My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Thoughts On Jay Bennish

A smart friend of mine asked me a few questions today about the Jay Bennish situation. Those questions stirred up so much food for thought that I thought I should try to get some of them down on paper.

First, I guess, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Jay Bennish is a teacher at Overland H.S. in suburban Denver. A few days ago, during a 10th grade honors Geography class, he digressed into a 20-minute diatribe against President Bush, in which he drew comparisons to Adolph Hitler. The problem for him, it would seem, is that one of his students had a tape recorder in class to help him remember the "lecture" later, and that tape has now been played on many news outlets.

Let me say right off the bat that I do NOT think this sort of thing is widespread among teachers. While Bennish's views are rather commonplace among teachers, most--and I would put the number at 98%--teachers are VERY aware of the requirements for professionalism in their classrooms and rarely let go of their own self-discipline to this degree. Teachers, just like everybody else, have strong opinions, and sometimes the faculty lounge can be a lively place during lunch. But the vast majority of teachers that I have come across (and as a 15-year public school teacher, that number is not small) have too much respect for their role in the classroom to let themselves melt down like this.

And for those who aren't as concerned about the decorum of the clssroom, there's always this little constraint we like to call a "lesson plan." Most of the time, that lesson plan is centered around a single topic which has a fairly limited scope. In what context Mr. Bennish was talking about the State of the Union speech during a Geography lesson is unclear; it would seem a stretch, AT BEST, to say that his lecture was germane to any subheading of Geography.

I think it's instuctive to look closely at some of the details of Mr. Bennish's situation. He has been teaching for six years, which means he is still pretty young; that also means that he has attained "professional teacher" status, which is Edu-babble for "tenure,"which he knows protects him from a lot of stuff in the classroom; and, obviously, looking at him one could conclude that he has not shed some of the affectations of his collegiate days (speaking to the haircut). All of this congeals into a picture of a passionate young man whose glory days as a university activist are still fresh in his memory, and whose willingness to comply to the codes of conduct set forth by "society" is still influenced by those university days. What he needed, in my opinion, wasn't a forum to speak his mind, but he waited until he had the protections of the teacher contract to begin carrying out his activism in his personal fiefdom.

The appropriate consequences for such behavior, sadly, are fairly clearly spelled out by the teacher contract. For deviating from approved curriculum (and I'm assuming here) he will probably have a negative mark on his next evaluation and be "remediated" to some small degree; for failing to follow district policy in presenting a "balanced view" of controversial subject matter, at this point I think the worst that can happen to him is that a letter of reprimand will be placed in his file, spelling out the expectations for his classroom comportment in the future.

If that sounds like a slap on the wrist, that's only because it is. And believe me, the union will fight even these disciplinary measures tooth and nail, spouting all kinds of high-minded platitudes about "free speech" and "encouraging critical thinking."

It's difficult to say what the appropriate disciplinary response to this incident should be. Clearly, he is abusing his position as an instructor and adult mentor, and obviously his story has become a major distraction for the school. In as far as that goes, he should be removed from THIS classroom for the remainder of the year, and probably be placed at a different school next Fall. The problem with that is that such a consequence opens the door to any number of abuses by administrators, which is why the due process is in place to begin with. If that sounds like a cop-out, just imagine the precedent that sets for an administrator to arbitrarily transfer a conservative teacher who they disagree with, or who simply manages to attract the ire of a handful of parents. The process is there to make sure that cabals and tyrants don't get to drive away teachers who they don't like; unfortunately, sometimes that process also protects those who actually do abuse their position.

I do not now teach high school students, but I did teach at a high school for six years. And, in the course of that teaching, sometimes controversial subjects come up. As a general rule, I tried to never give away my personal opinions; if my purpose is to foster critical thinking, than my opinion is irrelevant. It's always helpful to start with the facts; a lot of times students just don't know what is and isn't reality, so we have to get some points on the table to begin with. And sometimes that meant presenting two sets of facts, like the difference between a Congressional Budget Office estimate and a White House Budget Office estimate. After that, the point is to get the students to express their opinions, at which point I always thought it was my job to play "universal devil's advocate." Any opinion, especially those stated with passion, had better be ready to answer difficult questions in my room. And that, as a teacher, was the most fun for me. Not only did that require that I know all the arguments in favor of my position so I could probe the thoughts of those I disagree with, but I'd better know the arguments against my position, as well, so that I could press points with students more to my persuasion.

I can't say that I was always successful at maintaining balance, but some of my favorite students who I still talk to today were students whom I agree with on almost nothing. So, at any rate, I never alienated anybody for that reason.

The problem is that these are politically very charged times, and passions are running pretty high. To try to avoid the tough issues in the classroom would be a huge disservice to our students. But the young teachers--well, and this would even be true of not-so-young teachers like myself--are so fresh out of college, and it IS a safe assumption that they only got one side of the argument presented to them in college, that if they are modeling any of their teaching on what they've only recently been exposed to, you're going to get some incidents of unprofessional behavior. And it's easy to see how young teachers would feel emboldened to hold these positions in the classroom, because it seems like all of their colleagues agree with them in the staff room.

Ultimately, the duty falls to the administrators to make sure that young teachers get real instruction during the orientation sessions on appropriate classroom behavior. In this particular case, it's easy to see how Mr. Bennish felt like he had a very long leash to work from--that's the result of the tone, culture, and expectations established within the building.

What will be really interesting to see in the coming weeks is if any schools start implementing new rules regarding the recording of teacher lectures and the distribution thereof. I personally think this is a great idea (as my mind races back to a scene from "Real Genius" in which, by the end of the semester, even the professor only bothers to send in a tape recording of the lecture to play for a hall full of tape recorders), both for students and for education in general, but it's also easy to imagine the unions getting up in arms about rights of privacy in the classroom and academic freedom. Watch this space carefully.

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