"Not rehired" for "teaching politics": One teacher's story

Sam Shain
February 18, 2023
I personally see no real point of teaching if the material is watered-down and sanitized, if I can’t discuss things like media literacy, critical thinking, and political issues as a means of hitting the “education standards” in my classroom.

In the summer of 2021 I lost my job teaching high school English, evidently for “teaching politics”. With three years experience at the school, an 8-month old baby at home, and without union protection, a handful of extremist parents were able to essentially convince my former administration to oust me as a teacher.

The trouble started when I taught (for the second straight year) an admin-approved book Rising Out of Hatred to my freshman English class. It’s the story of a prominent white nationalist named Derek Black (son of Stormfront creator Don Black and godson of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke) who eventually denounced his past because he obtained a broader education than he had been raised with at an extremely open-minded college. A single parent complained about the content of Rising six chapters in, saying they were upset that the book mentions the objectively true fact that Black’s family supported Trump when he first rose in the American political scene; so my administration decided to ban the book entirely mid-way through reading it with the entire freshman class. 

I was informed about this anti-intellectual and reactionary decision via-email days after my son was born, and yet still I took the time to contest their ruling (eventually, so did many parents and students). When I returned to school, students wanted to know why the book was being banned, so I told them the truth - it was an administrative decision. They asked what they could do to get it back, so I encouraged them to advocate for themselves by writing administration an email in support of the text, which many did - later, administration claimed students were just “engaging in drama” rather than acknowledge the power and beauty of young people standing up for themselves and their education.

The decision was ultimately overturned, but that didn’t stop the administration from making up documentation in July of 2021 called “Informal Work Evaluations” about this very incident, slamming me for “teaching politics”. All formal and official reviews from the same administration were glowing, and to my knowledge I was the first, last, and only employee to ever receive something called “Informal Work Evaluations”. 

The absurdities continued: A parent invaded my virtual journalism class to claim for ten minutes Trump won the election, and accused me of lying to the students for saying otherwise; The parent who had complained about Rising interrupted and argued with an admin-invited school-wide guest speaker who was trying to discuss race relations; After being asked to teach a course called "Race in America” (a request by a parent of a student of color in the wake of the summer of the George Floyd protests), I received a vague email scolding me for playing a video in class that debunked racist tropes peddled by right wing mouthpieces that claim black people have lower IQs, are lazy, and prone to violence; I even got a vague complaint passed on to me by administration that was either about a unit on Manufacturing Consent or learning different cognitive biases and logical fallacies - the specificity of the complaint was was never articulated to me, just apparently logged into a hidden list of “Informal Work Evaluations” to use against me later.

I was eventually sent a letter, certified mail that I had to sign to show I had received it, that my former administrators did not even sign - they had the new business manager do that - stating they opted to “not rehire”. I received the letter in tears on July 1, nearly a month after school ended. We as a staff had been promised verbally that we would all return after persevering during such a difficult year of “hybrid learning” (half the class was present, half Zoomed in, work at home days, etc.) Though I contested (with help from over 10 written testimonies from parents and co-workers) to a disinterested and apathetic board of directors to no avail, I, on the other hand, was left with a month or two to find a new job. 

This insane story (for space I am leaving out quite a few seriously egregious details such as the time administration asked me to tie in culinary arts from other cultures instead of “politics” while teaching 1984, or the time they told me, “you’re not a history teacher” because I reference history often in my teaching) is the product of a cacophony of horrible things in our society: non-unionized and tyrannical work places, a belligerent and incompetent managerial class, and the result of dishonest politicians going after their latest target of teachers, schools, and knowledge/education itself. The reason these opportunists are doing this, make no mistake, not only serves as a boogeyman to obsess about in upcoming elections, but ultimately in an effort to eventually privatize education in this country.

To be clear, every English, history, or any subjective material you’ve ever encountered in any classroom, whether the teacher wants to admit it or is even aware of such bias at all, is biased at the very least through the process of omission and emphasis. Your average American history class in this country is going to emphasize all of the great men and ignore systemic failures. Your average economics class is going to tout capitalist economics and ignore labor interests. Your average English teacher, to the detriment of their students and society alike, may shy away from controversial, challenging, thought-provoking topics and opt for something that’s not going to stir anything up in this tumultuous political climate. If we allow these attitudes to prevail, all of this will inevitably result in courses that could lack intellectualism and intrigue.

I personally see no real point of teaching if the material is watered-down and sanitized, if I can’t discuss things like media literacy, critical thinking, and political issues as a means of hitting the “education standards” in my classroom. My recent book, Education Revolution - Media Literacy for Political Awareness makes the case for a fresh, meaningful brand of education, not only despite, but in spite of the volatility of this current cultural moment. Though I have lost a teaching job implementing such topics in the high school classroom, I obtained a new (union) teaching job quickly and still stand behind this premise and encourage other teachers to do the same, and for parents and administrators to back us in this pursuit should troubles arise. As long as something is true, and especially if it’s true and relevant, it belongs in the classroom. Furthermore, teachers should be able to do what we have done for quite some time now, which is take the moral high-ground in subjective conversations. Considering we have students of all races, creeds, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and genders, the moral baseline of public schools should absolutely be accepting, open-minded, and uphold free speech.

If we dared to implement media literacy and critical thinking in classrooms, I do sincerely believe it could make a substantial difference. Revolutionaries of all sorts have historically understood the importance of educating the people to savvily fight for their own genuine material interests. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us.” Though I teach students to try to see through the paralysis of fear mongering, my warnings here do not fall into the “abnormal fear” category. The climate crisis, rising inequality, the real history of race, US imperialism, exploitation in the workplace, and the struggle working class people face are genuine, pressing matters that the vast majority of high school students will most definitely eventually encounter. Possessing a rational and righteous fear of the problems of the world based on the objective evidence at hand will protect us. The subjective conversations that naturally follow this discussion in deciding the humane and moral thing to do about any given issue will also protect us. If we allow incoherent, irrational fears to guide us, it will be the quickest way to descend into mass confusion and hostility, further expediting the decay of this country and humankind in general. We must tell our youth the truth, educate them about the world, and prepare them to inherit society with a more humane and sensible vision for the future - for any future worth living depends upon it. 

Sam Shain
Sam Shain is an author, teacher, musician, artist, and last but not least a family man. His book Education Revolution - Media Literacy for Political Awareness is available now.
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