Issue 72, Winter 1998/1999

Views on the News From the Executive Director: Teachers (and Education) in Trouble

We all know that being a high school teacher is a tough job. But most of us may not realize how tough it is – or that it’s hardest for the best teachers. Readers of Censorship News, however, may recognize that it’s often hardest for those teachers you most admire – the ones who are creative and conscientious, who assign challenging materials or are simply willing to try something different to reach hard-to-teach students. They are often the ones who get into trouble. It’s like the old joke, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Take the case of Cissy Lacks. An award winning, highly successfulteacher, whose ability to draw students into creative writing byencouraging them to use their real life experiences, developed theirwriting skills to the point that they “moved from vulgarity to eloquence,” to quote one columnist. Because some of her students used profanity, she got fired.

Margaret Boring ran into a spot of trouble over a play she produced,because one character was a lesbian and another an unwed mother. No matter that the play won second place in the state competition.

Brian Cabral, a brave young Rhode Island teacher, had the nerve to assign Go Ask Alice, a book he says motivated his students to read, think, and discuss. Now, he and others must present an elaborate justification before teaching anything “controversial”- whatever that means.

Gina Corsun – we ran her letter about teaching The Martian Chronicles in CN 70 – also “prevailed.” But she is understandably demoralized. She did everything a teacher could do, and more, to make the experience a rich and rewarding one for students. Yet the moral of these stories is: teaching anything “controversial” buys trouble. Just ask Ruth Sherman.

Indeed. Why should teachers bother? They have plenty to do, and defending the use of controversial materials just adds to theiralready overburdened, under-compensated lives. I have no answer, but give thanks everyday that there are still teachers out there willing to do that. Without their efforts, our kids’ schooling would become bland and boring, leaving them to figure out answers to life’s hard questions alone.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Parents and school administrators could do more to help the Lacks, Borings, Cabrals and Corsuns do their jobs even better, by insisting that school is a place to learn about everything – even the things that disturb or offend us. They could demand that the school be an environment that fosters intellectual inquiry, where no topic pursued for the sake of understanding is taboo. Think how exciting it would be.