For some reason there is a newly re-ignited debate about tenure for schoolteachers in Wyoming.
My first reaction, from the Grouse side of my take on things, was: Why the hell should schoolteachers enjoy some special protection of their employment which is not afforded to employees of law firms, oil field service companies, coal mines, ranches, copy shops, jewelry stores, etc.? Hey, if they are not doing their job, they need to find another one.
Then the Sage part of the analysis kicks in. First, don’t be a Tea Party reactionary, dude. Maybe you should think about this. Hmmm, maybe later.
So, then I see a column from the president of the Wyoming Education Association. Yeah, here’s an unbiased perspective on this issue; should I even read this? She went to a great deal of effort to explain that we don’t really have tenure for Wyoming school teachers, we just have a hearing process. Lacking the time to read the statutes and case law, I suspect she is minimizing a bit, but maybe not.
She made one good point: teachers should not be fired at the whim of one or more angry school board members. That probably does not happen often, but I agree with her. I can offer an example of just such an event.
Buffalo, Wyoming, is generally regarded as a conservative community, reflecting its history as a ranch-dominated economy. But it has long been highly regarded for the quality of its educational programs. Music, sports, academics, vocations — all of them matter in this little town. I started at Johnson County High School in the fall of 1965. I was a little scared about this huge change from the combined grade and junior high. But I jumped into it: freshman class president, active in debate and other forensics, several choir groups. I was the ultimate nerdy good student. Everybody thought I was a really boring, really well-mannered kid.
Sophomore year, I enrolled in an elective class comparing world religions and cultures, taught by a decidedly liberal teacher who was enormously popular with students, many parents and faculty, but not so much with the school board. In the fall of 1966, the Vietnam War was heating up. We studied about the historic tensions between the Chinese and the Vietnamese and how American policy was forcing these two traditional enemies to forge an alliance. It was interesting stuff.
A social studies teacher either died or retired, and a freshly-minted, bright teacher, Mr. Robinson, was as a replacement. He was handsome, smart, liberal and from someplace like Berkeley or New Haven. Mr. Robinson was deeply opposed to America’s role in Vietnam.
Mr. Robinson was required to attend a school assembly. The first thing that occurred at every such event was everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Mr. Robinson sat in his chair in the high school auditorium in Buffalo, Wyo., in 1967 and refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This did not go unnoticed.
Word traveled fast. Teachers were freaked. Administrators were panicked. School board members — many of them ranchers, and probably some of whom were veterans — were incredulous and angry. Students, on the other hand, really liked this fascinating young teacher, and did not want to lose him. Charming, handsome guy that he was, he was very popular.
Students started to talk. I always hung out with older friends who were active in choral and debate activities, so I was included in some discussions. A couple of seniors and a couple of juniors decided that it was necessary to make a statement, as it was quite apparent that Mr. Robinson was going to be sacked. A few decided to meet at the quaint old Carnegie Library one evening to plan a modest protest. The discussion was that black armbands would be worn to school the next morning. I was included among the four or five conspirators, but I accidentally let slip the purpose of the meeting at the dinner table, and I was forbidden by my parents to attend. I was at least permitted to call my older friends and convey my regrets.
The following morning I got a ride up the hill with a buddy, jumped off his motorcycle, and noticed, to my surprise, that every Highway Patrol and county sheriff and city police car from a hundred miles was parked in front of the Johnson County High School. I assumed that either someone started a fire in shop class, or cranky old Principal George Grace had suffered or caused a heart attack. But then I walked through the front door.
I did not previously know that the state issued riot gear to the Highway Patrol. I stared in disbelief. They stared back. I was slow to understand. I asked someone what was going on, and the reply was that a bunch of students had planned a riot in support of Mr. Robinson. Afraid to laugh at the time, I did indulge later. OMG, four students plan a meeting to wear black armbands and the authorities totally overreact.
Mr. Robinson was fired. Several students were interrogated and the matter was dropped. Life went on. JCHS lost a wonderful teacher, a victim of arbitrary and vindictive judgment by a local school board. Would a hearing process have been useful here?
Yes, if only as a teaching moment.