At risk, the freedom to teach

In her column Dec. 3, Dina Campeau speculates that Ms. Joanne
Lewis may have read the

humorous

poems with their graphic sexual content to her sixth-grade
students

as a way for the teacher to open up a conversation about
language and what people think when reading such jokes, or viewing
ads and shows that imply that the kids are more sexually developed
and in charge than they really are.

In her column Dec. 3, Dina Campeau speculates that Ms. Joanne Lewis may have read the “humorous” poems with their graphic sexual content to her sixth-grade students “as a way for the teacher to open up a conversation about language and what people think when reading such jokes, or viewing ads and shows that imply that the kids are more sexually developed and in charge than they really are.” Ms. Campeau goes on to plead for more comprehensive sexual education in schools.

Even if Ms. Campeau’s generous speculations were correct, I think that reading such poems to impressionable sixth graders betrays a compete lack of judgment, Alas, Ms. Campeau’s imaginings bear no resemblance to the actual events.

When asked by a parent why she had read the poems to her classes, Ms. Lewis said that she read them before a test. She leafed through her poems, saying, “That one is about domestic violence, that one is about suicide….”

She explained to the parent that she did it to release the pre-exam tension. In her view, it gets the students thinking about one thing, and then she can say, see, guys, it wasn’t about that. Let’s get those hormones in check.

Fortunately, GUSD took a firm stance against Ms. Lewis’s means of releasing tension. She may no longer use material that is not formally approved. She also received a three-day suspension without pay, which is the worst punishment that can be doled out to a teacher with permanent status. Dismissing a permanent teacher is a two-year process.

I happened to attend a meeting between concerned parents and Principal Suzanne Damm and GUSD’s Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Linda Piceno. It was not a particularly interesting meeting, as all Ms. Piceno would say was she understood the concerns, she realized that the District would have to rebuild trust, and that she could not give any confidential information.

They did agree to give a presentation before Christmas to the students to address certain issues: notably the idea that sometimes even adults do bad things or make mistakes, that students should always feel free to tell a parent or other trusted adult about anything that makes them uncomfortable, and that such whistle-blowers should be respected, not harassed.

The presentation was delayed until the New Year. I have read the proposed presentation. It is, in my opinion, a piece of psycho-babble junk that addresses none of the above issues, a perfect waste of 20 minutes.

A more intriguing part of the meeting was the little questions that the parents would throw out like “What about the Elmo Movie?” and so forth.

Later, I found out from parents that Elmo is Ms. Lewis’s mascot, and in the “Elmo Movie,” he is shown being beaten up, run over, and put into a blender. When the kids asked why she had shown the movie, she answered that she would not want anything like that to happen to her Elmo.

For all her idiosyncrasies, Ms. Lewis is hotly defended by students and parents alike: “She gets them engaged in learning.” “She teaches them how to study.” “She makes them want to go to school, and if anyone can do that, hallelujah.”

She has also modified her teaching style. If Ms. Lewis can modify her behavior, can continue to engage the students without acting like a naughty 12-year-old boy herself, then GUSD will be the richer for it.

GUSD will be the poorer if it must rewrite policies to prohibit teachers from using any material not on an approved list. A teacher should be able to, when she sees a newspaper column or a poem that is appropriate for the age-group and pertinent to the topic at hand in the morning, bring it to school and share it with her students on that very day.

But that freedom requires responsibility and professional judgment and a respect for the difference between a child and an adult. Ms. Lewis has placed that freedom at risk for every teacher in the district.

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