London teacher suspended for encouraging students to skip school for protests

In the UK, a teacher has been suspended for encouraging her students to skip school to attend a political protest. Sue Caldwell, a math teacher at a North London high school, has denied the allegations. In The Guardian, one college student has come to her defense, arguing that education doesn’t – and shouldn’t – end in the classroom, and that there’s nothing wrong with a teacher encouraging students to participate in the political process. Simone Webb writes:

In encouraging students to attend demonstrations, teachers can help to bring alive the theoretical lessons of a citizenship class. They can take the ideals of political involvement out of the classroom and on to the street. The atmosphere and excitement of a political demonstration can stay with young people for a long time, and the anger and passions provoked might lead to greater degrees of involvement and interest in politics. Encouraging students to go on demonstrations is almost equivalent to encouraging them to join a political party of their choice or to lobby their MP over a certain issue.

The problem, of course, is that in order to participate, the kids had to miss school. Webb argues that while no one should make a habit of cutting class, one missed day of school is a reasonable price to pay. And I have to say that I agree with her. I’m saddened by political apathy among young people and appreciate that this teacher was trying to get her students involved in an issue (university tuition hikes) that might directly affect them and that will no doubt have a considerable, if indirect affect, on the economy, the job market and the culture in the short and long term.

When I was in high school, my classmates and I were told we would be suspended or expelled if we skipped class to attend anti-Iraq War protests (some of us went anyway). The outcome of the Australian government’s decision whether or not to sign on the Coalition of the Willing certainly had an indirect impact on the lives of young Australians, and I would never argue otherwise. Cuts to public education budgets and tuition increases will have a direct impact on current high school students who want to go to university, as well as those who will soon be competing in a job market that could be flooded with would-be college students who can no longer afford tertiary education. For this reason, this is an issue on which current high school students, even if they can’t vote or should be in class, have every right to make themselves heard.

I also believe that it’s unreasonable to expect political interest and involvement to magically materialize on a person’s 18th birthday; if you want politically interested and active young voters, you need to create a culture in which young people can be politically involved before they hit voting age, too. Webb is right: education shouldn’t end in the classroom, and in many ways, political involvement isn’t something that can be taught in a classroom. Sometimes you just have to put down the books and hit the streets.

What say you, readers? Do you think it’s appropriate for a teacher to encourage students to skip school if it’s for a good cause?

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8 Comments

  1. Posted February 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I’d have to say I see and agree with both sides of this: You are right that education doesn’t end in the classroom, and she seems like a great teacher for encouraging her students to be engaged in the system and to take a stand for their beliefs, nor is there anything wrong with missing a day or two of class (I skipped many a class in college with no excuse whatsoever, let alone anything so noble as protest). At the same time, the teacher is at the mercy of the rules and regulations of her establishment, so obviously the school would be upset with her for encouraging students to break the rules of the system she works for (like any school I assume they are black and white about this issue – skipping school is a no-no for any reason, in their minds). Plus, they might take issue with the impression that she may be leaning her students to one side of the political realm of the other instead of staying neutral. I know as a liberal, I would be upset with any teacher trying to instill conservative beliefs in my child. Obviously people’s moral and political beliefs are molded by many sources other than their parents, one of those sources being their teachers, but the lines as to whose “place” it is to teach those ideals to kids is a little blurry. As mostly if not all being liberal on this site, how would react if it were a teacher encouraging his or her students to go to an anti-abortion, anti-healthcare, anti-marriage equality, etc. protest? I’m verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: How much of our opinion on this particular case is molded by our own biases? Discuss.

  2. Posted February 8, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I think those teachers actually make for the best ones. You *have* to get students involved in the real world! Just one caveat: I think that underage students should have a signed note from a parent that they had permission to skip school.

    In the case of your high school, where the school wanted to expel or suspend students for attending an anti-war protest….well, I don’t believe it’s there place. They should notify parents, definitely, that the kid was absent, but if it’s a-ok with the parents, it should be a-ok with the school.

  3. Posted February 8, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s absolutely appropriate for a teacher to encourage students to protest, whether or not it happens to be during school hours.
    1) Speaking very generally, public education isn’t that great anyway. Is one missed day REALLY going to be detrimental to a student’s education?
    2) What’s the point in being educated if you’re not going to use that education in real life?

    • Posted February 9, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      If anyone else had done the encouraging I would agree, but as a teacher, you work for the school and the education system. It is against the rules to miss class without prior parental permission. Thus I can’t support a teacher who is encouraging her students to break the rules for which it is her job to enforce and uphold.

      Also the point made above is very important – teachers need to remain at least mostly neutral in terms of political affiliation. Teachers shouldn’t be advocating for either liberal or conservative parties and outright views. This is a difficult line to tread but think of how you would feel if she encouraged her students to attend an anti-abortion protest. Would not be cool.

  4. Posted February 8, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Where I am from, we’d call it community based research and get kudos for it — as long as no one compared it too closely to the actual definition of community based research. Ah, but require a report of events and you’ve got that covered too. Of course, we’d have to offer an alternative for the the kids who did not wish to attend.

  5. Posted February 9, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    In my own opinion, it really depends on the opportunity that the students can have. It’s the students responsibility and decision to join the protest or not. So if they have the free time, they can join but if they decided not to join then they will not be forced to do it.

  6. Posted February 9, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    It’s a sticky situation. Participating could really be a learning experience, but I think it depends in large part on the maturity of the students encouraged to participate and their receptiveness to understand/appreciate the what they are doing vs. just thinking of it as “better than being in class!”

  7. Posted February 10, 2011 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    No, education doesn’t end in the classroom, but it’s pretty tricky for any school, public or private, to encourage political thought. It’s one thing to explain the apolitical basics of participation, but it’s quite another to get in-depth without overstepping some serious boundaries.

    I mean, teachers have political biases. Teachers are just people, so it’s tricky to have them doing anything more than explaining the basics without offending the political sensibilities of some parents or some students.

    Do you want students to receive credit for attending an anti-abortion rally? What about an anti-war rally? What about an anti-gay marriage rally? Pro-gay marriage?

    It’s a really fine line to walk, even at a private school, and it gets especially tricky in a public school.

    Also, letting students miss class for political participation may encourage positive political behavior, but it might also be used by less mature or engaged students as a “valid” excuse to cut class.

    It’s easy to say you want schools to encourage political involvement, but the minute that involvement flies in the face of one’s political mores that opinion tends to do a 180. That’s why educators really shouldn’t be in the business of doing this, or at the very least not while students are minors.

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