War Lessons Call For Delicate Balance

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 26, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: This article erroneously says that the teachers’ union in Milwaukee had issued a public statement against the war. In fact, a teachers’ group not associated with the union released the statement.

Clarification: This article may have suggested that former social studies teacher Rick Theisen tried to promote his own anti-war views through his choice of instructional materials. While some of the materials reflected his views, Mr. Theisen selected materials based on sound educational principles and representing a variety of viewpoints.

As the United States launched military action against Iraq last week, many teachers were struggling to balance classroom discussions of the war, district policies on the treatment of controversial issues, and their own personal views.

“You want to avoid indoctrinating your students. ... If you do that, you’ve betrayed your mission as a teacher,” said Rick Theisen, a social studies consultant in Maple Grove, Minn., and a former president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “However,” he added, “it’s always a judgment call as to how to balance” the presentation of viewpoints.

Amid the flurry of preparations for the spring testing season, the best-laid lesson plans are being set aside to allow time for talking about Iraq. Teachers are trying to allay students’ anxieties and lay out the complex historical and political roots of the conflict.

But for many teachers, particularly those with strong pro- or anti-war sentiments, deciding what to tell students and how to cover the issues requires skill and restraint.

“This is where experience comes in,” said veteran social studies teacher Robert Hellwig. “You try to encourage reasonable argument on the issue without provoking a confrontation.”

Educators and curriculum experts agree students should be exposed to a variety of information and points of view, but less consensus exists on where a classroom teacher should draw the line in maintaining objectivity, sharing an opinion, or advocating a particular stance.

Some experts advise teachers to leave their own beliefs out of discussions of a contentious issue, be it abortion, affirmative action, or war.

“Ultimately, you want the students to arrive at a decision based on evidence that’s supportable and reflects their values,” Mr. Theisen said.

Whose Opinion?

For many educators, their role in guiding classroom discussion is not so neutral. Mr. Hellwig, the chairman of the social studies department at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, N.J., believes that teachers have a responsibility to exercise their rights to free speech.

“When a teacher holds back on their view, the student may not be so interested in expressing their own,” said Mr. Hellwig, who has 33 years’ experience in the classroom. “The teacher has a right to an opinion, and to sit there and be mute is not going to serve students well.”

Some districts have formulated policies over the past few years for addressing disputed topics in the classroom. The guidelines generally instruct teachers to present diverse perspectives and to foster an environment that respects the opinions of all students.

In a number of districts, officials have crafted more restrictive policies that prohibit or discourage teachers from revealing their own opinions in the classroom. Since the prospect of a war with Iraq began to dominate newspaper headlines and television newscasts, some districts have been urging teachers to refrain from airing their views altogether.

Ruben Zepeda, a longtime social studies teacher in Los Angeles, was asked last week to draft guidelines for teaching about the war in the 737,000-student school district.

Mr. Zepeda, who is overseeing the district’s federal grant program to improve history instruction, recommends that teachers use the current events to help students make connections to what they are covering in the curriculum.

Those lessons could look at foreign-policy decisions throughout history and how they are similar to or different from those being made today. Teachers may also explain to students the roles of the three branches of U.S. government in deciding whether to go to war. They should not, however, share their opinions with students, Mr. Zepeda emphasized.

“This should not be about professing their particular perspective, but allowing students to come to their own opinion,” he said. “In the worst case, I think teachers exert an excessive amount of influence over students. That’s why we have policies in place in schools to make sure teachers monitor themselves.”

Crossing the Line

But other teachers and teachers’ groups have criticized such policies as infringing on their right to freedom of expression, and some teachers have run afoul of school rules.

A Colorado middle school teacher, for example, drew complaints from parents after she wore a pin on a class trip that stated, “Not My President, Not My War.”

In Maine recently, the state’s Army National Guard complained to state officials that children of military personnel had felt harassed by anti-war comments of teachers and classmates. State Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese responded with a letter telling teachers to be sensitive to students’ personal situations and values.

Students in hallway

Eighth grader Genevieve James sits through a “shelter in place” drill at Hardy Middle School in Washington.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

And in Albuquerque, N.M., two teachers faced dismissal this month after refusing to remove anti- war signs from their classrooms.

Carmelita Roybal, one of the teachers at Rio Grande High School to be placed on leave by the 85,000-student Albuquerque district, ignored an administrator’s request to take down a sign urging, “No War Against Iraq.”

