Board debates allowing teachers to express opinions in class

Posted 10/20/21

Three new courses proposed for 2022-23 ELLSWORTH – During the Ellsworth School Board regular meeting Monday, Oct. 11, a discussion about annual policy language changes turned toward a topic …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Board debates allowing teachers to express opinions in class


Three new courses proposed for 2022-23

ELLSWORTH – During the Ellsworth School Board regular meeting Monday, Oct. 11, a discussion about annual policy language changes turned toward a topic infiltrating school board meetings everywhere: Controversial topics in the classroom.

As District Administrator Barry Cain presented a first reading of changes to the School Board Policy Volume, one particular possible policy change sparked debate among board members, who seemed split down the middle on the topic: Whether or not teachers should be allowed to express opinions on controversial topics in the classroom.

The board needs to choose one of the following two options: In the discussion of any controversial issue in the classroom or in the course of professional duties, a teacher: May not express a personal opinion May express a personal opinion, but shall identify it as such, and must not express such an opinion for the purpose of persuading students to his/her point of view and may only express a personal opinion after student discussion has concluded. Teachers should be mindful that this does not permit them to offer opinions on topics which would not be the subject of discussion in the classroom due to their appropriateness for the age(s) of the students involved. As always, teachers are expected to act as exemplars for their students by demonstrating good judgment as professionals when discussing controversial issues and expressing personal opinions in the classroom. The classroom should not be used as a forum for the discussion of district employment issues. (Italicized portion is new language).

Cain said school board meeting atmospheres across the state have been concerning, especially when parents are angry about topics they consider controversial.

“Right now, our staff has the ability to express opinions as long as they tell students it’s their opinion,” Cain said. “Some districts are not allowing staff to express their opinions.”

Controversial issues will come up and teachers need to be on high alert about the age appropriateness of topics, Cain said.

Board member Julie Lundstrom said in her mind, teachers are professionals and their judgment should be trusted. Board member Gary Kressin said he remembers when he was in eighth grade, teachers weren’t allowed to tell students whether or not they believed in evolution.

Cain, who was a social studies teacher before becoming an administrator, said younger students especially look up to their teachers. Social studies teachers are “highly trained” on how to teach current events, which often includes controversial topics. “If you’re worried about a topic and worried about being able to control that discussion, maybe don’t have it,” Cain said. “Reel it in.”

School Board President Doug Peterson asked for a “good example” where a teacher would need to share an opinion to advance a student’s education.

Cain said as a social studies teacher, he would often play devil’s advocate, but didn’t express his own opinions.

Board Vice President Katie Feuerhelm wondered where the line would be drawn on topics, since it’s anyone’s guess what someone may see as controversial.

“How far are we going to go in the woods with this?” she asked.

Kressin said a person in an authoritative role, such as a teacher, could influence a student to believe a certain way, which is a slippery slope he doesn’t want to traverse.

Peterson said there’s more fear these days about controversial topics and that kids hear what they want to hear. He questioned what could happen if a teacher’s remarks are misinterpreted and cause an uproar in the community.

“We all have opinions and we need to respect everyone’s opinions,” said Board Clerk Susan Beck. She agreed with Feuerhelm and Lundstrom that teachers are professionals who should be trusted to know when and how to express an opinion.

So many controversial issues are hot button topics these days, Peterson said, listing the right to life and critical race theory.

“It seems like everyone is trying to create this divide in society,” he said. “I would hate to have a teacher get themselves in a predicament. Personal opinion is not part of a curriculum and shouldn’t be implemented in the learning setting.”

Cain said the heightened politicization has even inspired the Legislature to consider bills limiting the teaching of certain topics. While he never wants the district to be seen as driving an agenda, educators are fearful of people’s perceptions, he said.

The topic will be discussed more at the November school board meeting. Many other policies have proposed language changes, per Neola’s recommendation. Neola is a company that specializes in helping school districts keep their education policies up-to-date and compliant with requirements and laws.

Curriculum proposals

Ellsworth Elementary Principal/Director of Special Education Mary Zimmerman presented proposals for three new Ellsworth High School courses for the 2022-23 school year. The board will vote on the classes at the November meeting.

Yearbook would be a half-credit class available to grades 9-12. The course would help students have a designated time to work on all necessary areas of the high school yearbook and could be taken multiple times. Students have previously participated in yearbook planning on their own time which doesn’t always allow for consistency and effective work patterns.

“It’s really been difficult to get consistency with the kids working,” Zimmerman said.

The class is geared toward students who have already been a Yearbook Club member and/or have an interest in design, creative writing, business, marketing and advertising.

AP Environmental Science would be a credit class (half-credit per quarter) with a prerequisite of two years of lab science (one life science, one physical science). Cost estimate is $1,000 in start up equipment plus a recurring transportation budget for ecological and water quality studies five to 10 times a semester. A part-time science teacher may be needed so Peter Senti could teach this course.

The class would be less rigorous than AP Physics or AP Biology, but would teach students about ecosystems, biodiversity, pollution, climate change, energy transfer, interactions between earth systems, interactions between different species and the environment, and sustainability.

This class would further develop students’ ability to critically evaluate information, apply their knowledge of natural processes (biological, chemical and earth), understand how politics and law-making works, consider diverse and vested interests in environmental issues, and to create and propose solutions to those problems.

Advanced Graphic Design would be a halfcredit class for students who have completed Graphic Design. Students would not only increase their graphic design knowledge, but could pursue graphic design or advertising careers, use a computer as a design tool, or learn about video game art. Their new knowledge could be used within the FabLab, Panthers’ Den, on promotional items, or in the yearbook.

The class would also fill a void needed in technology to prepare students for future learning and career readiness.

EHS Service Learning Day

EHS teacher Anne Pechacek reported on the seventh annual EHS Service Learning Day, which took place Sept. 28. Freshmen, sophomores and seniors worked at 28 community sites, including the Pierce County Historical Association, Cairns Woods, Camp Pepin and more, to complete community service projects. Four hundred students volunteered for three hours that day.

One of the more visible projects in town are the four cement planters in the Midway Business District painted in black and white designs by student Maddy Hardy, in collaboration with Ellsworth’s E3 Community Development Corporation.

“I’m hopeful this will become engrained in them, serving the community,” Peterson said.

See next week’s Journal for a breakdown of the school district annual budget and how it will affect district residents’ tax bills.