Opinion: Fellow Darien High School teacher disagrees with colleague's decision to walk out
To the Editor:
Let me start by saying that I have a deep respect for Jennifer Ladd, as both a person and as a teacher. She has been and continues to be a colleague, mentor, and friend to me for the past seven years. In my time at Darien High School, I have witnessed her inspire students, challenge minds, and be a testament to her profession. Let me also express my respect for the Darien Administration, every day they tackle subjects of immense importance in an environment of teenage struggle, civil discord, and yes, school shootings. Their task is not an easy one and I don’t envy the line they have to walk. Finally, I have an appreciation and pride in the students of Darien High School, who manage to get up each day and deal with the same issues, prep for adulthood, develop their minds, and yes, occasionally do my homework. I have told innumerable people that teaching here is the best job in the world (even when grading my 35th research paper of the weekend). It is a blessing to be a product of this town’s schools, both as a student and as an educator.
Each of us tosses and turns with our own moral struggles, and must wake up and be judged by the person in the mirror. As teachers especially, we deal with legal, moral, and personal challenges each day. No class in grad school ever teaches us what to do when a student asks our opinion on a walkout, which of course happened to thousands of educators in the last week. Each of us works hard every day to walk the line between mentor, authority, educator, and the variety of other roles we play.
We as teachers have a responsibility to our students, “our kids”. In refusing to teach on Friday and sitting in the school courtyard demanding Congress take action to reform gun laws, I think Mrs. Ladd was acting upon her personal interpretation of that ethical responsibility, and I respect her sincerity in that belief. But at the same time she was also, in my opinion, abrogating both very real written responsibilities and different, but no less important moral responsibilities. Both which raise difficult issues about our role as educators. I don’t believe it was her intent, but these items exist nonetheless and should be expressed.
First, let me say, it’s never easy to be the one supporting “rule of law”. Our heroes invariably are rebels: Mother Jones, Socrates, Washington, Princess Leia. Few want to be the guy supporting “the man”, we’d much rather be on the picket line, fighting for justice, children, and safety. The world would be much easier if our personal sense of right and wrong were the final arbiter. Except it wouldn’t. When Mrs. Ladd decided to leave her classes, she wasn’t just speaking truth to power, but she was violating a social contract (both a very real written one and unwritten ones). The written contract wasn’t imposed by some arbitrary power (nor was it in anyway responsible for the specific injustice she was protesting), but was one created democratically, by members of this community as well as signed by her and other teachers (including myself). By walking out, she violated the nature (and the word) of that contract.
Now perhaps she believed that her actions pitted the letter of the law, against a higher law: a compact to take care of “her kids”. But if that was indeed the case, these actions raise a number of dangerous ramifications as well. There were many other ways she could have advocated her position. Does Mrs. Ladd understand how her actions could reinforce certain stereotypes about teachers’ political biases, which undermine the trust parents and students have about an intellectually open environment, not just for her classroom, but for others like mine as well? Do her students understand that if they walked out in such a fashion from a responsibility in their own career, that the results might be far more catastrophic? Many students might not understand that their personal protest might, and more likely will, have larger consequences. Students leaving school get cuts; adults often pay far more for their intentional, willful, and premeditated disobedience of the rules.
Furthermore, when I went to see Mrs. Ladd out in the courtyard, laminated list of phone numbers in hand, students gleefully dialing Washington, expressing their voices, I was impressed with the students and their activism. For many, I am sure this is a day they would never forget; one where they took personal responsibility and engaged politically. As an educator, how can you not just approve, but celebrate that action? Yet I was troubled as well. While students undoubtedly shared her beliefs, Mrs. Ladd had taken it upon herself to advocate a specific political agenda, unilaterally, with no counterpoint - which has troubling implications. As educators, we all (I hope) grapple with our biases and endeavor to balance the job of role model (in Mrs. Ladd’s case - activist), with that of promoter of independent thought. In her letter, Mrs. Ladd herself recognized that many students enter our lives with the perception that those above them seem correct, and that often includes their perception of us. To many students, we are right, simply because we are a teacher (although ironically to some students, the opposite is equally true). We as educators must remember this, particularly when speaking about our personal beliefs in a school setting. Few expect a teacher to be free from opinion or check their advocacy at the door entirely (another teacher most of all). However, by publicly and premeditatedly leaving class to intentionally promote a personal cause, irregardless of sympathy, a sacrosanct boundary necessary for good education was clearly and intentionally crossed - this was no gray area. Our political opinions cannot supersede curriculum (and they certainly cannot be advocated for by skipping the classes we are assigned to teach). This idea may seem like an infringement of free speech (which those who know me, would recognize I am the last to oppose), but remember, it is this same rule which protects our own classrooms and us as educators from teaching someone else’s orthodoxy (like the NRA’s).
Lastly, on a philosophical level, what about the long term implications of this action? To me, there’s a brutal irony in defying the law to demand new ones. To paraphrase a personal hero, Thomas More, “If you break every law in England to hunt down the devil, what will you do when the devil turns around? All the laws of England being cut down, where will you run for protection?” If laws to restrict the purchase of guns do come into creation via civil disobedience, what moral high ground will one hold, when those who refuse to hand over their guns cite personal conscience as well? By violating any law, we make a rod for our own back. Our society (be it through the Classical Western heritage taught in my classes, or the American in Mrs. Ladd’s) instituted rule of law for important reasons. What would it be like without those rules? Or if every teacher felt justified to refuse to work in the name of an injustice they individually perceived? After every election 50% of the population felt like their side was right, even though they lost. Those on the other side of the fence also believe in justice, children, and safety — no one has a monopoly on these items.
Jen Ladd cares about “her kids”, as does everyone in this community. Even though her methods in this instance trouble me, I respect Jen for speaking and acting on her conscience. I only hope she can respect me for speaking mine, and disagreeing with her actions.
Dennis Cummings Jr. is a History Teacher at Darien High School. He is also a resident of the town. He calls students “my kids” too.