Write or wrong? Who decides what’s taught in schools is becoming as important as how it’s taught.

“…by pursuing this claim, she will help to ensure that future school boards are not able to silence and malign delegations that present concerns they do not want to hear, or that are inconsistent with their ideology,”

This quote is from a recent story out of Waterloo, Ontario which focussed on a $1.75 million lawsuit launched against the Waterloo Region District School Board by school teacher Carolyn Burjoski. At issue was a presentation made by Burjoski during a school board meeting in early January looking at how the Board selected books for their libraries. Burjoski was in the midst of explaining that, in her view, two books that dealt with transgender issues might not be appropriate for elementary school students when she was ejected from the virtual meeting.

Burjoski’s beef was that the books might pressure young people into thinking about sexual orientation before they were ready. She also felt that the books portrayed a romanticized version of hormone treatments. For its part, the board expressed concerns that her presentation could violate the province’s human rights code. According to the lawsuit, her ejection from the meeting, follow up comments by School Board Chair Scott Piatkowski, and the resulting backlash caused her to suffer an emotional breakdown.

None of the allegations have yet to be proven in court.

Regardless of one’s view on LGBTQ2S+ issues (I have some rather strong ones, in fact) or whether one believes Ms. Burjoski should have been permitted to say her piece, the story was compelling, if nothing else. But what really caught my eye was the contrast it presented to another story I and many other educational pundits have been watching very, very closely over the past few months.

Back in early March, Florida lawmakers passed their now infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill on the urging of Florida Governor and potential Republican Presidential Candidate Ron DeSantis. In many ways, that legislation echoes Ms. Burjoski’s sentiments. In effect, it completely bans conversations about gender and identity in elementary schools. Supporters of the bill claim it allows parents to decide if and when to teach their children about the topic. Critics of the bill have said it will only serve to further stigmatize the LGBTQ2S+ community, and could, indeed, cost lives.

I must admit to coming down rather firmly on the side of the critics on that one, but what strikes me about these two stories is their inherent dichotomy. In one jurisdiction, teaching elementary kids about a subject could potentially lead to dismissal. In another jurisdiction, not wanting to teach elementary kids about the same subject has similar results.

What ever happened to finding a middle ground?

But even that middle ground has proven contentious for teachers of late. Back in February, teachers in the UK received a fairly pointed message from their Department for Education on how they should be teaching certain topics. The Political Impartiality in Schools guidance spelled out, among other things, how teachers should be approaching such things as colonialism and racism.

The topics themselves were fair game, mind you. But teachers were cautioned that they should not be perceived as having an opinion one way or the other on the matters. They were also warned against giving the appearance of supporting campaigning groups like Black Lives Matter. Schools were further instructed to create avenues for parents to address teachers who may subject their children to “an uncontested political view”. Finally, the guidance declared that when they do so, teachers “must offer a balanced overview of opposing views.”

This is not to suggest that controversial topics should not be covered in class. In fact, according to the British Education Act chief executive Liz Morse, if students do not tackle tough issues in the classroom, they may end up doing so “…through the internet with its ‘proliferation of misinformation and conspiracies'”.

Makes one wonder how, precisely, one presents a balanced overview of topics where parents on one side are quoting scientific studies and parents on the other are quoting a “proliferation of misinformation and conspiracies”, but that is perhaps, a topic for another time.

As unappealing Ms. Burjoski’s opinions may be to me, I must concede that I am, on any number of issues, one election away from finding myself in the very same shoes. If she and I were both working in Florida right now, I believe it’s safe to say that our professional realities would be quite different. She would obviously be settling in, and I would probably have a “For Sale” sign on my lawn.

Teachers have long tried to strike a professional balance between what they think and what they teach, however, for even the best of educators, walking that wire can be difficult. As the world becomes increasingly polarized, finding this balance will prove more challenging than ever. Whether the issue is gender or race, gun violence or Roe v Wade, one thing seems strikingly clear.

Educationally speaking, it seems the 2020’s are set to be defined by battles over whose version of right and wrong is taught in our classrooms.

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Filed under Education Policy, Educational commentary, Nova Scotia Education Policy, Public education

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