On the Issue of Those Pesky First Amendment Rights for Teachers

Teachers are people, too! I’ll never forget going to the grocery store with my mom, who is a teacher with 36 years in the classroom under her belt, and realizing they not everyone views us that way. By the way, she will tell you that it hasn’t been 36 full years, because she was hired part-time and didn’t achieve full-time status for awhile. I say the woman has been in a classroom or elementary library since 1978, and that’s 36 years.

Anyway, we were grocery shopping, and a little boy looked at her with eyes as big as saucers and ran to his mother. He was pointing at my mom and mumbling something. I thought my mom must have reprimanded him at some point in the library to have traumatized him so, but the poor kid actually was so shocked to see her outside of the library that he thought she was looking for him to get back a lost book.

As the daughter, granddaughter, niece, great-niece, and great-great-niece of educators, I didn’t know that kids thought their teachers lived in schools. I just thought it was weird that other kids said their parents were going to work, and my mom said she was going to school. But, apparently, kids think their teachers live, eat, and sleep at school; thus, they don’t realize that teachers are real people.

Unfortunately, it seems as though many of those misguided children grow up to be lawmakers, lobbyists, judges, and Campbell Brown. These people don’t realize that teachers are, in fact, people who are capable of having thoughts and opinions. Worse, they don’t think teachers have the same right to express those thoughts and opinions publicly. First Amendment, be damned!

I have first-hand experience with this. When I started this very blog in June, the initial two posts were about how I knew it was time to take a leave of absence from teaching, even though I was in the prime of my career. I may have been a little harsh in my language and brutal with my honesty; however, to the best of my knowledge, I broke no levels of confidentiality, I used no names (in fact, most of the anecdotes contain characters who are blends of students and colleagues and administrators I’ve encountered in eleven years in the trenches), and I ran the posts past some of my union leaders prior to publishing them online. I was received with mostly positive responses and more encouragement than I had expected. In fact, friends of mine who teach in other districts in a couple of states shared it with their colleagues and union leaders; they actually asked for permission to share my posts at their end-of-the-year festivities because they were so entertained, yet moved by my story. Nearly every teacher who read those first posts said it was as though I had been inside his classroom or inside her mind while writing. And, most of the educators who read those posts encouraged me to keep telling the true story of what it’s like inside public education today.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a phone call advising me to take down the blog. I was told that I could be terminated “on the spot.” In my mind, I simply was exercising my First Amendment right; in their minds, I had overstepped some sort of boundary that forces teachers to keep everything under our hats. In the end, I complied because I didn’t know where this new freelance adventure was going to take my family’s finances, and I could very easily need to return to the classroom. It was a very difficult decision and I was beyond livid, but I realized that I had to follow the advice, at least for the time being, for my family.

I then changed the direction of the blog to family and parenting and observations of life under my ponytail, all the while wondering how my audience would have grown if I had left the posts as they were. I also wondered how many other teachers would have responded positively about someone finally being able to tell it like it is.

Then, I saw the Campbell Brown interview with Stephen Colbert. I couldn’t keep quiet about that. I was angry and insulted and disgusted by her insinuations, her spin, and her less-than-half truths. I sat down and penned the open letter thinking that I would feel better once I got it all out. I walked away from it and tried to go back to the writing job that is paying the bills. But the thought of leaving the letter off the blog, too – of not being able to share my opinions and thoughts and feelings as a professional in the education field AGAIN – was too much. I closed my eyes, hit “Publish,” and went to bed.

The response has been overwhelming for someone whose blog was getting between 50-100 hits a day (other than those initial education posts that were getting more hits than expected for a blog that had been up and running merely for two days). When it hit 1,000 views, I was thrilled. When it hit 5,000, I was in tears. When it hit 10,000, I was stunned and shaking. It’s still going. And, the responses to the letter are equally as overwhelming.

Teachers are sharing stories with me that are breaking my heart. They have lost their unions, their pensions, their classrooms, their autonomy, and for most, their dignity, as politicians, corporations, parents, and people like Campbell Brown come after them day after day after day. People are asking me to share their stories, and I can’t do that in good conscience when I’m afraid to share mine. The repercussions are far too great. I’m still researching cases in which judges are ruling against teachers’ First Amendment rights. Facebook statuses are getting teachers fired, even when they aren’t breaking any confidentiality, laws, or contract obligations. Yes, teachers always have been held to a higher moral code, and some teachers push the envelope with their language and overabundance of personal information and other things that in all honesty should be actionable. This is not why unions exist, and this is not why tenure exists, and teachers need to be smart about what they share.

But, teachers are people, too. They should have equal protection under the First Amendment when they want to add their voice to “education reform.” They should have a voice when governors slash education budgets by millions of dollars year after year after year (don’t forget, I live in PA, with arguably one of the worst governors in relation to education in the entire country). They should have a voice when administrators bow to parents because they are afraid of losing kids to charter schools and cyber schools that are draining desperately-needed resources from the majority of kids in public schools. And, they should have a voice when they decide to leave their profession for a year because they know they need a break.

I WILL be publishing those initial blog posts in the next couple of days, with a few tweaks. I am a person, too. And I have First Amendment rights, just like everyone else. We will see whether I actually do or not. In the meantime, I’m going to try to do some more research about it, so if anyone else has links to those recent cases, from anywhere in the U.S., please send them my way.

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3 thoughts on “On the Issue of Those Pesky First Amendment Rights for Teachers

  1. Hi Bailey,
    Love reading all your interesting stories. Is there a way to read what others write about your posts? I would love to read the comments regarding the Campbell Brown story.
    Thanks

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    • Hi, Lisa. Thank you! If you go to the blog site at baileyshawley.wordpress.com and scroll to the end of the post, you should see a link to the comments. Currently, there are 33 comments for the Open Letter to Campbell Brown, so the link reads “33 Comments.” I’m not sure if it looks the same on a mobile device as it does on a computer.

      Like

  2. I truly hope you re-post your original blog posts. I read the one where the SLO’s were helping to make your decision to take a year off and it was like you read my mind. I will be starting my 21st year as a teacher in a a few weeks. I am starting to dread going to work. When I read pieces like yours, it gives me comfort to know I am not alone in thinking this way. Love your writing. Thanks for all that you do!

    Like

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