Classroom neutrality

Many schools expect teachers to keep their views about the war in Iraq to themselves. A few districts have even disciplined teachers for displaying antiwar posters in class.

When art teacher Maureen O'Brien was approached by students and parents from the Edmund Burke School in Washington to help create banners for a mothers' vigil for peace, she was happy to help.

"I don't talk to the students on a political level in class; I teach painting, mixed media, and drawing," she says. "But I did support their activity." So she was stunned at the "horrible" response to a photo, distributed in January by a news agency, that showed her helping a student make a peace banner.

"People - total strangers - sent shocking messages to me," she says, to register their disapproval of her role in helping with an antiwar protest. "They were not from parents at our school."

Perhaps the people who responded did not know that the banner was done after school, with the support of parents, and mothers paid for all the supplies. But her experience underlies the dilemma faced by many schools as the nation pursues war in Iraq.

How do schools balance the strong feelings and needs of their constituents with what goes on to educate students?

Should teachers keep a neutral classroom, or should they encourage debate and even express their own views? Should students be learning about the war at school, or is that a job solely for parents?

Schools systems are taking different approaches in the early days of war with Iraq, sometimes shaped by community reaction. In Maine, the state commissioner of education sent out a memo to schools urging a "balanced" approach in the classroom after families with members in the National Guard reported insensitive comments or actions by school personnel.

In Henrico County Schools in Richmond, Va., principals were instructed by the superintendent to use discretion when allowing discussion of the war: It should be in an age-appropriate manner and related to the curriculum in the classroom.

In New Mexico, two teachers who refused to take down antiwar posters in their classes were suspended for five days.

Superintendent Bill Wright of the Denison Community School District in Iowa is taking a fairly typical approach. While there is certainly talk among faculty about the war, a Midwestern civility prevails and teachers agree to disagree. When it comes to the classroom, students hear enough to stay informed.

"But we are not stretching that by creating debate," Dr. Wright says. Most students, he notes, receive most of their information about Iraq and the current military involvement from their parents.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., says many schools are not prepared for this crisis.

"Schools are reluctant to tackle the controversy," he says. "But students need to be informed and talked to."

Mr. Haynes says there are two negative responses schools may take in times of war: "One is to insist on a kind of patriotism, which we can call jingoism, which is probably what we'll see in the coming weeks. There will be songs and patriotic exercises, but often students will be [too] intimidated to speak out, to dissent. That does not teach students to make decisions. [Patriotism] alone is not in the best interest of our students."

The other potentially damaging reaction to the news of the Iraq war would be for teachers to take the opportunity to push their own agenda.

"My anecdotal evidence is that this is more often the case with teachers who are against the war," Haynes says. But he adds that it is just as damaging if the teacher is talking against antiwar demonstrators, for example.

"It is absolutely vital that our students talk about what's going on," says Sheldon Berman, superintendent of the Hudson, Mass., public schools. "If they are going to be effective citizens in the future, they need to discuss issues like the war. Students should have views; our job is to make sure their views are educated."

And, as part of helping these students understand democracy, teachers at Hudson High are free to let students know their personal views on the war, continues Dr. Berman, as long as they follow the school district's dictum: Do not teach to a point of view, but teach students how to ask questions, clarify viewpoints, look at multiple perspectives.

"Some of our teachers are uncomfortable about stating their point of view on the war," Berman says.

"Others believe there will be less bias in their teaching if they state their opinion at the outset. In other words, they tell the students: 'If I err on the side of my viewpoint, please correct me.' "

Jeremy Edwards, dean of students at the Edmund Burke School, a private college-prep middle and high school, does not think O'Brien acted inappropriately when she agreed to help the students.

"Teachers can express their views, but context and tone are important," Mr. Edwards says. He points out that there are probably more students and faculty at Burke who are against the war, particularly because the US is acting without support from the United Nations.

But there is also a minority that believes just as strongly that President Bush is doing the right thing. Burke agrees that it is a challenge for teachers when there is a national crisis that brings so many emotions to the table.

