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Colorado Teacher Wants What He Doesn’t Deserve

Scott on March 3, 2006 at 3:02 pm

I am a teacher. I’ve been a teacher for many years. In fact, I was teaching before I was actually paid to be a teacher. Leading discussion groups, tutoring, helping out friends in high school and college. It just seems to be part of my nature. I love teaching. I love the process, the interchange of ideas, the learning on both sides. In short, teaching is cool!

This being my perspective, I can’t help but have an opinion about the latest story coming out of Colorado. Jay Bennish, a 10th grade Geography teacher, is out on paid leave and is being investigated for comments he made in one of his classes.

Mr. Bennish’s comments include:

“Who is probably the single most violent nation on planet Earth? The United States of America.”

“I’m not saying that Bush and Hitler are exactly the same, obviously they’re not. But there are some eerie similarities to the tones that they use.”

“Sounds a lot like the things Adolph Hitler used to say.”

“Bush is threatening the whole planet.”

“[The] U.S. wants to keep the world divided.”

There is no argument about what he said. It was recorded by a student, who then passed on the recording to his father. By now there are recordings and transcripts floating around the Internet. Mr. Bennish has never denied making the comments in his classroom.

So what’s the issue? At this point, based on the lawsuit that Mr. Bennish is about to file, the argument is being framed in terms of free speech. Mr. Bennish wants to claim that his rights to freedom of expression have been unfairly impinged upon.

Now, most teachers I know run their classroom under the philosophy of “balance.” Balance in the Classroom can be described this way: As best as possible, as fairly as possible, as clearly as possible, present both sides and let students shape their own opinions. As a teacher, if you have an opinion, share it but don’t push it. If you have a certain perspective, include it but don’t exclude others. To steal a popular phrase, “be fair and balanced.”

Not every teacher operates according to the guiding principal of “balance,” but most do. I’ve known some teachers who have been excessive in their “preaching” in the classroom, taking advantage of their captive audience and indoctrinating them in their own particular world paradigm. It is my experience that those teachers do so because it is the only place they feel safe to do so. If they were to speak their philosophy in the “real world,” they would have to defend themselves with facts and logic, which they typically do not have.

Even those of us who do try and maintain “balance” end up violating that principal at times. When we do, it is easily rectified. We stop what we are saying. We point out where fact ends and opinion begins. We point out the other side or solicit responses so that others in the class may do so. If necessary, we even apologize if we think we may have been a little enthusiastic in sharing our opinions.

From what I have read and from what I have heard of the classroom recording, Mr. Bennish violated that philosophy of balance. In fact, he apparently not only violated the principal of balance, he fell under the power of an affliction common to teachers called “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” When a teacher spends too much time being the central speaker in the class, the main sharer of opinion, the only “wise voice” in the room, that teacher is in danger of believing that their word is law and their voice is truth. In short, they fall in love with their own ideas and, since they created a classroom environment that discourages dissenting dialogue, they begin to believe that their way is the only way and their ideas are the only valid ones.

In short, Mr. Bennish spouted off at the mouth. He got carried away and got caught. But now he is trying to say that it is his right under the 1st Amendment to spout, to share his opinions in the classroom, to “verbally regurgitate” as my 6th grade teacher used to say.

Sorry, Mr. Bennish, but that is not so. You have the right to teach your geography curriculum or any other curriculum provided by the state. You have the right to answer student questions on any number of topics as they arise in class. You even have the right to venture an opinion if it is appropriate to the current class content. But you DON’T have the right to use it as a bully pulpit. You don’t have the right to inflict your unsolicited opinion on others, especially students whom you have been hired to teach, not indoctrinate.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Maybe Mr. Bennish can point me to the place in the State of Colorado Department of Education Geography Standards where teachers are told to compare Bush to Hitler and to claim that the United States is the single most violent country on the planet.

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