Don’t Lean On Me

The New York Times recently reported this case, involving a high school English teacher fired for tweets she sent President Trump:

A high school English teacher in Texas who was fired after she sent tweets to President Trump asking him to rid her school of undocumented immigrants should be reinstated or be paid a year’s salary, a state agency ruled this week.

This is a case where (assuming the truth of the accusations against her) I can see the merit in complaints that the teacher created a hostile, even dangerous environment for students. But the facts of the case are somewhat unclear or contested, so I’m going to bypass that issue.

I’m struck instead by this:

The school board moved to fire Ms. Clark in June, saying the public outcry from parents, students and members of the local community over her conduct in class and on social media “caused substantial disruptions in operations at the campus.”

Feel free to take as critical or uncharitable a view of Clark’s conduct as you want. Still, can it make sense to fire someone over disruptive reactions that other people have to her? I can see firing her because her comments were insensitive, incompatible with her duties, ill-conceived, possibly racist. But tweets can’t by themselves cause “substantial disruptions” in the operation of a school. So how much sense can it make to fire her for disruption caused by her tweets, as opposed to the content of the tweets themselves?

The logic behind the school board’s inference from disruption to termination could use some unpacking. Here is one possible interpretation:

Clark sent off those tweets. Then a controversy arose. We happen to find controversy very disruptive. If it weren’t for those tweets, there wouldn’t have been a controversy. So Clark was responsible for the disruption produced by the controversy. Hence she should be fired.

This interpretation treats the disruption as essentially an external intrusion into the school rather than something engaged in by the students. Question: why is controversy (not threats, but controversy) disruptive of a school’s educational mission rather than a part of it? School superintendents and principals like to brag about the great things they’re doing to prepare their students for “the real world.” I was under the impression that the real world contained its share of controversy. So how are these schools preparing students for controversy? By calling it too disruptive to deal with? News flash: the world is a disruptive place. If you don’t learn how to deal with it high school, you face a steep learning curve thereafter. Granted, threats of violence are not a legitimate part of any controversy. But then, Clark wasn’t the one making them.*

Here’s another interpretation:

Clark sent off those tweets. They were so offensive that our students just went nuts. We were plagued with disciplinary problems. Surely, that is disruptive of any plausible conception of a school’s educational mission? So it had to be dealt with, alas. And that’s why Clark had to be fired. Because the students were reacting to her.

This interpretation treats the students as the source of the disruption. Oddly enough, the superficial plausibility of this argument turns on the assumption that the students’ reaction to Clark was both predictable and justifiable. In other words, Clark should have known that they’d react as they did, and knowing this, was culpably reckless for saying what she said. This reasoning bypasses the content of her claims entirely, of course. The same reasoning would apply no matter what she said–including “your last papers were atrocious, and I failed them all”–as long as she should have known that the students would react badly to it, and were justified in that belief. Suppose the papers weren’t atrocious, but merely bad. Suppose that students were justifiably angry at the disproportionality of her calling them atrocious, and disrupted the school. Is their disruption really a firing offense in her case? A mistake, maybe. But that big a deal?

If we stipulate that the students’ reaction was simultaneously predictable and justifiable, I think we have to infer that any consequent disruption is just part of the cost of doing educational business–no one’s fault in particular. A predictable and justifiable response to a teacher’s tweets isn’t a disruption or a disciplinary problem, but just a case of students living up to educational expectations. In that case, no one should be fired. No one should even be unhappy. On this supposition, the system worked as designed. If the problem is purely logistical–phones ringing off the hook, sullen students acting sullenly, etc.–the lesson here should be to learn one’s lesson and prepare for it in the future. Things like this happen. Just as schools have to prepare for fires and active shooters, they have to prepare for controversy. Welcome to reality.

You get a disciplinary problem when students act in a way that isn’t justifiable–even when what they’re responding to isn’t justifiable, either. For the moment, set aside the substantive wrongness of Clark’s comment. Strictly speaking, that’s not what the statement above talks about. It says that Clark was fired for the disruption consequent to her comment. Suppose that some significant part of this disruption was produced by students. If it wasn’t justifiable, how is this Clark’s fault? Maybe she should have been fired for the inappropriateness of her comments, but it can’t make sense to fire her for for an unjustifiable, disciplinarily problematic response to what she said. And to the extent that the unjustifiable response didn’t come from students, it’s even more of a mystery how she’s responsible for it. Other things being equal, if I say something you find offensive, I can’t be held responsible for the threatening phone calls you make to a third party on account of it.