"We are adamant that all views are heard, and students feel safe to express their views," he says. "It is up to the adults to make sure that the group with a different voice is heard."

Like the general population, educators hold a variety of views about the war. Many school districts have seen teachers and staff leave as their reserve units have been called up for duty. Many give their students talks about devotion and duty to country. And school districts with bases are naturally very supportive of the families impacted by the war.

In Biloxi, Miss., where Keesler Air Force Base is located, the school-district staff has made 2,000 posters with flags that read "Biloxi public schools - we support our troops," says Sue Durbin, public-affairs specialist for the schools. She has not seen evidence of antiwar sentiment in the schools or among teachers.

But other educators have, in their private lives, been outspoken against the war. The state council of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) passed a resolution against a war on Iraq at a meeting in September, and many teachers have taken part in peace demonstrations.

Gary Ravani teaches history at Kenilworth Middle School in Petaluma, Calif. He supported the CFT resolution, but is quick to point out that it was an action taken by a group of adults about their own beliefs, and had nothing to do with school.

"Teachers were not rushing back to the classroom to find ways to get this into their curriculum," says Mr. Ravani, who is a disabled Vietnam veteran. He is not convinced that teachers should state their views on the conflict in Iraq.

"Maybe at the high school level, but certainly not to middle school or younger children," he says. Like many teachers, Ravani is using this unfolding conflict as a "teachable moment" for his students.

"We talk about the historical antecedents, the ancient conflicts in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim worlds," he says. "We talk about tolerance, and evil behavior. And we talk about respecting others' right to have an opinion, even if it is different from our own."

Parents are certain to weigh in on what's appropriate as the war continues. Many parents of high school students seem comfortable with discussions in class, whether or not they support the intervention.

Castle O'Neill is the mother of 14-year-old Molly Wilson, who attends the Appomattox Regional Governor's School for Arts and Technology in Petersburg, Va. Ms. O'Neill says that her daughter was glad last week when the war was discussed in two classes, including a science course.

"You can't pretend it's not happening. Some of the students talked about the draft, which could affect them," O'Neill says, who has gone to peace rallies.

Polly Mizelle of Rockville, Va., strongly supports the intervention. Her son, Danny, attends Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County and wants to make a career in the military. The war is definitely being discussed in government classes.

"He comes home very agitated," she says with a gentle chuckle. "He thinks we are truly liberating the Iraqis, and believes we should all support America. I tell him others have the right to express their opinion, too."

She thinks the teachers are handling the discussions well, even if they do express an opinion. "They are not telling students what to think," Mrs. Mizelle says.

Hard questions, empty seats

Classrooms are different in the days since the war began - in many ways.

Teachers have been facing student questions since the war started in earnest last week. Bill Morgan, a third-grade teacher at a public school in San Francisco, says it is incumbent on him to answer those questions.

"Kids are scared," he says. "They are talking about it at home and hearing it on the news. I try to answer their questions and concerns."

Mr. Morgan says he must be extra sensitive because some immigrant children in his classroom have already experienced war. One student from Central America leaves his seat and goes to the back of the room each time the subject of war comes up.

The entire concept of war - what it is and why it happens - can be tough for kids to grapple with. Morgan notes that he has spent a lot of his time teaching students to resolve differences through talking.

"That's how we do it in our classroom," he says. "Now kids ask how come that's not happening in the real world. It's problematic."

Some students have also had to say goodbye to teachers, reservists who have been called up to serve since preparations for the invasion began last fall. In the Richmond, Va., region, more than a dozen teachers and administrators have had to leave their schools and report for duty.

Most of the assignments could last a year. Some teachers will go overseas, and others will stay in the United States to help with the war effort here.

Teachers are not able to tell their classes exactly where they were going, but they've quietly explained what their duty as a reservist is.

In Henrico County, gym teacher Joey Robinson left Brookland Middle School in early March to report to the Marine Corps mobilization center in Virginia Beach. Before he left he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his students were "a little bit proud and ... a little bit disappointed because their teacher is leaving."

Some students themselves have left the classroom during the school week to take part in demonstrations, most of which are antiwar.

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