Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 3)

Brett Meteyer, a fourth grade teacher at Explorer Elementary School in Williamston (MI), wrote the following letter to parents of the 10 year-olds in his class just before Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States.

Dear Parents,

Because I am concerned about my students and your children being exposed to language and behavior that is not in concert with the most conservative social and family values, I have decided to show the inauguration of Donald Trump this Friday, but we will not view Mr. Trump’s inauguration speech.

Because every peaceful transition of power is a historic moment, I put in a request to the Trump team to preview the speech, but I have not heard back from them.

I showed the speeches of Presidents Obama and Bush in 2009 and 2005, respectively, but I am anxious about showing Mr. Trump’s inaugural address, given his past inflammatory and degrading comments about minorities, women, and the disabled. I am also uneasy about Mr. Trump’s casual use of profanity, so I sought an assurance that as their teacher, I would not be exposing children to language that would not appear in G- or PG-rated movies.

I do not know if Mr. Trump’s speech is something that would be provided to the press or

concerned citizens beforehand, but these plans may change if I hear back from them.

Hopefully,

Brett Meteyer

The district of four schools is located just east of Lansing, the state capitol and home to Michigan State University. There are just over 1800 students in the district. District enrollment is predominately white and has 15 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Did he get blow-back from allowing his students to see the Inauguration but and not listen to the President’s speech? Yes, he did. One article said:

The email was forwarded to [Steve] Gruber, [a local radio host] who also has children within the same district, by a parent who was listening to his program, The Steve Gruber Show.

“As the son of a fifth grade teacher, it infuriates me when those in charge of our kids are trying to train them instead of teaching them,” Gruber told Watchdog.org. “I found the letter to be outrageous!”

Gruber also posted Meteyer’s letter on Facebook.

“Facebook immediately exploded,” Gruber told Watchdog. “What kind of message does this send to kids? ‘This president is a bad guy and kids should not watch him’? This is a piece of history, and the kids should be allowed to watch.”

Gruber said he called Meteyer at his home on Tuesday to ask about his stance and that the teacher replied, “I don’t need to justify what I did to you.” Gruber said Meteyer also told him, “I feel good about what I’ve done,” and that he stands by his letter.

A Fox News outlet had reactions from other Michigan parents:

Several parents across Mid-Michigan felt Meteyer is cheating his students.

“Any child that’s curious about the inaugural address, I think should be allowed to watch it,” said Henry Lussier, Imlay City resident.

Kyle Welch, from Detroit, said he wasn’t interested in presidential addresses when he was a kid, but he doesn’t believe students should be censored.

“You don’t have to agree with him, but I think they have the right to see the speech,” Welch said.

And the fourth grade teacher’s boss? What were reactions of district administrators?

Narda Murphy, superintendent of Williamston Community Schools, wrote a letter to families explaining that teachers are expected to teach the curriculum in a balanced manner and “demonstrate good judgment in their communications with families.” The letter also noted that the district won’t comment on specific employee issues.

“Each teacher determines classroom instruction, and we encourage parents to contact them if they have concerns,” she said.

Individual teachers, not the administration, make the decision to show students the presidential inauguration ceremonies, Murphy said.

Here, then, is a teacher who made a decision about a civic lesson for 10 year-olds on the Presidential Inauguration. In managing the dilemma of being being both autonomous to make classroom decisions yet obligated to adhere to professional and community norms, he made a choice. Of the four choices available, according to Diana Hess’s framework (denial, privilege, avoidance, and balance) which did he make?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 3)

  1. I was in 4th grade in 1960-61, so JFK gave his inaugural address when I was 10 years old. We didn’t see it. Of course, I eventually became aware of it, probably over the course of the next year or two. Somehow, my life was not significantly hurt by missing the live broadcast. And no announcements were sent home to parents about the fact that we wouldn’t be viewing it. It was rather uncommon for live television to be shown in school when I was in elementary grades, at least in my district.

    Honestly, I’m not sure why this teacher felt compelled to make an announcement that he had to know would be provocative. And if he didn’t expect it to create precisely the sorts of reactions it did – on Facebook, in other media, etc. – I’d be quite surprised.

    What would be the point of showing an inauguration while pointedly not showing the inaugural address? How would this teacher have handled the event if Hillary Clinton had been elected? Would he have written home to parents in conservative Williamston (I live about 40 minutes from there)? Would he have shown coverage but not allowed kids to hear the speech?

