For this teacher, the November 4, 2014, TIME magazine cover is intimately personal and painful. I view it from an unique perspective. I feel that gavel pounding my head just as surely as if the judge were standing above me. I have been deemed a “rotten apple” by a court of law. Because of a court ruling that you may find as unbelievable as I do, I have lost my job, my career, my dignity. I struggle to survive. Even though the original incident happened over a decade ago, it effects cast a lingering pall over the teaching profession.
Many other outraged teachers have voiced informed, indignant replies to TIME demanding an apology. Only a tiny fraction of the public who saw that cover and subliminally absorbed the “TEACHERS ARE ROTTEN APPLES” message, will know about the teacher responses. I’m adding my voice to the outrage machine which will also, most likely, be ignored. Speaking from personal experience, I’m making the case that it is exceedingly easy to fire a teacher — even if the court must make new law to do so.
In his letter that does not appear on the TIME website, Thomas L. Good, Professor Emeritus at the College of Education, University of Arizona writes:
Consider the front page cover that brazenly and in bold print decries (and implies that our teachers are) Rotten Apples and graphically displays a gavel that is about to smash an apple that looks healthy. Why? . . . Clearly I do not know the motives behind Time’s depiction of the issue nor will I pretend to know them.
I think I do know TIME’s motive, and unlike many employed educators, I have nothing to lose by speaking my mind. The intent of the TIME cover is to implant the BAD TEACHER message into the American psyche. As Vergara copycat lawsuits against teacher tenure wind their way through our court system, parents and the public will be reminded in a myriad of ways just how bad teachers are. The “bad teachers are impossible to fire” meme will become prolific with periodic boosts from major media outlets and incessant mimicking via social media. Members of an uninformed, unduly influenced public will far outnumber the educated few who will be powerless to stop this billionaire scheme. Unless we all become wise to this scam, the teaching profession and our publicly owned, publicly governed, publicly beloved schools are doomed. They will become the property of the wealthy elite.
The following video exchange between an Indianapolis TV news reporter and me and my attorney, Michael Schultz, tells my story succinctly. Note that even during a press conference to announce my appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, I struggle to be heard. The case is Mayer v. Monroe County Consolidated School Corporation, aka the Honk for Peace case. (Other relevant documents including the text of the TIME for Kids article and the petition to the Supreme Court may be viewed at the Free Speech Nation website.) A transcript follows each video clip.
Reporter: What brought you here today?
Deb: The original incident happened in January of 2003 when I was teaching a current events lesson to my class that had to do with Iraq. And I was using Time for Kids which is a magazine that was provided by the school. (Construction noise from the street nearby interrupts. Deb, who had already asked that the interview be moved to a quieter place, waits for the noise to subside a bit. Even at a press conference, Deb stuggles to be heard. Ironic.)
Reporter: You were teaching what?
Deb: I was teaching a current events lesson using Time for Kids which is a magazine that was provided by the school. It was approved curriculum. The issue was about Iraq. There were articles about weapons of mass destruction, about UN inspectors going in, and there was one little article about peace demonstrations being held in Washington, D.C., so we discussed that and one of my students asked if I would ever march in a peace march. And I said that peace demonstrations were going on all over the country, even in Bloomington, Indiana. When I drive past the courthouse square where the . . . (Again noise drowns out Deb’s voice.)
Reporter: Sorry, you don’t want to get drowned out.
Deb: I know.
Reporter: Okay, when they asked you, “Would you march . . .
Deb:… would you march in a peace march? I said when I drive past the courthouse square, where the demonstrators are, I honk for peace because they have signs that say, “Honk for Peace.” And I didn’t think too much about it. I thought it was a good common sense thing to say. I also went on to say that I thought we should seek out peaceful solutions to problems, and we teach kids to be mediators on the playground so they won’t fight and hurt each other. And that was the extent of the conversation. I had a student who went home to complain to her parents that I was encouraging the kids to protest the war which hadn’t even started yet. And the parent was very angry and eventually demanded that I not mention peace in my class again. I was told, the entire school was told not to mention peace in relationship to the war. I was intimidated from that time on, harassed, and eventually lost my job.
Attorney Michael Schultz:
The question we are actually putting to the United States Supreme Court is whether and under what circumstances do public school teachers have a right to free speech in class, or stated a little differently, whether or not the First Amendment limits a public school board’s power to punish a teacher for expressing an opinion on a matter of public concern. We’ve not taken the position that teachers should always be able to just go into class and spout out their opinions on issues. This was a class of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. The curriculum was approved. It was Time for Kids magazine. It talked about current events. It had articles in it about differing opinions on the war. The article actually talked about protests of what President Bush was doing in December of 2002 — January of ’03, and the students naturally wanted to ask about the teacher’s opinion. She made her opinion in a very limited, very professional, appropriate way and got fired for it.
Reporter: What kind of message do you hope to send with this law suit?
Reporter: I mean, you’ve already lost.
Deb: I’ve already lost.
Reporter: You’ve lost the appeal.
Deb: I’ve lost the appeal.
Reporter: Now you’re going to the Supreme Court.
Deb: At this point the . . . (Noise from jack-hammering on the street beside us interrupts again. Deb is obviously frustrated by the noise and had already asked to move the interview to a quieter place, but the reporter insists on having the image of the courthouse in the background.)
Reporter: Hold on. Oh well. Okay. Sorry. Let’s go through this.
