Trampling on Teachers’ Rights?

We have two Jens here, one Jen and one jen. The first is Jen Sparano in NJ and the other is jen schongalla in New Hampshire. Just to be clear on that. Jen posts less than jen but both have been members of our community for years and years.

Now, we just got this comment from Jen Sparano, and it is nothing new as she has been in this same situation before, for many years actually and I don’t know how she is able to even be in that building year after year, when from time to time she shares things like this with us:

…I have a long history with this blog. I’ve sipped the CI coolaid. I’ve just been told not to use TPRS by my admin…..

Anyway, this idea of being told she cannot teach in a certain way has received what I consider a blockbuster response from Robert Harrell in a comment last night:

Jen, if your administration has told you that you may not use a particular method in your teaching, they may have just trampled your First Amendment rights. Here are two paragraphs from an article about Teachers’ Rights and the link:

The Supreme Court has recognized that a teacher’s academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment.”74 Because school boards retain authority to control the curriculum, a public school teacher’s academic freedom is likely to be more limited than that of a college or university professor.75 Courts have held that public school teachers possess some discretion in determining the methods of instruction that they use to teach the required curriculum.76 Thus, courts have held that teachers could not be dismissed for such teaching methods as using a magazine survey that included items about sexually explicit matters in high school speech and sociology classes77 or using a simulation technique that evoked strong emotions on racial issues to teach about Reconstruction.78 At least where the teacher’s chosen method of instruction does not cause substantial disruption in school order, interfere with others’ rights, or affect the prescribed course content, teachers have a modicum of discretion in choosing their instruction methods.79

Because, as will be discussed below, teaching about religion is permissible in the public schools, teachers should be permitted to use the Bible or other religious texts in their literature, history, or other courses so long as it is reasonably related to the subject matter in the curriculum.80 (For instance, a teacher may assign a passage from the Psalms in a literature class while discussing styles of poetry.)81 One federal court has also held that a school board order prohibiting “all political speakers” from access to the school violated a teacher’s right to choose the methods of instruction.82 In that case, the school board order was issued in response to a teacher’s decision to invite a Communist speaker to address her class. Applying the Tinker test, the court found no evidence of any material disruption of order in the school or any violation of others’ rights and thus held that this order infringed on the teacher’s right to use outside speakers as a method of teaching the proscribed curriculum.83 The court also held that the order violated the equal protection clause because it was intended to silence a particular viewpoint (Communism).84 The court said that the desire to avoid the discomfort that accompanied this unpopular viewpoint did not justify the order.85 Nevertheless, if a school had a policy prohibiting all non-students or faculty members from access to the school during instructional hours, the policy could probably be applied to prevent a teacher from bringing outside speakers, including speakers with a religious viewpoint, into the classroom. However, teachers should refrain from inviting only speakers with a religious viewpoint.

Your rights are not absolute because you are a teacher, but neither do you give up all of your rights, and the court recognizes “academic freedom” as extremely important.

You will have to decide what you want to do about this, but most school districts rely on people not knowing their rights. Perhaps an initial private (with union representation) conversation with your administrator about First Amendment rights? In California the right to choose the teaching method and assign course grades is nearly absolute – barring obvious favoritism or fraud. If a teacher shows that under her grading system, applied to all students equitably, a student has received a low grade, no one can force her to change that grade, and an administrator who changes the grade is open to criminal prosecution. You would have to see what the situation is in your state.



3 thoughts on “Trampling on Teachers’ Rights?”

  1. Also, check the language in your local union’s collective bargaining agreement. You can find this on your state’s Department of Education website. Direct links will also show up in a Google search. Collective bargaining agreements often contain specific language about academic freedom. Set up a meeting with your union rep and they will likely be able to tell you if you have a case.

    None of this will make your admins any less hostile to best practices. If you are able, I urge you to actively look for another a job. These situations generally get worse and not better. Spend the year networking and looking for potential openings for next year. Your admins have absolved you of your responsibility to be an effective educator, and have thus granted you the time and energy to be an exemplary candidate for a better school. Hang in there!

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