Attack My Views; Not my Integrity

A letter to the editor of the Petoskey News-Review was printed on Thursday, October 17, that questioned my integrity as a teacher. To their credit, the paper allowed me a couple of sentences to address the writer, but there is so much more to say about the accusations that I have decided to expound upon them here on my blog. If you’re a first time visitor to my blog, I welcome you to look around. Not everything I write is political, but when I do write about politics I try to have some fun and I try to make sure I can support everything that I assert. Some of it is tongue-in-cheek, some of it is an outlet for my outrage, and all of it reflects a passion for democracy, justice, and integrity in our government. Many of you will not agree with a lot of my positions, but I promise you will find a message consistent in its content and with the way I live my life. Hypocrisy is the biggest dragon we have to slay in politics and is my way of drawing my sword against it.

Here is the letter to editor that has prompted this blog post. I am printing it as it was sent to me prior to its publication. At the time it was sent to me by the News-Review for comment, the name of the author was not included. I found out who the person is when you did…when the letter appeared in the paper.

Just finished reading Mark Pontoni’s column in the News-Review on Oct. 9. There is no question that Mr. Pontoni’s political views are as radical in one direction as the Tea Party’s is in the other direction. Mr. Pontoni is an American and without question, he has the right to believe whatever he’d like.

However, what disturbs me is, why does our school system allow him to preach his radical views to our high school students? As a taxpayer who supports our school system it’s upsetting that Mr. Pontoni can use his public position to promote his personal ideals.

It seems to me that all teachers as employees of the taxpayer should be required to keep their personal political agendas to themselves.

My October 9th column in the paper dealt with how the Tea Party represents itself on issues such as science, reproductive rights, climate change, etc. You can read my column here. I recounted, verbatim, an exchange between Senator Howard Walker and local Tea Party radical Brian Somerfield in which Walker expresses that he’s had enough of being bullied by Somerfield’s ilk. Most of the column was just a restatement of Tea Party positions in their own words. At no point in the column do I espouse any of my personal political ideas. If the Tea Party expects to be taken seriously, and they do, they must account for their words and deeds…as any political party must. That their positions are very far outside the mainstream of American politics is not my fault nor my creation. Because I let the Tea Party speak for itself doesn’t make me a political radical.

In fairness, you can certainly gather that I oppose both Tea Party policies and tactics. Shutting down the government to try to block a health insurance plan that has already been approved, upheld, and implemented is irresponsible. Blocking Medicaid expansion in Michigan goes beyond irresponsible and should be considered cruel. But pointing those things out does not make me a radical. I suppose if you’re so far to the right that you believe the things that the Tea Party espouses (life begins two weeks before conception, the wind is a finite resource, etc.) then anyone with common sense would look like a radical to you. But again, that’s not my fault.

It’s the second paragraph of the letter, however, that is the more disturbing. The letter writer somehow concludes two things that are patently false:

1) That I preach my views to our high school students, and

2) Teachers should be prohibited from expressing political views.

First, I assume the writer is not one of my students. Beyond being one of them, the writer has ZERO idea what I say in the classroom and how I say it. Does he/she really believe that I am not aware that our community is full of people who believe that only THEIR ideas should be in our school curriculum? Does he/she really believe that I am not ultra-careful to make sure that whatever happens in my classroom cannot be construed as politically biased? By taking on the Petoskey News-Review column I understood I would be putting a target on my back professionally. Before I accepted my teaching position, I informed both my principal and superintendent that I was writing for the paper, and that some of my views may stir up some folks. By doing this, I personally highlighted that target in front of my employers as a way of letting them know that I understood where the line is drawn between my job as an educator and my job as a columnist.

In 2008, I was a civics teacher in Gaylord. As the Presidential election was unfolding, students would constantly bug me to find out for whom I was going to vote. I refused to tell them. On the day before the election I conducted a survey. “Who is Mr. Pontoni going to vote for tomorrow?” Over 150 students responded. “I don’t know” came in first with over 60% of the vote. “John McCain” came in second with 25% of the vote. “Barack Obama” came in third with 15% of the vote. I have always celebrated that moment as solid evidence that whatever my students learn in my classroom, they don’t get is a lot of political bias. Until there’s better evidence to the contrary, I soundly reject any notion that I preach to my students.

There have been students who strongly resist my insistence that they explain their views. Just asserting something is never enough as we develop our critical thinking skills. This has caused some memorable moments when I have tried to prompt a student into understanding enough about what was said to be able to articulate reasons for saying it. There can be battles in my classroom…sometimes rich and rewarding battles…but they are NEVER about the content of student views.

Secondly, the letter writer pretty clearly states that teachers should keep their views to themselves. Sadly, many if not most teachers agree with the writer. Many teachers are not willing to have their views known because they don’t want to be attacked publicly. My wife refuses to put political signs out on the lawn because she doesn’t want to have to justify herself to parents. The result of this complicit silence is that the voice of some really smart people, on the left AND on the right, are not heard. People who are actively engaged in the events of our community, our country, and our world and therefore in a very advantageous position to contribute to the public debate, are in many ways intimidated into silence. I don’t blame them. I blame the members of the community who feel that teachers occupy some rung so far down the ladder of professionalism that the community can dictate to them how and when they are allowed to express themselves.

The “I’m the taxpayer and I should get to decide what teachers say in the classroom.” is just plain silly. It’s my administration’s job to determine if I am adhering to the professional standards to which all good teachers aspire. If I’m not, either my behavior changes or I’m looking for work. The door of my classroom is almost always open…literally. Administrators, other teachers, other students walking by have open access to anything going on inside. I am proud of my work as an educator and I don’t compromise the professional standards of my honorable occupation by “preaching” my views to students. I realize that truth seeking and critical thinking can be anathema to folks in the Tea Party. But again, that’s not my fault.


One Comment on “Attack My Views; Not my Integrity”

  1. Richard Scott,D.O. October 15, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    Will stand behind you. Paul Offit, a developer of vaccines, is attacked by those who refuse vaccines and threatened with loss of life. Some have even suggested he is a paid shill for big pharm. ad hominem arguments go on and on, and nuance and suggestion often trumps good reason.

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