The refusal, officials said, violated a district policy that requires teachers to present a balance of viewpoints and to stow props or materials used to advocate one side of an issue once the lesson is completed.

But Ms. Roybal said she was inspired at that moment to keep the sign in sight to balance what she describes as the pro-military messages displayed by the school’s Junior ROTC program. Given the school’s high failure rate among its largely minority student population, she said, those messages were especially troubling to her.

“I felt so offended every time I saw [military] recruiters in the school, and I felt that’s obviously pushing an agenda,” Ms. Roybal said last week. “I had two brothers who went to Vietnam, and I will never forget the broken, shattered men who returned.”

“I was responding to a law much higher than [district] policy,” she added. “When it came time to take the sign down, I couldn’t do it.”

At a hearing with district officials last week, Ms. Roybal argued that she had presented students with opposing views, and had even organized a debate between herself and a colleague who supports military action. Her suspension sidelined a second debate she had planned for students to observe.

District officials said they would inform Ms. Roybal by mail whether she would be reinstated.

“They falsely accused me of pushing my agenda,” Ms. Roybal contended, “and of criticizing the president and criticizing conservatives.”

Teachers can face an ethical quandary when their strong feelings overtake them, experts on instruction say.

They caution teachers not to take lightly the powerful influence they have over students’ beliefs at a malleable stage in their intellectual development. Social studies classes, in particular, those experts say, are intended to prepare students to be active citizens, a role requiring them to weigh information on an issue and then make their own decisions about where they stand.

Neutrality Recommended

Even when a teacher feels strongly about an issue, he or she should remain as neutral as possible, according to Mr. Theisen, the Minnesota social studies consultant.

Maintaining objectivity was a challenge for him during the Vietnam War. A younger brother was killed in the line of duty in the conflict in 1967. Outside class, Mr. Theisen protested U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. In the classroom, he says, he tried to portray objectivity.

“It made it doubly difficult that personally I was in no way disconnected from the conflict,” he recalled. “But I still never believed it was my role as a teacher to indoctrinate kids to my position.”

His personal position, however, may have been reflected in some of his curricular decisions. Early in the conflict, Mr. Theisen said, it became clear that the students had little sense of the human toll war could take.

So he took them to see the anti-war film “Johnny Got His Gun,” about the struggles of a soldier whose face and limbs were mutilated in World War I. While the movie helped Mr. Theisen’s students understand the consequences of war, he said recently, planning such an activity today would likely cause too much controversy.

“Then it was risky, but I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Going Public

Some teachers have decided they cannot separate their personal views from their professional responsibilities.

R. Craig Ham, a social studies teacher at Forest High School in Ocala, Fla., and the president of the Marion County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said he would “disobey this gag order,” referring to a directive from school officials to refrain from expressing opinions in class.

Mr. Ham, a retired U.S. Army colonel with the military police, a Vietnam veteran, and a former academic department head at West Point, said he would continue to tell students of his support for President Bush and his decision to go to war.

He said he is clear, though, in distinguishing for students facts from opinion and encourages contrasting views.

In other districts, even some officials have chosen to take a public stand.

The San Francisco school board, for example, passed a resolution in January opposing a war and authorized a teach-in on the issues associated with Iraq. After some public criticism, the board modified the purpose of the teach-in, saying it was not intended to rally anti-war sentiment.

Teachers’ unions in several large California districts, as well as in Chicago, the District of Columbia, Milwaukee, New York City, and Portland, Ore., have issued public statements in recent months opposing a war in Iraq and have urged members to protest and write lawmakers about their feelings.

Many more teachers have chosen less visible outlets. Emotions have been running high on several Internet sites promoted as open forums for teachers, where writers are showing few inhibitions in their submissions.

Eric Crump, who moderates the Teachers Against War listserv for the National Council of Teachers of English, in Urbana, Ill., has seen some passionate pleas for peace from participants in the few weeks since the list was set up. They have generally been brutally frank about their opposition to a war.

Ms. Roybal, the suspended New Mexico teacher, said she is not one to take such a public stance. And she has said she would remove the anti-war sign if she returns to Rio Grande High, where she has taught English for 11 years. But in the heat of the moment, she felt she had no choice.

“I don’t like risking my job,” she said, “but you have to follow your heart.”


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