Who Should Determine What I Teach?

Will Tucker

On the morning after Trump was elected, I was told I couldn’t teach about the election. Correction: I was given a directive to not teach about, or even discuss the election unless it was part of a pre-planned lesson. 

In my 14 years of teaching, this remains one of the only times I’ve felt censored, helpless, and hung out to dry for the sake of political correctness. The story of that day is worth telling, not just because it speaks to how important curricular freedom is to teachers, but also because those feelings of censorship and despair may come around again on November 5th, if Andy Beshear is not elected the next governor of this state.

That November morning, I cried all the way to school. I listened to one of my favorite bands, Hot Water Music, so loud that the car windows rattled. I must have been quite a sight. A grown man sobbing on the way to work, trying not to lose control of the Camry. 

The teachers in our hall gathered together as the first bell rang, some fighting back tears before we were to spend the day trying to teach. In the midst of our adult conversations, one of my Honors Freshman students came up and joined our circle. Sue, who was adopted from China, was sobbing, having just heard from one of her classmates that she might get sent home. 

“What are you talking about?” I said. 

“It’s the boys in class, Tucker. They said I’d have to go back because of Trump!” She burst into a full-on ugly cry and my colleagues and I blocked her from being seen in the hall. We took turns giving her hugs, trying to calm her down. 

The final bell rang, and I convinced her to come to class and confront the boys who had made the remarks. After announcements, I tried to start the class, but I looked at Sue, who was still crying, and I joined in. With tears streaming down my face I said, “ I will not let the hatred trying to take over this country enter this classroom!  You are safe here. No one is going anywhere!” The boys who had said the terrible things immediately apologized and backpedaled, saying they were only worried about their friend. They didn’t mean to upset anyone. 

I decided to make this into a teachable moment and we began an honest conversation about what the students were so concerned about: closing the borders, an economic downturn, racism being more vicious and prevalent than ever before.

In the midst of our talk, the phone rang. It was the principal. “Hey, Will. Are you doing alright?” I told him I was, and briefly explained what had happened with Sue and the boys. 

He was quiet a beat, then said, “Well, you handled that well, but why don’t you come down and we can talk about things for a bit? I’ll send someone up to watch your class.” 

One of the security guards arrived and I made my way down to the front office. A number of thoughts went through my head on the way: am I getting fired? Should I call the union before I talk to him? What had I said that was so inflammatory?

I knocked on the office door. “Come on in. And shut the door.” I sat down across from his desk. “Now tell me, what is really going on?”

I recounted the whole story. Before he could speak, I said “Richard, if I’m getting reprimanded over this, can I at least write it up so it sounds good?” 

He laughed. “You’re not in trouble, Will. A parent called and said that their student indicated you were really upset over all this. I know we’re all upset. I wanted to give you some time to reflect before you go back to the kids.” 

We sat and talked for a full hour. We talked politics. We talked about the fact that I was becoming a dad the following month. He told me he was becoming a grandfather for the first time in March. We both worried about the world these new children were going to inherit. 

Before I returned to my classroom, Richard got a call from the area superintendent’s office. This is where the directive comes in, and where I start to feel like the district cares more about PR than they do about teachers…

So how much intellectual freedom should teachers have as they design their curriculum? Should they fear reprisal for telling students the truth, even when it comes to politics? Teaching is, in fact, a political act, one that drives democracy, and one that gives voice to those who never knew they had voices to begin with. 

As I write this, we are only 13 days from what stands to be one of, if not the most important elections for Kentucky teachers in many years. With our pensions on the line, with the potential invasion of charter schools looming on the horizon, public education stands to lose everything if Bevin is re-elected. 

Frankfort has failed us, so we must stand together to ensure the future of this Commonwealth, while standing up against those who seek its destruction.

On November 6th, I hope that the windows of my fancy Camry will rattle again, this time to the sound of victory. I hope to talk with my principal that day, not about politics, but about all the ways we can keep making our school better for every student. I hope I can look my kids in the eye and say that we have made a difference, that an era of division has come to an end, and that this great state can finally take a step forward towards a better tomorrow for every citizen.

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