The 2010-2011 school year should have been my best ever: I was teaching at the same campus for the sixth year, teaching all honors classes, and only had classes that I’d taught before.
But by the middle of second semester, I was worn out from constant frustration. A series of cheating incidents had made me paranoid and angry, I had faced a massive outcry after raising expectations for late and missing work, and I had gone through several confrontational parent conferences due to both.
During Spring Break, though, I had resolved to make the best of it and restore my optimism. I was grateful for a lot of things about that job: I worked with great teachers and students, my leaders were generally supportive, and I loved the work I got to do. I decided to focus on the positive from there on out and make the last part of the year the best part.
Then school started again…
On the Monday morning after Spring Break, ten minutes before school started, I got a call in my classroom from a parent. She said she wanted to share a “concern” she had (and all teachers know that “concern” is a code word for “I hate something awful you’ve done and I’m about to make you suffer”). She then launched into a long criticism of my independent reading assignment for the quarter.
This was not the first time a parent had suggested that the material was inappropriate. Each quarter, I compiled a list of books from Nobel and Pulitzer winners and asked my honors students to choose one and read it. Sometimes people found content they thought too mature. I always asked people to research their options first and then choose something fit for themselves. Still, these complaints sometimes popped up.
But nothing like this call had ever happened.
“This book you made my child read is pornographic,” she said.
No one had ever said that before. And she repeated the word two more times in this conversation.
“I don’t make anybody read anything. They have dozens of options,” I explained.
She asked if I didn’t think I should censor what they read.
I replied that I think that’s the parent’s job.
She didn’t like that.
But even worse than all of this, she proceeded to make the attack far more personal.
She insisted that I should “know better” than to mention books like this because, like her, I’m a Latter-day Saint and I have “morals and standards.” She even went so far as to express shock that I had spoken at a seminary meeting–a before-school religious class for high school students, held at a church.
This hurt because she was imposing her interpretation of our values on me (even though the BYU Honors Program even encourages reading things like the modern classics on my list–this reading list from the 1970s even includes Catcher in the Rye!).
But it was worse because I actually go to great lengths to be quiet about my religious and political beliefs in school. I find the vocal role-modelling that many teachers do as activists of some sort to be terribly unprofessional, so on the odd occasion that I share something like that with students in any setting, it’s special.
And now it was being thrown back in my face.
That wasn’t even the first time such a thing had happened that year. A couple of months before, a student had questions about a work of modernist literature. Knowing her and her family a bit, and trusting her maturity, I suggested she compare an aspect of it with something from scripture. She did, and immediately got my point. It helped her.
Not long after, though, I was in one of that year’s bullying parent conferences on an unrelated matter when, to score a point against me, another parent brought up that exchange to make me look bad. So it had gotten around. I felt betrayed. I opened myself up a bit to make the most of a teachable moment, and I was punished for it.
Another relevant anecdote from early 2011: when a student who had been caught and confessed in one cheating incident was implicated in another, his mother scolded me for persecuting him. “His seminary teacher says he’s very spiritual!” she argued.
But back to the phone call.
It went nowhere, with her shouting accusations of corruption at me while I tried to explain, but eventually the bell rang to start the school day, and we had to end abruptly with her angrier than ever.
I was pretty emotionally numb during that first class.
Later in the day I checked the school district’s listing of job openings, and arranged to interview at another school that afternoon. The next morning, their principal called me and offered me a job. In about 24 hours, I had secured a new job at an even better school, an eminent institution where the content of books we teach has never been the subject of a crusade.
The anger of such self-righteous judges never ceases to amaze—and bother—me. It’s so easy to pick on a teacher, isn’t it? So easy to go with the flow of expecting there to be offensive things in school and going on the rampage as soon as it can be justified?
Two points: first, her criticism of the books is unwarranted: the content she referred to is not “pornographic,” by any stretch of the imagination–a month later I picked up the book in question and re-read it to be sure–nor is it, as she implies, the kind of thing our church leaders want us to avoid (good grief, the current LDS church president quotes from Huckleberry Finn in his sermons all the time!). I’ve been through this with other parents and written about it here before, and the fact remains that resistance to literary classics is a mere parochialism, not a mark of purity. I say this as someone who avoids R-rated movies and never uses profanity himself.
Comparing any significant novel to porn is just absurd.
Besides the criticism being spurious, though, is the bald fact that I don’t just teach Mormon kids. My outside reading list was nearly 100 titles long, with explicit instructions for how to research titles for content before choosing one, something which few people bothered to do. I provide a wide variety of options for a wide variety of people. Plenty of totally G-rated books were still up for grabs. I teach everybody’s kids equally.
(I have these lists in the first place, incidentally, because students are expected to do some independent reading each quarter, and if I don’t do it this way, even honors students would come in with Harry Potter and Twilight. You don’t stop with arithmetic in math classes, and you can’t read Green Eggs and Ham in here).
I’m trying to provide a quality education here, but having to deal with those objections so often made me sick to my stomach. It especially hurt that the people doing this were usually great people who I otherwise liked and whose children I loved working with, so why didn’t I ever get the benefit of the doubt? Why shouldn’t they know better?
The above is based on notes I made in my journal at the time. I’ve waited three years to print this so I could be sure that any student who may be affected has since become an adult and graduated. That’s called being professional…as opposed to ambushing a teacher.
If there’s a moral of the story here, I suppose this has to be it: parents, please exercise far more caution before going nuclear on teachers; and teachers, be vigilant with your emotional and curricular armor. How sad that we have to say this.