April 7, 2024

Jess Piper: Civil Disobedience and Uncivilized Diatribes

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Jess Piper is a former teacher and political activist. In this post, she looks at the issue of civilized disagreement (and the lack thereof). She starts by reflecting on her teaching days and one angry parent who was upset about the teaching of that infamous liberal trash, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

Recently, I saw this bad behavior up close and personal when I attended a BOE meeting at a school district outside of St Louis. I was beside myself and uncomfortable. Though I had an awful interaction with a parent or two in my tenure, the Thoreau incident was one, I hadn’t witnessed the decline in civility and the outright disrespect shown in public. The lack of couth wasn’t just reserved for teachers, but was also aimed at administrators, board members, audience members, and community members.

The meeting began with a long list of public comments that were limited to three minutes. As their names were called, each speaker walked up to the podium to speak while the board members sometimes listened and sometimes neither looked up nor reacted. A screen was up to remind folks of the time remaining and to remind them to be civil while speaking. Neither of these reminders worked on many of the folks who stood to speak.

There was jeering from the crowd. It was tense. I kept asking the friend who had invited me if this was normal behavior at the meetings. She said it was typical.

One of the first to speak was a woman who brought her daughter to stand next to her while mom called the Superintendent names and defamed teachers. I was upset that the young girl had to stand there while her mother went over her time, refused to stop speaking when told her time was up, and still spoke, even raising her voice, when her microphone was eventually muted. She just kept going.

How did this young girl learn to treat her teachers? She learned disrespect and inappropriate behavior will be rewarded with a slew of applause from an audience that was growing more rowdy by the moment.

The evening grew even more rude with folks standing up with printed out remarks to throw insults at board members. I am not part of this community, so I don’t know the political persuasion of the folks speaking or the folks they were attacking, but I will say it was ugly. They said nasty things that weren’t in the heat of the moment…the remarks were written down well before hand. These people planned to stand up and attack folks in their community. I was pearl-clutching. Hard.

The final straw for me was when at least two of the women giving public comments referenced the evils of the local teachers union. The union rep had planned to speak on another topic, but used her three minutes to defend teachers and their collective pursuit for good representation on the board.

Lordy. It was a lot.

But, here’s the part I hope you understand; public schools aren’t perfect and teachers will be the first to tell you so. We know it from the inside out.

I have had wonderful and beautiful experiences as a teacher and parent in public schools. I’ve also been very frustrated with administrators and I’ve worked with teachers who didn’t seem to like kids or their job. It’s like any system run by humans — it’s only as good as those involved. And, there is always work to do.

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