constituted a violation in the ethics in lobbying policy that I (supposedly) agreed to as an employee of this county. I, allegedly, identified myself as a representative of my specific school and county and then proceeded to endorse a product without the prior, written consent of said county. I fought against the legal department, stating my own evidence that in multiple ways, I had not violated the policy, and their basic response was “Yeah, you did, and we don’t have to prove it” (a paraphrasing of their legalese-laden response).

The blog post itself really isn’t the point here though. This experience speaks to a real problem that educators face today: censorship. Teachers have a fear of speaking out and speaking up. I see it day after day with our staff. When I start to talk about social media in classes, teachers start getting scared, start saying “I can’t use that.” Some even believe they aren’t allowed to use it. I have many colleagues who won’t use their real names on Facebook, worrying that the county will find out what they say, or that a student will hear.

But truthfully, the problem runs deeper than that. As teachers, we are told not to talk about “hot button” issues with our students. We shouldn’t tell students our own opinions on politics, religion, or standardized testing. We are told to be Switzerland in debates. I understand that it is good for students to form their own opinions, but this is taken so far that in my room, I have often not corrected factually inaccurate statements made by students on these topics, for fear my comments will be misconstrued. When asked by students what my religious beliefs are, or who I am voting for, I reply “we aren’t talking about this.”

All of this would be fine, if the world were a perfect place, and schools, counties, states, and just government in general could do no wrong. But we all know that isn’t true. Anyone with a student in a public school, or anyone who listens to John Oliver, politicians, or has heard a teacher speak earnestly, can tell you that education in the US is broken. Any teacher will tell you the system doesn’t work, and the “fixes” most people come up with only make it worse. They’d all be right, but most of them are afraid to say so, at least loudly enough to be heard. And can I blame them, when I receive a legal notice for celebrating success? Of course not.

We are talking about a publicly funded system that is producing ineffective and unsatisfactory results, with employees paid by state and federal taxes who are under gag-order for all thoughts, opinions, and (in many cases) statements of fact. And sure, this creates less than ideal, and sometimes just plain unbearable, working environments, and the parents of students can, and will be, as loud as they want about their concerns and complaints, but who this really hurts is the students. The students continue to sit without powerful advocates for their best interests.

Please don’t misunderstand my concerns as a condemnation of the teachers, or even the individual administrators, as a whole. They are placed in this system, put into a state of fear, and the best teachers are those that don’t let these constraints ruin or limit their ability to positively impact the lives of their students. They still work hard, often on their own time, well outside of their school day, to make sure kids are learning, succeeding, and thriving. And I love them all.

The “system” doesn’t love them. The state-of-mind of leadership imprisons them. The fear of retaliation paralyzes them. The “powers that be” censor them.

This has to change. Teachers have to be allowed to speak, to share their experiences. Not by screaming and yelling at governors in coffee shops, not through whispered conversations over Lean Cuisines in their 25 minute lunch break, not with a laugh and hyperbole to cover the real issues. Teachers need to be able to speak openly, calmly, and rationally to begin a national conversation about what would actually be good for students, and for learning. We’re the one’s that see it, day in, and day out. We’re the ones that know the kids. We’re the ones that answer the parent emails, work 4 or more hours a night on lesson plans, differentiate so Johnny can read about cars and Suzie can read about planes. We’re the ones that know. But we can’t help while we are being forced to stay quiet through fear and intimidation.

The obvious question that begs to be asked is “What is the solution?” I wrote this post, sat on it for a couple days, then started to show it to my friends. Their response continued to be “You shouldn’t post this,” and in almost every imaginable way, they’re probably right. Given the story mentioned above, I know I’m being watched, the entire point of this post is that teachers are afraid to speak up because of pressure from their leadership, that there can be real consequences for speaking out. This post is a risk to me and my career. So then why can’t I get this post out of my head? Why can’t I just let it go?

And the answer to that question is the answer to the obvious question. The solution to this problem is this post. This post, and hundreds, thousands, and millions like it. Sure, major educational reform is necessary, and something I will continue to search for and advocate for, but as an individual, what I can do to fight the censorship that plagues the profession I love is simple: Refuse to be censored.

I ask that you, if you are reading this, do the same. If you’re a teacher, share your story. Do it publicly. If you’re worried about repercussions, do it anonymously. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be mind blowing, just speak. We’re going to continue this conversation on twitter using the #teachersuncensored hashtag. Please, join us there.

If you’re not a teacher, then ask a teacher. Ask another teacher. And another. Ask them for honest answers to questions like, “What does your day look like?” “What is the biggest problem in education?” “What changes need to occur to help students?” Ask them if you can share their story for them, ask if you can be their voice.