The firing of Pontiac charter school teacher, Brooke Harris, is making the national news. As you may have heard, she was fired last week, after working with her students to establish a fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin. The following comes by way of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
What do you do with a teacher who provides students with authentic learning opportunities? A teacher who invests her own resources to support students? A teacher who was voted Teacher of the Year two of the last three years?
If you’re Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School in Pontiac, Mich., you fire her…
Last month Brooke Harris’ eighth-grade class asked her about the “kid who was killed over some skittles;” she seized the opportunity to bring her students’ lived experiences into the classroom—a strategy we and other experts advocate.
Brooke’s students identify with Trayvon Martin. Many of them are African American. Many have been stopped by police who thought they looked suspicious.
In fact, her students engaged so deeply with the issue that they asked to take it beyond essays and class discussions—they wanted to take action to help Trayvon’s family.
They, like many students across the nation, wanted to show their support by wearing hoodies. Each student who participated would pay $1. Proceeds would be donated to Trayvon’s family.
Again, Brooke saw a teachable moment. She and her students began the formal process of organizing a school event. Students wrote persuasive letters to the principal and superintendent. Brooke and a co-worker filed the necessary paperwork. The principal immediately signed off on the fundraiser.
Superintendent Cassell was less enthusiastic. She refused to approve the proposal, despite having supported many other “dress down” fundraisers. Brooke’s students took the disappointment in stride, but asked to present their idea to Cassell in person.
And that’s when things got weird.
Brooke asked that a few of her students be allowed to attend her meeting with Cassell. Outraged by the request, Cassell suspended Brooke for two days. The explanation given—she was being paid to teach, not to be an activist.
Those two days morphed into a two-week, unpaid suspension when Brooke briefly stopped by the afterschool literacy fair (she had previously organized) to drop off prizes (paid for with her own money) and to pick up materials for several students whose parents were unable to attend. Supporting her students was insubordination.
The final offense? Brooke asked Cassell to clarify her original transgression so she could learn from her mistake. Cassell referred her to the minutes of their first meeting. Still confused, Brooke again requested an explanation. Cassell fired her.
The Pontiac Academy for Excellence is a nonunionized charter school. According to Superintendent Cassell, Brooke’s contract makes no provisions for formal appeal, and Michigan is an “at will” employment state. What does this mean to Brooke? She has no right to an explanation of why she was fired. She just was…
Personally, I’m torn on this. I’d like to come out 100% on the side of Harris, but, truth is, I’m not sure that students should be encouraged to raise money for private individuals involved in cases such as this. While, in this instance, I happen to agree wholeheartedly with the cause, it’s not too hard to imagine that there might be other instances where I’d be less than enthusiastic. For example, I was just reading that Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, has launched a website for the purposes of raising money. So, I’ve got to imagine there’s another teacher out there somewhere, thinking that maybe it would be a good thing to organize a bake sale, or a car wash, on his behalf. And I can’t imagine that I’d be OK with that… So, what do you think? Am I way off on this? I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
Oh, and, if nothing else, this is just another reminder of how fucked up it is to live in an “at will” state, where you can be fired for anything, without explanation. That, I think, is the real crime here. Regardless of whether or not she was wrong to help arrange the fundraiser, I suspect that most of us would agree that it shouldn’t be a fireable offense, right?
[note: The online petition to have Harris reinstated now has over 70,000 signatures. If you're so inclined, you can add your name here.]