The Importance of Running a Transparent, Skills-Based Classroom

by Christopher Paslay

If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity and inclusion with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons, and perhaps refocus their teaching on traditional academic skills.

Over the weekend Matthew Kay, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, had a conversation on Twitter about distance learning.  Specifically, he wondered how parental oversight might impact his ability to teach equity and inclusion during the fall semester.  Before I continue, I’d like to state that as a fellow Philadelphia public school English teacher and coach, I support Matthew and his passion for education, poetry, sports, and honest conversations about equity and inclusion; Matthew is also a published author and writer, and I applaud his achievements.

So this blog about his recent tweets (and my video analysis above) are not meant to disparage Matthew or add to any hostile blowback that has come from conservative media sources. I’d simply like to politely add to the discussion that Matthew started on Twitter on Saturday, August 8th, and join the conversation with additional perspectives and offer constructive criticisms that might help future distance learning this fall.

As is now public knowledge, Matthew Tweeted the following thread on Saturday:

So, this fall, virtual class discussions will have many potential spectators — parents, siblings, etc. — in the same room.  We’ll never be quite sure who is overhearing the discourse.  What does this do for our equity/inclusion work?

How much have students depended on the (somewhat) secure barriers of our physical classrooms to encourage vulnerability?  How many of us have installed some version of “what happens here stays here” to help this?

While conversations about race are in my wheelhouse, and remain a concern in this no-walls environment — I am most intrigued by the damage that “helicopter/snowplow” parents can do in honest conversations about gender/sexuality …

And while “conservative” parents are my chief concern — I know that the damage can come from the left too.  If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kids racism or homophobia or transphobia — how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?

Several journalists and news organizations got wind of this thread (as did scores of twitter users who posted comments both supporting and criticizing Matthew), and several stories were written.  The Daily Wire, a conservative news website founded by Ben Shapiro, wrote two critical stories about the tweets (see here and here), and a popular conservative blog titled American Thinker also wrote a scathing story about the tweets (see here).  To be fair, these articles were overly hostile and although they raised legitimate concerns, were a bit sensational and skewed by politics.

Benjamin Boyce, a popular YouTube podcaster whose claim to fame was covering the Evergreen State College protests while attending the school, recently did a segment on Matthew’s tweets, which I feel is the most thorough, insightful, and balanced analysis (see Boyce’s podcast here).

There are two main questions at the heart of all of these articles and podcasts (including my own podcast above), and they are as follows.  One — should teachers worry that parental oversight during virtual learning will harm efforts at teaching equity and inclusion? And two — should teachers place social justice and so-called equity issues above traditional academic skill building?

I agree the most with Benjamin Boyce’s take on the tweets.  First, parents have every right to see what exactly it is that their children are learning in classrooms.  In fact, we the teachers work for the parents, not the other way around.  The notion of “what happens here stays here” is in my opinion misguided and inappropriate, with certain exceptions, of course; as a PA certified school counselor myself, I understand there is a very real difference between a therapist and teacher. Other than issues such as abuse and assault, which may be coming from inside the home, teachers should not be shielding their lessons, objectives, and activities from parents, and the inclination to do so is a cause for concern, as it does call into question the issues of transparency, trust, and the appropriateness of the lesson.

Second, academic skills should take precedent over any social justice initiatives.  Academic teachers are not counselors or social workers, and lack the clinical experience and training necessary to delve into such therapy-oriented sessions as described by Matthew Kay in his book, Not Light But Fire.  As Boyce states in his podcast, English classes should not turn into dramatic struggle sessions about equity issues, hence the learning community may devolve into the chaotic and quite divisive environment characterized by the Evergreen State College fiasco of 2017.  And besides, academic classes should be preparing students with skills for college or the workplace, not indoctrinating them with highly charged identity politics (which some parents may or may not agree with).

Yet, curiously, according to the article in The Daily Wire by Matt Walsh headlined, “Teachers Openly Fret That Parents Might Hear Them Brainwashing Children, Call Parents ‘Dangerous’,” a number of teachers do feel parental oversight is a problem when it comes to virtual learning:

It’s important to note that while some teachers responded to Kay’s comments with the appropriate level of horror and disgust, many others chimed in to share their own strategies for brainwashing during a pandemic. One teacher said she’d also been “thinking about” the problem Kay described, and had decided that she’d ask students about their preferred pronouns via survey — though she still worries that “caregivers” might see it and learn something about their children that they weren’t supposed to know.

Another teacher said that students last semester would sometimes “type secrets into the chat” whenever the discussion turned to “anti-racism and gender inclusive content.” Another complained that a white parent — she made sure to specify “white” — in her district recorded a Zoom class and “filed a complaint against the teacher for an anti-racist read aloud (saying the teacher’s commentary was inappropriate and biased).” This, the teacher says, “is going to be an issue.”

A ninth grade teacher shared in the commiseration, saying that her class required students to “read and respond to a news article,” but that participation in this exercise is stunted now because “outsiders” are “listening.” The “outsiders,” to be clear, are the children’s parents. A teacher with pronouns listed in her Twitter handle said that she plans to use the chat function more than voice lectures because she wants children to share “information” with her in a “parentless way.” A science teacher agreed with all of the sentiments expressed here and summarized it bluntly: “Parents are dangerous.”

If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons.  Further, academic teachers should prioritize teaching the appropriate skills in their content area, and with some exceptions, leave the “messiness” of delving into the vulnerability of things like gender and sexuality for trained counselors and social workers.

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