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The art of balancing expression

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Given my history, readers can assume I am a strong believer in free speech and expression. In order to achieve growth and progress in education, there needs to be a balance between professional responsibility among teachers and educational policy. Unfortunately, in my district it seems as though the scales are increasingly becoming tipped toward personnel policy management.

This past summer, my district passed a new employee speech policy. The policy went into effect without much fanfare or publicity, which is another disappointing lack of transparency. The first line of the policy states “Speech made as a school district employee is not constitutionally protected.” The policy also includes “Speech made by staff in their official capacity as school district employees shall furthermore be in keeping with the district’s mission statement.” Incidentally, my district mission statement is “Educating today’s learners for tomorrow’s world.” Guidelines and policies governing employee speech are a necessity in today’s reality; however, these restrictions seem to not only be legally questionable, but also an effort to suppress employee expression to protect district liability.

The legality of the first statement in the policy is concerning. Supreme Court cases Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) reveal that this statement is inaccurate. In fact, the Tinker majority decision states “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door.” Overreaching statements stating employees are “not constitutionally protected”(and the last statement of the student publications policy) cause unnecessary self-censorship and result in an educational learning experience that fails to meet the district mission.

To complicate the speech restrictions, district officials also implemented a social media policy where it explains “… all West Fargo Public Schools social media accounts are a voice for the school district.” The social media requirements include creating the account with a district email and sharing the password with district officials. In addition to the security red flags, this system of communication is neither authentic nor meant to continue a conversation about improving the academic environment. If employees feel they can’t share their opinions openly and honestly in a public forum, any organization will struggle to improve.

In his book Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros encourages administrators and leaders to “create the conditions where innovation in education flourishes.” He adds “Our job as educators and leaders is not to control others but to bring out the best in them.” It’s important to remember that a “pile on” of restrictive policies can hurt teacher retention and prohibit innovative thinking from both students and teachers. Just as strict Internet filters limit a student’s ability to stretch his/her thinking via limiting resources, strict policies on employee speech prevent a free flow of ideas to assist with improvement of the overall educational experience.

My advocacy for student expression is directly related to my philosophy that students need to operate in an environment that will help them sharpen their citizenship skills and prepare them to be productive members of their future communities. In this same way, district administrators should foster expression among staff members to encourage fresh ideas and innovative changes. If staff members are leery of expressing their challenges on the status quo, creating a digital footprint or using controversial current events for class discussion, it only serves to weaken this citizenship standard and short-change our students.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

 

 

 

 

 

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Value in transparency 

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I have always been a firm believer in transparency. That’s probably what drew me to journalism early in my career. I believe in the role of the press to keep public entities accountable and always respected those organizations that operated with true transparency.

This is why scholastic journalism plays such an important role in today’s schools. Students are telling stories that some might consider controversial. These stories lead to a bigger dialogue on the issue covered. Last year, a student published a story about a student who had been bullied and sought freedom by transferring schools. Obviously, not terrific PR for the district, but an important issue to discuss. A local media outlet picked up the story and other students started stepping forward, feeling more courageous after seeing this young man’s bravery. It all began with the student press.

In August of 2015, North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act went into effect. It protects student journalists from being prevented from telling these stories. It also requires all school districts create a policy outlining their students’ press freedoms. Ironically, in 2008, before being terminated as newspaper adviser, I asked my district to create such a policy in order to provide transparent direction and guidelines. The legal counsel for the school board informed me that the district would prefer to not have a policy because they like the “flexibility” they currently have. That was disappointing to hear at the time, but made more sense after being removed. Transparency obviously was not valued at that time.

In late August of 2015, I offered to assist in the creation of the policy, figuring my years of experience and certifications in the area might help. I was informed the district is seeking input from its legal counsel (that’s right, same legal counsel from 2009) and the North Dakota School Board Association. A spokesperson told me they would seek input from district media advisers soon. A meeting was set with advisers and administrators for the end of October. We met and I voiced my concerns about the final line of the policy “The superintendent’s decision is binding.” I explained this seemed a little undemocratic and, while we currently have a superintendent who would remain objective, that might not always be the case. Afterall, the former superintendent was the primary factor in my removal in 2009. I was told these concerns would be discussed with the current superintendent. Unfortunately, I discovered that the student publications policy was officially adopted Sept. 29th, a month before we met. This was far from transparent.

I understand the district schedules meetings and evaluates policies based on a predetermined timeline. The disappointing factor in this scenario is the lack of clarity on what had already been accomplished. Failing to provide a clear picture of their policy direction should not be surpising for a district that has seven policies governing general public relations and only one policy governing organizational communication. If district leaders truly value professional input and advocate for teachers, they would reconsider the current organizational communication method.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.