Teachers Strike Back: Why “Left” and “Right” Don’t Work

They’re out there. In twenty-plus years of teaching and hanging around schools, I can say from experience that some of my friends and colleagues match the stereotype of the ardent, left-wing teacher, seeing their mission as introducing students to the disgusting excesses of capitalism. And maybe wearing scarves. And just as certainly, some teachers embody the tough-talking stereotype of the conservative teacher, pooh-poohing fads and frills and hoping to reach kids with the glories of self-sacrifice and flag waving. As the recent rash of teachers’ strikes has shown us, though, trite stereotypes of left and right don’t really help if we want to understand the cultural politics of teaching.

There shouldn’t be any doubt about the real reasons for these teacher strikes. In Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and now Arizona and Colorado, teachers and public schools have faced crummy salaries and crummy conditions. Oklahoma’s teachers have shared pictures of their classrooms, textbooks, and paychecks. It’s not pretty.

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Crappy conditions, crappy paychecks….

At least one optimistic lefty has hoped that this wave of teacher strikes might be “the forefront of a major comeback by organized labor.”

I’m not so sure. But I can’t help but notice that pundits from both left and right have always assumed too quickly that teachers are somehow naturally politically progressive. In my research into the twentieth-century history of educational conservatism, for instance, I found that conservative activists assumed without even thinking about it that teachers tended to be soft on socialism.

The problem with schools and textbooks, many conservatives believed, was that too many teachers wanted to use their platform to push their students to the left. As one editorialist wrote in my local paper in 1940,

we don’t think it is fair to use taxpayer money in a democracy to teach the glory of collectivism to the budding citizens of a democracy.

Similarly, an American Legion activist at the time warned that too many teachers

will flavor their teaching with a bias in favor of the new collectivism which will subtly determine the content and method of their teaching.

We all know, of course, that some teachers really are politically progressive. Just dip a toe into the blogosphere and you’ll find plenty of examples. Some teachers really do hope to shake children free of the cruel thinking that undergirds capitalist society.

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Watch out for socialist teachers, c. 1949…

With all the attention to teachers in the recent spate of strikes, though, it’s more and more clear that political stereotypes and labels just don’t help much if we want to understand the way schools and teachers really work. Are today’s striking teachers really hoping to lead a comeback of organized labor? Maybe some are. Most of them are probably trying to pay their mortgages and teach their students.

As reporters in Arizona found out when they interviewed non-striking teachers, there is no simple way to categorize teachers’ politics. Are the teachers who voted against the walkout “conservative?” Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. But that label doesn’t begin to capture the mix of reasons teachers gave for opposing the walkout.

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More socialists in the schoolhouse, c. 1949…

One teacher and football coach, for example, seems like he was sent straight from culture-war central casting to fulfill the stereotype of the “conservative” teacher. He told reporters he felt he needed to show his students that he honored his contract. As he put it,

Life is about not getting what you want and finding a way to get it while you continue to fulfill your obligations and for me, my obligation is my contract.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, this notion of teaching students tough lessons about traditional morality has always been central to conservative thinking about schools and education. And of course he’s the football coach.

Other strike-opposing teachers don’t seem quite so easy to put in one box or another. As one explained, she voted against the walkout for a mix of reasons. Primarily, she couldn’t stand to leave her students in the lurch. She told reporters,

The kids that I work with are at-risk kids … (the walkout) also puts them behind. A lot of them come from homes where it’s safer for them to be at school. A lot of kids I work with have severe and profound learning disabilities and their parents both have to work to provide for them. Now they can’t.

Plus, at age 57, she can’t afford not to work. Does she want to be paid more? Sure. She currently works three jobs to make ends meet. A walkout, though, puts her finances and her students’ well-being at risk.

Is that “conservative?” To this reporter, these walkouts help show once again that teachers are just as complicated as regular people.

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Clarence Taylor on Purging Racist Teachers

[Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome comments today from eminent historian Clarence Taylor. Taylor is the author, among other things, of Reds at the Blackboard. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, last week we wondered if Florida’s firing of a racist teacher was similar to Cold-war-era firings of socialist teachers. Instead of flapping our gums more, we asked the expert. Here is Professor Taylor’s perspective:]

The decision to remove Dayanna Volitich, a 25 year old social studies teacher at a middle school in Florida, from the classroom, after it was discovered that she hosted a white nationalist podcast raised the question of the right to free speech. Was Volitich denied freedom of speech?  She expressed horrendous beliefs on her podcast, including agreeing with a guest who maintained that an African child has a lower IQ than a child born in Sweden.  On her February 26, 2018 podcast, Volitich, who went by the pseudonym Tiana Dalichov, maintained that there is scientific evidence that some races are more intelligent than others.  But should she have been removed from the classroom because she expressed racist views on a podcast?

