Thursday, June 02, 2005

Teaching Requires Good Judgment

Schoolteachers are sometimes tasked with teaching approved curriculum material about which they have a strong opinion or with which they disagree. Is it appropriate for teachers to editorialize or to present an opposing point of view? If we say yes, how far should it go? If we say no, are we demanding classroom situations where children are not taught to think critically?

Recently parents of a fourth grade student at Lomond View Elementary in Pleasant View, Utah complained that during a Utah history lesson a teacher inappropriately denigrated Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church. The school’s principal conducted an investigation and satisfied the concerned parents.

While the full results of the investigation were not made public, comments made in the press seem to suggest that while the teacher’s remarks may have been poorly chosen they were no cause for discipline. However, the teacher did issue an apology to class members and to parents who cared to attend a meeting.

That would probably have been the end of the story, but some parents were not fully satisfied with the outcome and brought their concerns to the local newspaper (the Standard Examiner). The paper investigated and published the previously reference story. That precipitated an outpouring of letters to the editor that were mostly of the anti-Mormon ilk (see here and here for samples).

Today Jim Burton, a sports writer for the paper put forward his thoughts on the matter, mostly putting the anti-Mormons in their place. I agree with Mr. Burton that most of the commentary on the matter has been particularly unenlightening. It has also been quite ignorant of the total volume of facts.

I have friends whose daughter has attended the class in question. They say that the offending teacher, Karla DuVall has made numerous anti-Mormon editorial comments to students throughout the school year, and that this latest incident, while not that bad, was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. My friends have had frequent discussions with their daughter, who has been frustrated with what she perceives is an oppressive atmosphere created by the teacher.

Principal Brad Larsen (a man I trust who currently serves as an LDS bishop) said that his investigation revealed that Ms. DuVall merely noted that some people considered Joseph Smith to be a criminal in the 1830s and 1840s. If that is all that was said, the teacher was merely stating a fact. Many religious leaders throughout time have been considered to be criminals by the establishment.

However, my friends’ daughter suggests that Ms. DuVall editorialized on that fact and suggested that it would be better for the students to follow someone that teaches them to smoke and drink (practices antithetical to LDS teachings) than to follow a criminal. The implication was a judgment on beliefs of students that revere Joseph Smith as a prophet of God.

Principal Larsen says that no parent has ever complained about Ms. DuVall on a religious basis before. If what my friends say is true, then I think that students’ parents have been far too lax in their duty. If this has been an ongoing problem parents should have complained long ago.

Some of Ms. DuVall’s defenders suggest that she has simply been endeavoring to teach critical thinking and respect for others. Critical thinking is wonderful, but when a fourth grader feels that a person in authority is attacking her personal religious beliefs, that somehow seems far from teaching love and appreciation for others.

We all want children to grow up to be critical thinkers and good citizens that contribute to society in a substantive way. We don’t expect teachers to parrot propaganda and enforce mind-numbing sameness a la old Soviet schools. We don’t want teachers to walk on eggshells all the time worrying about what they can and can’t say, but we do expect them to exercise good judgment. We expect them to know the difference between teaching college level critical thinking and helping fourth graders understand that different points of view exist.

By most reports, Ms. DuVall is a decent teacher. My impression is that she needs to use better judgment on what level of cultural challenge is appropriate for the age of students she is assigned to teach. We expect the same of all schoolteachers.


Aaron S said...

You might be interested in the following two links:

Anonymous said...

I would personally want a teacher like Karla DuVall teaching my children, because she teaches them to think outside the box. What a relief a teacher who actually isn't afraid to stand for what she believes is important.