Think back to your favorite teachers when you were in school. The teachers that truly inspired you and changed your life in some form or fashion. What do you remember about them?
Did they push you past your comfort zone?
Expect more from you than you ever expected from yourself?
Make you see the world differently?
These were the teachers that probably made you a bit uncomfortable as they shattered your preconceived notions of life and forced you to see the true horrors and beauty that make up society, that showed you the shades of grey that exist between the black and white moralities of so many people. They were not the teachers who asked students to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, but instead were the ones who encouraged their students to tear that curtain down and question the man who claimed to be The Wizard. The teachers that impacted your life were most likely not the teachers that taught you what to think, but the teachers that taught you how to think.
We have all known at least one of these teachers. I know I have.
For me, they were teachers like Jennifer McMahon, my 8th grade English teacher, who pushed her students to read and discuss banned and controversial books to convey the dangers of censorship and the importance of fighting for intellectual freedom. These were teachers like Kevin Hight, my 12th grade European History teacher, who refused to beautify history to make his students comfortable, but instead forced his students to confront human repugnance throughout time so that they could learn that reality is not always pretty, all while pushing his students to their limits by expecting college level thinking and work.
These are the teachers that prepared me for the world.
Teachers like these are hard to find in the public school system, and should be cherished beyond measure.
So when a teacher like Lee Francis, an 11th grade teacher at Massey Hill Classical High School in Fayetteville, NC, came under fire for teaching and pushing students to think farther than the text in their books in September of 2016, those who have cherished the role a controversial teacher has played in their lives were stunned. Francis challenged his students to truly understand the limitations and protections of the First Amendment by stepping on an American Flag during a lesson on the Supreme Court ruling of Texas v. Johnson, a ruling that determined flag desecration was, in fact, free speech. During his lesson, which was photographed and eventually posted to social media, two disgruntled students walked out of the classroom and reported the teacher for his actions, leading to Francis' eventual removal from teaching.
Frank Till Jr., the Superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, stated that there are “other ways of teaching the First Amendment without desecrating the flag.”, and while this is clearly true, it seems that the Superintendent, as well as many others who would admonish Francis’ actions, are truly missing the point of demanding higher level thinking from their students. While it is understandable that students in a military town would be angered by such an action, Francis was introducing these young students to an important truth that they may one day face outside of the safety of a public school or a military town: that while we may not agree with one’s form of protest or free speech, these are the rights guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution of the United States of America. These are the rights that military members have fought and died for, and while it is shocking to witness, it is still one’s right whether a student likes it or not, just as it is one’s right to be angered by it. If high school is truly a place that is meant to prepare students for the “real world”, this lesson may be one of the most important ones he could teach. If it’s true that life begins at the edge of one’s comfort zone, then the greatest thing a high school teacher can do is push a student’s intellectual boundaries. Downplaying it to keep the student’s comfortable would not challenge them to learn anything in the long run.
"We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?"-Fahrenheit 451
Francis now waits for the Cumberland County Board of Education to decide his fate as a teacher on November 30, 2016. If they decide that he can no longer teach due to this incident, it will send an important message to every teacher in Cumberland County, as well as to every teacher across the nation, who wishes to reach a student beyond the words in a textbook: that it is better to be safe than to move a student out of their comfort zone so that they may begin to learn how to critically think. When revered scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson state that the education system today is too focused on simply conveying information and does not focus enough on analytical skills, and when studies show that the most effective teachers are teachers much like Francis who not only know the subject matter, but push the students to apply it in their learning environment, no school system cannot afford to let go of a teacher like Lee Francis for the sake of comfort.
If we do not wish to slowly slide into a world where higher level thinking is frowned upon, we must fight to keep teachers like Francis teaching. We must make intellectualism the founding principle of our public school system and stop making students believe it is a place to just get by. We must expect a higher level of thinking from our students just as we should expect a higher level of teaching from teachers. Most importantly, we must look past an uncomfortable moment and remember the teachers that moved us, so that we may allow our children and the students of today to have the same opportunities we were lucky enough to have. If you want to take a stand against anti-intellectualism and help Lee Francis, contact the Cumberland County Board of Education at (910)678-2300 or go to http://ccs.k12.nc.us/board-of-education/ where you can email the members of the Cumberland Country School Board your thoughts on the case. If you would like to directly contact Dr. Frank Till Jr., please call (910)678-2312 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get involved. We must #StandWithLee and the #StepHeardRoundTheWorld, so that students can get back to learning and be moved as we once were. We must keep fighting for the teachers that change us and truly make us think. Thank you to these teachers, for everything you've done for us.