The lesson for teachers today is to be oh-so careful if you tread into a discussion of race and policing. You might get cancelled.
Connie Gardner has spent the last two weeks thinking back on her 32-year career as a teacher. Never once has she been called “racist.” But the Fairbanks special education teacher was put on leave on April 28 after a parent of one of her students recorded and posted online part of the class discussion and comments Gardner made relevant to the classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Gardner said she had rarely seen her special ed students so engaged as they were on April 28. The students are not usually talkative, and some have difficulty speaking, reading, and writing. Due to the short timeframe available this spring, her students didn’t actually get to read the classic book by Harper Lee, but instead watched the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
The students discussing the theme of the book wandered into matters of today’s current events, with race, policing, and controversies very much on their minds as they thought about whether America is more or less racist than in the Jim Crow era depicted in “Mockingbird.”
What happened next during the discussion was a rude awakening for all high school teachers. The students were leading the discussion to areas they had heard about in the news — George Floyd, the man killed during an arrest by a Minneapolis police officer, who has since been convicted of murder. As high school teachers often do, when discussing literature and history, Gardner allowed the class discussion to go into areas the students were leading it.
As part of that discussion, Gardner spoke about behavior and how to stay out of trouble. She was making the point that schools have dress codes for a reason, and that Lathrop High School does not allow “sag pants” at school because they are associated with gangs, and that the world does judge people by how they present themselves, therefore, pull your pants up.
Her point was that although judging people by their appearance may be wrong, it’s also part of the world we live in.
Also, if the police arrest you, comply with their orders, she said. That’s what she would do, she said. If George Floyd had complied with police orders, he never would have been put in a knee-to-neck restraint. He would have lived, she said.
In the abbreviated class calendar of 2021, “I didn’t have a whole semester to build trust with my students, and had to work extra hard to get them to trust me. I made a promise to them that I would answer their questions and not treat them like little kids. They could ask me anything, and I would answer them honestly,” Gardner told Must Read Alaska. “They trust me and know I will try as hard as I can,” in classes that are this year a combination of in-person and Zoom calls.
For Gardner, discussion of Jim Crow from the 1950s and America’s current social conditions is a relevant comparison for literature.
“This exact piece of literature is to make you think about the injustice and how far we have come and how far we have to go,” Gardner said.
“Now I’m being told it is not up for discussion,” she said.
About 30 minutes into the lesson is when a parent started videotaping the lesson. The parent said that because Gardner is white, she cannot express an opinion about race in America. At the end of the day, Gardner was put on leave by Principal Carly Sween, who agreed that Gardner had been racially insensitive.
Gardner in January had notified the district she would be retiring after the end of this school year. She believes that rather than justice at the close of her three-decade career, the principal is just going to run out the clock on her, thus denying Gardner the ability to restore her reputation, which she says has been damaged by the worldwide coverage that occurred when the parent posted the video to YouTube.
Gardner has since seen stories about her classroom lesson from as far away as India and Great Britain.
The high school English teacher says there’s a lesson for teachers: Be very afraid.
If you’re teaching literature, you won’t want to stray off the exact text, and even then, do so with care. If you’re teaching by Zoom, a parent might record you and turn you into the principal. And you don’t dare make comparisons to today’s social conditions. In fact, you might not even want to teach “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but move to another “suggested” work of American literature.
In other words, the class dialogue of years past, where students and teachers debate and discuss, are now hazardous to a high school teacher’s career.
The last day of school is May 20, but there doesn’t appear to be justice in the works for Gardner, nor help from the ACLU. No organization has stepped up to defend her First Amendment rights or academic freedom.
The video of a portion of the class discussion has been viewed over 55,000 times on YouTube, and Gardner says that if she ever wants to go back into teaching or even substitute teach, she has been irreparably harmed by what has happened to her.
She’s hoping she’ll be restored to her classroom in the next few days, because she does want to have her name cleared, but meanwhile, she is interviewing with Greg Kelly on NewsMax on Tuesday, May 11, about how Critical Race Theory and Cancel Culture ended her teaching career in Fairbanks.