At the beginning of every school year, I introduce myself to my students with a very personal presentation.
I show them pictures of where I grew up, my family, and the students I’ve taught at two other Chicago schools. I’m a human, not a robot, I tell them, earning a couple of laughs with my corny robot impression. At the end, I show them a signed copy of John Lewis’s “March,” the graphic novel that illustrates his experiences as a Civil Rights Movement leader. I talk about seeing Lewis speak at a Chicago Public Schools event years ago, and how he inspired me to speak up when I saw injustice.
In return, I ask my students to introduce themselves. They bring pictures of their lives, families, friends, and travels, and they talk about who they want to become. These presentations help to turn the library and writing center I oversee into a community.
The connection I have with my students isn’t out of the ordinary in Chicago. I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in the three very different high schools I’ve taught in and in schools all across the city who didn’t have strong ties to the students they teach. That’s why it felt so problematic that my district, CPS, asked its teachers to remain “neutral” about the Van Dyke case — the trial of a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a Chicago teenager.
Two days before the Van Dyke decision came down, amid warnings that riots could follow a “not guilty” decision, the district sent an email advising teachers about how to handle discussions surrounding the verdict. I applaud the email for its initial statement: “It is critical that educators are prepared and provide space for students should they and their students choose to engage in this critical and timely public issue,” it read.
But in the next paragraph, the district said that teachers “must remain neutral.” The email cited a 2007 Indiana circuit court decision, Mayer v. Monroe County Schools, that ruled that “teachers do not have the constitutional right to introduce their own political views to students, ‘but must stick to the prescribed curriculum.’”
That left me with several questions. First, is an opinion on the Van Dyke trial truly a political view? Many of my students, now juniors and seniors, were just becoming teenagers when they watched the dash-cam video where 16 bullets riddle Laquan McDonald’s 17-year-old body. The opinion CPS is concerned about me sharing, presumably, is that Van Dyke should face consequences.
I have taught many students like Laquan McDonald, students who have grown up in foster homes, who have failed out of the very school I taught in, whose city literally left them behind. When I saw Laquan McDonald in that video, I saw their faces grimacing on the ground, their bodies writhing. To me, his death, the subsequent cover-up, and the verdict, is personal, not political.
Asking me to “stay neutral” as a white teacher in a classroom full of African-American and Latinx students is asking me to send a message that I am indifferent to their experiences and to have them see me as a stereotype of whiteness. I am on their side. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having them know this. But the message I received implies that my district does.
In the court case evidently used as proof for why staying neutral is mandatory, students asked their teacher whether she ever protested. She told them that she honked her car horn at demonstrators calling for peace at an anti-Iraq War demonstration. The teacher believed she was fired because of this discussion. The court ruled in favor of the school district, stating, “the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”
How this applies in my situation is confusing, since every year in my career I have either had the freedom to construct or co-construct curriculum for my classroom. It also reminds me of what Holocaust survivor and award-winning author Elie Wiesel said in his speech when winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Asking teachers to remain neutral when discussing Laquan McDonald teaches my students something I don’t want them ever to learn: that my connections with them, and my pursuit of justice for our shared community, are not my highest priority.
Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.