Teachers nationwide are looking for ways to educate their students about the murder of 17-year-old Florida teen Trayvon Martin. But according to Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, doing exactly that cost Michigan middle school teacher Brooke Harris her job.
The quality of Harris' instruction isn't a factor in her firing. She's been named her school's teacher of the year two of the last three years. Her skill as an educator is evident from the fact that she followed experts' recommendations and encouraged her students (most of whom are black) to bring their personal experiences with racial profiling and interactions with police into discussions and essay assignments about Martin's killing.
And when Harris' students decided to take action and raise money for Trayvon's family, Harris sought approval from her principal to hold a fundraiser in which students would each pay $1 to wear a hoodie to school. But Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell refused to sign off on the plan. In the hopes of persuading Cassell to let them hold the fundraiser, Harris' students asked to accompany their teacher to a meeting with Cassell. The superintendent responded by suspending the teacher.
"I was told I was a bad teacher, that I was being unprofessional, that I'm being paid to teach, not to be an activist," Harris told the Detroit Free Press. "When I tried to defend myself, it was construed as insubordination." Two weeks later, Cassell fired Harris.
At a time when teachers are expected to stick to whatever scripted curricula their school mandates and teach solely material that can be bubbled in on a multiple-choice standardized test, it's easy to forget that educators are the ultimate activists. Educating students to take their rightful place in a democracy, to independently investigate the truth, to think critically, to ask tough questions of the status quo, and to take action to change society epitomizes the best of what activism can be.
Harris' firing also has implications for the debate over teachers unions. In the past few years teachers unions have been demonized by everyone from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to the documentary Waiting for 'Superman' as gatherings of selfish educators seeking fatter paychecks and bigger pensions—all while students fall further behind. Because the charter school system Harris taught in has no teachers union and Michigan is an at-will employment state, Harris has no due process protection, meaning Cassell didn't have to give her a legitimate reason for axing her. If Harris had been a tenured teacher, she would've been able to teach her students academic lessons about Trayvon Martin's death and help them hold a fundraiser for his family, all without fear of losing her job.
Cassell told reporters she can't legally discuss why she fired Harris but says she supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s and remains in favor of protests. She said turned down the fundraiser because it's not appropriate for students to wear hoodies in school. If that's the case, why not ask Harris and her students to modify their plans?
One of Harris' former colleagues left a comment on the Teaching Tolerance site expressing support. "She is an excellent teacher as well as a constant student advocate," the staff member wrote. "Our school lost a lot when we lost her on our staff. She will be missed and I support her fully. Due to feared repercussions I will remain anonymous."
We should all be alarmed that our nation's educators are afraid to speak publicly about their coworkers. And as nonunion charter schools become more common and teachers' due process rights are eroded, the number of unjust firings is sure to rise.
By firing Brooke Harris, Pontiac Academy for Excellence taught students that they'd better keep quiet and stop asking questions—if they don't, they'll lose their jobs. They taught that taking action and standing up against injustice is a punishable offense. No matter how you look at it, that's a danger to our democracy.