Deb: The court has ruled that basically the Constitution and several landmark decisions involving free speech at school are irrelevant. They’ve said that teachers have no right of free speech, and that means that a teacher can be fired for any little random comment that she makes. And the court has also said that a teacher’s speech is a commodity that she sells for a salary to the school which I think is a very dangerous concept, and I don’t think we should let that stand because I think free speech is an inalienable right, and I don’t think teachers should lose their rights as a citizen whenever they go to work.
Attorney Michael Schultz:
The law is always made by the losing battle and it is always the cases lost in trial court that eventually end up making new law or clarifying the law, and what we’re trying to do is get the United States Supreme Court to finally clarify the law in this area. We have all the circuit courts are sort of all over the place on how they deal with on whether or not a teacher’s in class speech is protected. In some circuits it is protected. We say in our petition that if Ms. Mayer had been – if this had happened to her in Ohio, for example, she’d probably still have her job. Even if it had happened in Texas, she’d probably still have her job.
On the day I learned the Supreme Court declined to hear my case, Personnel Pitfalls in Cyberworld, written by the attorney for Monroe County Schools, Thomas Wheeler, II, was published on the American Association of School Administrators website. From the article:
Assume Mayer applies for a teaching position in your district. Before the common use of keyword searches on the Web, a school probably would have received limited information regarding her discharge from the Monroe County School Corp., but probably would not have received any information relating to her lawsuit or anti-war activities. If you declined to hire her based on that information alone it would probably be well within your rights to do so.
However, in this Internet age, what if you perform a Google search showing her litigation and anti-war activities. Assume you take the exact same action, declining to hire her based on her prior discharge. Unfortunately, given the knowledge of her anti-war activities and lawsuit, your school district may very well be subject to legal action by Mayer alleging you violated her First Amendment rights by refusing to hire her based upon her anti-war protests.
I haven’t worked since.
My attorney, Michael Schultz, still receives requests from teachers with free speech issues. He explains that he can’t help them because of the Mayer decision. It seems that in fighting for my own rights, the rights of many others were lost. For me, that’s a heavy burden to bear.
You might wonder where the teachers’ union was during this time. The National Education Association, of which I was a member, and the America Federation of Teachers refused to support me. I travelled to Washington, D.C. twice and literally begged for help. Michael E. Simpson, assistant general counsel for NEA, refused to support me. His reasons were arcane and absurd, and I have never been entirely sure whether they were the union’s or his own. Let’s just say his reasoning reflected badly on the union. Organizations, after all, are the people who constitute them.
Another case, decided while the Honk for Peace case was crawling through the system, is Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). It abolished the free speech rights of government workers while at work, tentatively making an exception for educators. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Thomas E. Wheeler II wrote an amicus brief for Garcetti and then used the verdict in that case to argue against my petition to the Supreme Court. Both my case and the Garcetti case were decided without regard for the evidence or the law, but according to a predetermined opinion of the court. Mayer v. Monroe County Consolidated School Corporation (2007) meant to challenge the Garcetti ruling, but the Supreme Court declined to hear it. You may wonder why you don’t hear more from civil service workers exposing government corruption. My guess would be because of the Garcetti ruling.
Even when teachers do win one as in Renee v. Duncan where the California Supreme Court ruled that alternative certification teachers (Teach for America types) do not meet the definition of “highly qualified” teachers, the victory is short-lived. Because of generous contributions and lobbying efforts from billionaire-funded Teach for America, the United States Congress lost no time in posting a “temporary amendment” declaring “alt certs” highly qualified teachers. The amendment is continually renewed in the Continuing Resolution that is guaranteed passage, thus preventing a national debate about whether poor and minority students deserve actual teachers. This Congressional end run around the court is another blow to teachers and their supporters. President Obama weighed in early against teachers when he applauded the firing of teachers in Rhode Island. Arne Duncan, promoting Race to the Top and Common Core, hasn’t been teacher friendly either. So, let’s recap, all three branches of government with support from billionaires and their foundations are waging a devastating public war on teachers. Why? Why? Why?
Let’s be clear about one thing. Vergara is not at all about employing the best teachers for our children. It’s about destroying the teaching profession and teachers’ unions. As Campbell Brown and her cronies proceed with their Vergara-like cases, there will be more covers and more stories about bad teachers. She, along with Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and other public relations darlings who have nary an authentic education credential amongst them, will make the rounds on talk shows, maybe visit The Colbert Report again and The Daily Show, and act as the true voices of education. Actual teachers, on the other hand, will be silent. Not because they aren’t screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard, but because no one in the mainstream media will invite them to the conversation. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.
There are some bad teachers, it’s true. It is the job of administration to fire bad teachers. It isn’t impossible. A system is in place, and the rules should be followed. Laws and tenure protect the rights of good teachers so they can’t be fired capriciously. The next time you see a “bad teacher” story, replace that descriptor with a mental picture of your favorite teacher, or your child’s favorite teacher. Recognize that the gavel will indiscriminately fall on the head of a real person — not a meme. This could get messy.
Deb Mayer is a former teacher. Before teaching at Clear Creek Elementary School where free speech died, she taught at the prestigious Key School in Indianapolis, best known for introducing multiple intelligences into the classroom and instituting other educational theories into practice. She served as a faculty member at Indiana University (IUPUI). She is the recipient of the Defense of Academic Freedom Award. Currently, she is the director of the volunteer-run nonprofit, Great Schools for America, where she maintains Edwatch. She also maintains Teachers United Against Teach for America.