To belabor the obvious: if and to the extent that the disruption was the students’ fault, and disruption is the main problem, it’s the students who should have been disciplined.** If the disruption was externally produced, part of that was just a sunk cost, and part of it a police matter. Whatever you think of her, none of it can really be pinned on Clark. What seems lost in the shuffle here is the possibility of a justified response to an unjustified tweet, along with the expectation that students know the difference between a justified and unjustified response, act accordingly, and suffer the consequences when they don’t. Instead, the assumption here seems to be: if X does something wrong, X is to be held responsible for every consequence that follows the wrongful act, including ones wrongly initiated by other people as a response to X’s actions. If you give me an F when I deserved a D, and I come in the next day with an AR-15 and shoot up half the school, it really isn’t clear that the shooting proves that you should be fired.

The irony is that Clark’s tweets were about the (alleged) disciplinary problems posed by out-of-control students, problems said to pre-exist the problematic tweets. Try, for a minute, to forget the xenophobic form of her complaint. That’s one issue, but not the only one. Consider the possibility that she was partly right in her diagnosis, but wrong about the prescription. What if the students at this school were somewhat out of control? Students often are. And administrators are often very cavalier about that fact. Granted, she may be making the whole thing up. But the facts are relevant one way or another.

Now re-introduce the xenophobic nature of her complaint. What she said certainly is offensive and wrong (and may well be a firing offense), but can we assume a priori that undocumented students weren’t disproportionately among the school’s disciplinary problems? The inappropriateness of Clark’s response doesn’t prove that they weren’t, after all. And the purely factual claim (that undocumented students constitute a disproportionate number of discipline problems) has a certain plausibility to it: undocumented immigration status is a sort of dislocation, dislocation causes adjustment difficulties, and adjustment difficulties often cause behavioral problems. Such problems are not, of course, solved by threats of “removal action” made over Twitter to the President of the United States. But they’re not solved by being ignored, either.

It would, then, have been nice to know whether there was a grain of truth in Clark’s complaint, or whether she made it up out of whole cloth. It’s a commonplace of the psychological literature on stereotypes that stereotypes, though false, contain a grain of truth, and express it in distorted form. Predictably, the Times doesn’t bother to inquire into the details here. Journalists love stories about mean educators, but tend to be less enthusiastic about pursuing stories about disruptive students–until one of them brings an AR-15 to school and opens fire. Then the story becomes the SRO who “failed to confront” the student, and the mental health practitioners who negligently failed to do whatever it was that would have stopped him. How about a story on the very real problems that arise when schools are tasked with handling large-scale social problems while they’re tasked with educating students?

Put another way, Clark’s plan to narc on the students is certainly problematic, but not necessarily the whole story here, and is in danger of becoming a convenient smokescreen that conceals the underlying issues. What were the students doing? How disruptive was their behavior to the educational mission of the school? What was being done about those disruptions? And what institutional obstacles stood in the way of success? From this perspective, Clark, however offensive her behavior, is peripheral to a larger and less sexy story. The real story is that many public schools are a disciplinary train wreck. Clark’s is just a particularly xenophobic reaction to that fact, and the school’s reaction to Clark looks a lot like a PR machine on auto-pilot, deaf, dumb, and blind to substantive issues of any kind. But apart from the momentary triumph of collecting yet another data point for the “what a benighted country this is” narrative (believe me, I’m convinced), we’re left in the dark about what really happened here.

Change the facts of this case. Imagine a more benign version of Clark who, instead of tweeting Donald Trump or dragging the immigration authorities into the equation, had raised concerns in a more appropriate way about discipline at the school. Now suppose that the reaction to her comments had been as disruptive as it was. Would the school have fired her for that? We don’t know. But it’s something we need to know. Given the particulars of the case, and the likely justifiability of the outcome, it’s easy to lose sight of the shoddy opportunism of the school’s reasoning, reasoning that sits around like a loaded gun to be used for the next termination. Does the school’s leadership really mean that a disruptive reaction to any teacher’s comments, regardless of the merits of those comments and regardless of the unjustifiability of the reaction to it, should entail termination of the teacher? Are they willing to say, out loud and for the record, that they’ll fire anyone whose presence causes a disruption, just because that person’s presence caused a disruption?

My hunch, having observed situations like this (at as prudent but watchful a distance as I can manage), is that that’s literally how a lot of these PR-obsessed administrators think. A problem arises. The problem must be squelched. Firing X might well squelch it. So X is fired. It doesn’t really matter what X had to do with anything. What matters is that X’s termination is the causal lever through which PR gains can be realized. Thy administrative will be done.

That a serious disciplinary problem has arisen by gradual lapses in enforcement, and dishonest attempts to free-ride on the teachers who do the enforcing, makes for a less dramatic but more reality-sensitive story. Until, of course, someone decides to make a movie about it–when suddenly high school behavioral problems become the stuff of drama, set to a soundtrack by Guns & Roses, and requiring the heroic attentions of a tyrant with a megaphone in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. Watching the film, everyone roots for Leviathan. No one bothers to ask how a high school became the State of Nature.