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Grounds for dismissal?

There is a long history of targeting teachers for their political beliefs.   By the First World War teachers were forced to sign loyalty oaths to assure that they would not take part in what those in power deemed as unpatriotic activities.  As scholars Charles Howlett and Audrey Cohan note, “there was a time in United States history when loyalty oaths struck fear in the hearts and minds of those who encouraged free inquiry and open discussion on controversial issues.”

During the Cold War teachers, college professors and others were targeted for their political beliefs.   Hundreds of New York City public school teachers were forced to resign, retire, or were fired because they were members of the Communist Party.  Not one of the teachers fired, forced to retire or forced to resign because of their political affiliation were ever found to be derelict in the classroom.  None were found guilty of spreading Communist propaganda to their students.  They simply lost their positions because of their membership in the Communist Party.

No matter how appalling Volitich’s views are she has the constitutional right to express those views.  I am sure that a vast majority of Americans think that Volitich’s ideas are distasteful.  But the views of Communist teachers were distasteful to many.  Because views are seen as repugnant to a large number of people does not mean that those expressing those views should have their constitutional rights revoked.

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A different world? Or just a different context?

One may argue that unlike the victims of the Cold War, where they were purged for just Communist Party membership and taking part in communist led activities outside of the classroom, it is claimed that Volitich eagerly touted her white supremacist views to her students.  She even confessed on her podcast, that she shared her white supremacist ideas in the classroom.  According to Volitich when parents complained to the principal that she was espousing her racial ideology to her students, she admitted that she lied to the principal by denying she was attempting to spread her racist views.

But even with her claim on her podcast and a few parents complaining that she advocated her Nazi doctrine in class, at this point there is no hard evidence that Volitich was advocating white supremacy in the classroom.  Nowhere is it mentioned that school officials, including those who must observe her in the classroom, ever complained that she was spreading white supremacist doctrine to her students.    Moreover none of her colleagues ever complained of her views.  Is what someone claimed on a podcast grounds for dismissing her from her position as a teacher? Shouldn’t a teacher be judged for what she does in her classroom and for service to her school?

One may argue that the ideas Volitich expressed are dangerous to the larger society therefore she should be fired. But that was the same argument that was used to purge teachers and professors from their position.  Those who were responsible for the dismissal of teachers during the Cold War maintained that their membership in the Communist Party deemed them as dangerous to the country.  There was no need to prove that they were indoctrinating students.  Cold War crusaders argued that the mere fact that they were communists and communist sympathizers disqualified them from the classroom.

Today many recognize that the New York City teachers were simply victims of overzealous anti-Communist warriors.  Let’s not make the same mistake with those on the extreme right.

Whites at the Blackboard

I get it. I wouldn’t want a middle-school social-studies teacher who hosts a white-supremacist podcast teaching my kid. I wouldn’t want her in my local school at all. But does everyone–even a teacher–have a right to free speech? Does our history of teacher purges have a lesson to teach us here?

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Grounds for dismissal?

You’ve probably heard the story by now. Florida’s Dayanna Volitich has admitted she hosted a white supremacist podcast and twitter account. As her alter ego “Tiana Dalichov” Volitich noted that preferring one’s own race was not a bad thing. She wondered about the “Jewish Question.” She noted that some “races . . . have higher IQs than others.”

Does all this make her unfit for service as a public-school teacher? How about the fact that she bragged about disguising her views when her supervisor came around, but did her best to secretly promote them among her students?

In her own defense, Volitich has insisted that her online persona was nothing more than “political satire and exaggeration.”

Should she be fired? IMHO, if Volitich really did engage in this sort of racist diatribe, she’s not worthy of the role of social-studies teacher. Moreover, if she knowingly and intentionally taught her ideas to her students subversively, she should be out on her ear.

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A different world? Or just a different context?

But the historian in me can’t help but ask: Is this situation different from Local 5? As Clarence Taylor has demonstrated, socialist teachers in New York City were purged for their political views. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, left-wing teachers were fired for their socialist ideas. They weren’t accused of bad teaching, but only of bad politics.

It can be difficult to remember the heat and fury of America’s anti-socialism movement. For long decades, though, as I argue in my book about educational conservatism, socialism was viewed as nothing less than intellectual poison. Teaching it to students–or even harboring a teacher who harbored socialist ideals–was seen by many Americans as an outrageous abdication of educational justice.

I feel the same way about this case. I can’t imagine allowing a white-supremacist teacher to sneakily insert her horrible views into a middle-school classroom. But when I call for her dismissal, am I repeating the travesties of the twentieth century, only from the other side?

What do you think?