School & District Management Opinion

3 Challenges for Educational Leaders: Free Speech, Truth, and Courage

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 22, 2017 5 min read
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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. -United States Constitution. First Amendment

Free Speech

Every school has a bank of teachers and leaders who have studied the Constitution. Every district has those who teach it. Every district, also, has access to attorneys whose practices require they know the Constitution and its application to schools. It is actually the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791 to be sure the new government honored the rights of its citizens, that are well known among most Americans. They contain the rights we learn early on as precious to defining our democracy and way of life. Most know what it means to invoke the Fifth Amendment or why the Second Amendment provokes such hot political debate. And, most would rattle off the freedoms identified in the First Amendment: free speech, free press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly.

Yet, over the last century, these rights have been tested almost annually and interpreted by governing bodies or courts. In schools, perhaps free speech is the one that presents itself most frequently. The domain which once included verbal and written communication now encompasses all kinds of expression and of outlets. We think it is still taught that with each of these freedoms comes an associated responsibility. It creates the tension point between where does one’s freedom ends and another’s begin. In these times, determining where the point lies takes the wisdom of Solomon and the Oracle of Delphi. Yesterday, the Supreme Court issues several rulings on such matters with repercussions that range from naming a band to potentially a team.

This past year and a half have given rise to other questions about free speech. Does (s)he mean what (s)he says or tweets? Who knows and do we care? And, if it is intentional, is it true or not? Cable news and talk radio fill days and nights with these debates, point/counterpoint conversations and drawing of conclusions. Even if some basic facts can be established the story lines become widely divergent and speculative. Big money and big influence is available to those who are so outrageous that they blur the lines between news and entertainment and gather millions of followers. Our heads spun when Megyn Kelly announced she was interviewing Alex Jones for her new show. Does he have a right to spew forth lies that involve the loss of children’s lives at Sandy Hook? Does he have the right to defame the lost life of the principal, a woman we knew and respected? Or of the teacher and psychologist who worked with her and those children? Can his vileness continue to hurt and offend parents whose grief we cannot imagine? Do we have the right to prevent his right to free speech? He has become a supporter and an advisor of sorts to the POTUS. Kelly might argue we need to pull him from the shadows into the light so he can be seen for who he is. But, our ears resist.


Then, while flipping through news channels this morning, we heard a member of Congress interviewed. He said something like this...."We need to get them under oath so they tell the truth.” That man did not grow up in any house we know. Not telling the truth was the greatest of all offenses in our homes. There wasn’t any need for an oath. There were parents and, yes, siblings who couldn’t wait to share if you didn’t tell the truth. In one lifetime, that emphasis on truth has faded. One day, as a nation, we will realize it as a tragic loss. We once heard an assistant superintendent who had fabricated an answer in a board meeting and get called on it by the superintendent the next morning. Her response was “Everybody lies.” We guess that’s true ... but don’t you hope someone is still speaking the truth? How do we function as a society without that?

It brought us to think about ourselves and our blogging friends and colleagues. In some ways we are like those talk radio show hosts who have a bit of truth to tell laced with a lot of opinion. We want to percolate interest and focus attention on certain issues. We want to balance the hot surface with a thoughtful depth to keep our readers on their toes and alive in their heads and hearts. But, you ask who keeps us honest and truthful? Edweek has wonderful folks who keep us straight if names or events or sources are wrongly portrayed. We challenge each other regularly to think through what we write. And, our readers sometimes give us feedback that changes a perspective totally. In the end, however, we are bloggers, studying the worlds of leadership and education, putting out our opinions, stirring pots and inviting others to join us. Even though as researchers we know we are on the most solid ground if we find our way back to original sources for every piece. We don’t. We have, instead, like most, found sources we trust and rely on them to have done the research for veracity.

But, this is what we believe to our core. Leaders do not need to be popular but they must be truth tellers. They must be compelled in thought and in deed by a sense of truthfulness that allows others to find them trustworthy. There is a need for creativity and ingenuity in leadership but not around issues where truth can or must be told. It seems to us that many leaders know the nexus of the place where truth needs to be told and where courage to say it emerges. They recall it as a moment that is defining, when they know that to hold back would have caused them to lose something of incredible value. So they spoke out and became stronger regardless of the momentary outcome.


Courage is a personal challenge. Without courage, truth won’t be told, schools won’t change, students will continue to achieve based upon expectations that are limiting, gaps will remain, and systems will go along, but the children...what of them? Will they learn well and will they use the freedoms of adulthood to preserve those freedoms for others. That is not the job of every leader but it is the job of every educational leader.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by steinchen courtesy of Pixabay

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