    I’m far from being a fan of our new POTUS and certainly didn’t vote for him. I also didn’t vote for his Democratic opponent. And I have been increasingly disgusted by much of what’s gone on in the last 18 months to 2 years when it comes to the behavior of both friends and foes of Trump and Clinton. It’s as if it’s 2008-9 all over again, but the teams have switched uniforms and slogans and tactics.

    My understanding of party politics in 1960-1 was about as unsophisticated as that of most kids my age. I rooted for Kennedy and the Democrats because my whole family did with very very few exceptions. It was like rooting for the NY Yankees versus, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates or any other team that wasn’t the Yankees. I am skeptical that many 10 year-olds are significantly more insightful into politics today, and having a teacher do what this one did hardly strikes me as a way to help them become more thoughtful. If he was concerned about “vulgar language” (boy, what a convenient excuse!), he could have waited until the following week to have the students read a “safe” version of the address and talk about what it meant to them. Instead, I think he went for a way to get people riled up (certainly his right), but at the expense of actually helping students go beyond the usual “good guys/bad guys” point of view.

    • larrycuban

      Again, Michael, thanks for the extended, personal, and thoughtful comment. You asked, in my judgment, fair questions of this teacher’s motives and mindfulness about the issues.

      • You’re welcome, Larry, and I appreciate your reply. As a math teacher, I haven’t faced a lot of reasons to delve into the current political madness with students. Had anyone asked in either the K-12 or adult classes I’ve taught over the past two years, I suppose I would have considered seriously what I wanted to say about my own political positions, but perhaps only if I could connect it reasonably to math. It wouldn’t be hard in a statistics course to examine the b.s. that gets purveyed as unquestionable fact in the campaigns of various candidates for POTUS, but I might want to actually prepare lessons before doing so.

        When I last taught statistics, I found that even with the mathematics clearly established, it was difficult to help students see the unsoundness of pyramid marketing schemes or that casino gambling was a less awful way to lose money than buying lottery tickets (both have negative expected values, but your margin of loss with lotteries is far greater than with casino games). Somehow, I shouldn’t have been shocked. Things that seem crystal clear mathematically don’t seem to cut a lot of ice with people who prefer to operate primarily based on hope, fear, and other emotions. 🙂

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the follow-up comment, Michael. Connecting controversial issues to the academic subject matter is one of the professional judgments that teachers seeking student engagement by making topics relevant have to make. There are, of course, connections in most academic subjects but some are easier to make the links (e.g., social studies, English, science). As for your stat course and the difficulties that students faced in responding to pyramid schemes and lottery tickets, sounds like a case study out of Amos Tversky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s playbook on the role of emotions in thinking.

      • Thanks for the tip about Tversky and Kahneman. Didn’t know their names or work. Reading a December ’16 VANITY FAIR piece on them now, written by the author of MONEYBALL. Intriguing thus far.

      • larrycuban

        The fellow who wrote the VanityFair piece is Michael Lewis. He wrote the Undoing Project which is the story of Tversky and Kahneman friendship over last 30 years.

  2. Ben

    Part 2 is clearly from a position of privilege. It blatantly calls Trump a racists without even considering that some people might have genuine concerns with social issues or that they simply didn’t like Clinton. But part 3 has me stumped. At first I thought it was avoidance because the inauguration was going to be shown, but not Trump’s speech. When I started thinking about the reasons the teacher gave for not showing Trump’s speech, inappropriate language, etc. I found myself swaying towards privilege. Previous speeches were shown without demanding a copy before hand. So if I was a Trump supporter I would instantly assume that the teacher has deemed my president inappropriate and substandard, which to me is now a privelaged position because he wants the students to think Trump is inappropriate. Okay, I’m still saying avoidance on part 3.

    Am I right? What’s the teacher edition tell you? I work in public school, I can’t think for myself. Will this be on the test? There, that’s my attempt at humor.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Ben, the question at the end of the post did sound like an assignment. Thanks for the poking fun at it. However, no teacher’s manual for the answer. Your reasoning for Part 2, I agree with it. Part 3, your first stab makes sense to me but to call it “avoidance” (in Diana Hess’s framework) at the end of your comment tries to bridge that 4th grade teacher’s actions across two categories. That doesn’t work for me. For a teacher to practice avoidance of a controversial issue, I would think that no lesson on the Inauguration (with or without speech) would even be taught. For the class, It would be avoided. I do appreciate your taking the time to comment.

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