Trayvon Martin fundraiser: Should teachers not be activists with their students?

A middle school English/journalism teacher says she lost her job because she helped her students organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin.

The Pontiac, Mich., students identified with Trayvon and wanted to help to his family so they organized a school fundraiser. Normally the students at the charter school could pay $1 to wear street clothes on certain days. They wanted to wear hoodies up and donate those dollars to Trayvon’s family.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has taken up the Brooke Harris’s case and has started a petition with more than 8,000 signatures so far.

From Yahoo news:

“According the Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance blog:

Harris said while the school’s principal signed off on the fundraiser, Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell said no because of the manner in which they would be wearing the hoods – over their heads. Harris asked Cassell to meet with the students so they could present their case, but Harris was suspended for two days.”

” ‘I was told I was a bad teacher, that I was being unprofessional, that I’m being paid to teach, not to be an activist. When I tried to defend myself, it was construed as insubordination,’ Harris told the Detroit Free Press.

“Harris then returned to school while suspended to drop off prizes for a literacy fair. Harris met with Cassell again and was given a two-week suspension.”

(Later Harris was fired.)

“Cassell said she is a “child of the civil rights movement” and has supported the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the past but said “this is not the time in the school year” for efforts that distract from academics, she told The Detroit News.”

So I am very interested to hear what you all think about this. I wonder if the case would be different if the fundraiser wasn’t for Trayvon but for a different cause or if it was a different time of year. It sounds like this school administrator is stressed out about test scores. I know the CRCTs are coming up in Georgia and maybe similar ones are happening in Michigan.

My absolute favorite teacher in high school was a history/political science teacher. I feel like she absolutely encouraged students to exercise their political power and believe they could affect change in the system through their activism. If I remember correctly she was the sponsor for the Amnesty International school club. She also took kids to Washington DC through the Close Up program. I remember meeting this teacher downtown for a protest rally one weekend with another student.

(I think this teacher has been an excellent role model/friend for me throughout my life, long after I left high school. I visited with her in college and as an adult. She came to see Rose after she was born and even advised me on breastfeeding. We exchange Christmas cards and are on Facebook together.)

There are definitely some careers where political activism is not tolerated but I’m not sure a teacher is one of them. As a journalist I know I am expected to NOT comment publically or participate publically in political activism. We never put political signs in our yard, never comment on political issues online and have told our kids whatever we say at home about our political views stays at home.

(I recently warned a college student studying to be a journalist not to comment on Facebook on political issues. She had just “liked” something political. She said it had never occurred to her and thanked me for watching out for her.)

So what do you think: Was this teacher fired unfairly? Should teachers not help students with rallies or fundraisers? Should teachers not express political opinions to their students? Should teachers not promote activism?

53 comments Add your comment

Retta Leicher

April 12th, 2012
5:46 pm

There are some fascinating time limits on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There is some validity but I will take maintain opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like more! Added to FeedBurner as well


April 16th, 2012
8:18 am

I heard that they had Trayvon cash collection bins at all Clayton county schools this week.

Greg S.

April 16th, 2012
4:41 pm

The teacher should have refrained from actually helping with the fundraiser. She should have used it as a teaching tool to show how the media steers viewer/readers toward a decision to keep them reading/viewing rather than reporting the true facts. Fired…no. But she should have received an official reprimand.