I’ve said this once, and I’ll say it again: the problem with our educational institutions is not primarily a matter of left or right wing political correctness per se. It’s a matter of the inordinate discretionary power wielded by administrators whose only concern is PR. These are people with no principles, no sense of fairness, and no sense of integrity or honesty. Their only task is to save the appearances–any appearances, no matter how at variance with reality. And their favorite method is the pink slip. They will appease any crowd by firing anyone for any reason or none.  In our haste to litigate pointless quarrels about “left vs. right,” these amoral, non-ideological wielders of power have slipped under the radar screen. But they’re the ones who need to show up on it.

This last fact has what I take to be an odd, unexpected political implication. Democratic politics is often criticized on the grounds that democratic politics more or less equals electoral politics, and electoral politics is in some sense an illusion. An election, on this reductive view, is an event in which rationally ignorant people are deceived into regarding themselves as empowered by the franchise, when in fact they are disempowered by it; they waste time and energy on something that,  given the numbers involved, confers no actual power on its practitioners.

This may be true of national elections, but it’s not as easily true of local elections, and often not true of elections for school board. These are small-scale, often extremely small-scale elections, where voters often have direct access to the candidates, and where the issues are as epistemically accessible to all as they are morally and politically consequential. So pedestrian as it sounds (and is), maybe this is where democratic politics and democratic theory ought to be focusing. We can’t control the president. We can’t control Congress. We can’t control the federal judiciary or the “Deep State.” But you can walk right up to the person who sits on the School Board when you see him at the produce aisle and strike up a conversation about more than produce. Maybe candidates for local school boards should more assertively be asked questions about their views on academic freedom, and with it, on hiring, firing, promotion, and tenure under conditions of political controversy. There’s some firing to be done, for sure. It just needs to be done, alas, where it’s least expected.***

*I don’t mean to be denying that Clark was, in her own way, making threats of violence. I mean that “the disruption in operations” alluded to by the school were the threats made by others, not the ones made by Clark. In fact, the school’s drawing attention to these external third party threats precisely draws attention away from the violence of Clark’s threats. It’s interesting that Clark’s threats were primarily regarded as “racist,” not as threatening. But they’re more obviously threatening than they are racist.

**Though the issue is somewhat ambiguously reported, what I say here likely cuts both ways. The Times reports:

Clark then listed two private phone numbers and assured the president that she was using her real name. She later told an investigator that she had received several messages on those numbers calling her racist and that she had filed a police report.

Obviously, it’s one thing if Clark was filing the police report to report threats of violence against her. But if not, it’s a little hard to sympathize with someone who tweets a call for a deportation, puts her phone number in the tweet, then complains when people call her to complain about it. Harassment is a legal offense, to be sure, but this is more like harassment by engraved invitation.

***Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my Felician colleague Judith Sullivan for winning election to the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional School Board in Oakland, New Jersey.

One thought on “Don’t Lean On Me

  1. Irfan, this reminds me of a case in about 1960, which was much simpler, though the factor underlying it might still be an unsaid factor in related sad cases today. I went to a school of our unincorporated neighborhood just outside of Oklahoma City. This school had been founded in 1890, a year after a land run had opened up that part of Indian Territory to settlement with individual land titles. In seventh grade, a new teacher came who taught mathematics to that level and eighth. He must have taught other things too for seventh and eighth (we had about 30 students in each grade) that I don’t recall. He had a rather different personality, which is hard to describe, except I’d say he was from deep country. He was very hard in the mathematics and tried to get the students to reach farther than had been demanded of them before. I was a pretty smart child, and I rather liked him. But he was extremely unpopular with the students (at least the boys, whose ridicule of the teacher I recall witnessing when we were on our own). The next year, he did not return, maybe his choice, maybe not (the possibility for which I mention this case).

    I’d have not thought about that, but we got a new principal the next year (this was a new dedicated job at our school, whereas one teacher had done principal-work half time before). He got us boys together and had a serious talk-to, setting out the new way it was going to be, as it were. He was getting everything ready for a smooth transition soon when the first Black student would be coming to our school. Only a couple of years back had the students using the word Nigger in class gotten a no-go from a new teacher. Times were changing. And this new principal said to us boys something like “and I know about you boys getting rid of Mr. math-teacher last year, and that sort of thing is not going to happen under me.”

    It was so sad in hindsight that this teacher had not continued because some students, probably with the right parents for conduit, didn’t like him. Supposing his not returning was by decision of the school board, I doubt they were much concerned with appearances or whether it was fair. Not being liked by the students was enough, pretty sure.


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