On October 21st, I substituted for ________, an art teacher at ________ Middle School in the _______ district. During one of my 7th grade classes, students were continuing to work on a project and were talking at different tables. At one point, I heard one girl say "...the people on Wall Street.." who "just want to take our money." I walked over to question her about this. I often find myself engaging students in conversation challenging their notions, whether those notions be racist, homophobic, or something more innocuous. As a substitute teacher trying to pay off student loan debt from my BS in Art Education and my MFA, I have really been feeling the effects of the economy as Art Educator positions have been fewer and fewer, and even with substitute teaching, it has been increasingly hard to be able to work 4-5 days a week as many of us compete for even these positions. I have also seen the effect the economy has on schools, in _________ High, many rooms in the Fine Arts wing are being used for math rooms this year. In _____, closing _______ has resulted in larger class sizes in other elementary schools -- around 30 in some.
I initiated the conversation by saying "Let me guess... your parents are Republicans."
The student (from here on referred to as Student A) responded, "I don't know. They don't like Obama, so what's that?"
I told her that they were probably Republicans and then began to explain my understanding of why people are protesting at Occupy Wall St, and my understanding of the current economic climate supported by what I've personally experienced or witnessed. Quickly in our conversation it came out that she came from a wealthy family, enjoying the success of a business that her grandfather struggled to create. Another student who felt similarly to this girl (Student B) also conveyed that she too came from a wealthy family. One other student (Student C) at the table was a vocal part of the discussion as well, but her views mostly opposed that of the two other students.
During the course of the conversation, I brought up the concept of privilege, that this student was already at an advantage by not being a minority, by coming from a wealthy family and attending a good school. Student A continued to talk of people making bad choices (pursuing a career in education not withstanding) and it being an individual's 'fault' for their situation. Many "what if" scenarios were posed, and she and a few of the other students, including Student B and Student C, began to explore the situation abstractly, thinking about parcels of land and taxes. All the students agreed, in this thought experiment, that if you have a certain amount of land you should pay a certain amount of money, and if you have a larger share of land, you should pay proportionately more. I brought up that this would be a great start, that I believe many of the protestors would like everyone to pay the same in this way, but that it isn't currently the case.
Also during the course of the conversation, I discussed priorities with the students. Student A expressed that money to her was a priority, and for that she was going to be a lawyer to support her "lifestyle," including riding and to be able to buy a horse every two years. I asked her if being a lawyer paid very little and being a teacher (a profession she had alluded to despising) paid a lot, if she would be a teacher instead. Without missing a beat, she said she would.
Other students tried to conceive of a scenario in which one could do the thing they loved but still have enough money to not worry. Someone proposed working at a well-paying, soul-sucking job for enough years to earn enough money to be comfortable, and then working at the job that makes one happy for the rest of one's working years. Everyone seemed to agree that this was the ideal solution, but one student (perhaps Student B or Student C?) said that she wouldn't want to suffer through the college required to get a job she hated.
At one point Student B said that she was interested in going into Social Work. I asked her what she would do if she pursued this and got out to find that it was now impossible to make a living doing this thing she loved. She responded that it would be her fault and she would have to deal with that and not blame anyone else. She also added "but I'm twelve," acknowledging that her career goals will likely change before she has a chance to really pursue them.
I'm not sure that anyone really changed their position on the topic at the end of the discussion, but talking to the students about taxes and the economy helped me realize that there were some things I did not fully understand about tax brackets or how the rich were hurting the poor in that way. It was a mentally exhausting conversation to have, but I feel strongly about the subject, and Student A and Student B felt strongly entitled to the privilege they were born into.
I went home that afternoon and discussed the conversation with a few friends. I mostly forgot it had happened until November 16th, when I received a letter from ________ on behalf of the ______ Substitute Coordination Service dated November 9th.
"Dear Ms. __________:
I am writing to inform you that your name has been removed from the _________ Middle School substitute list. As a result, you will no longer be receiving calls to work in that school."
The letter goes on to explain that as it is the second Do Not Use letter I have received (the other was also in the _________ district, a few years ago, from a school I subbed in that had me in a room with no heat and workers welding -- needless to say, I wasn't sad to be taken off that building's list) and that if I receive a third, I will be removed from the __________ Substitute Teacher Registry entirely.
I called _________ to try and see why I had been removed from the list. It was too late in the day and no one knowledgeable was able to take my call. I sent the teacher I covered for a message on Facebook asking if she knew what had happened and expressing my regret about not being able to work at her school anymore. I have not yet heard back from her. I called Mr. _______ yesterday to ask, but was unable to get him on the phone. He called me this morning and told me that I had been removed (the letter just said _______ but he told me I was also removed from the entire district) for a conversation I had had, for "imposing (my) political views on a student, on a seventh grader." Upset, I grumbled that I supposed I should stop trying to encourage critical thinking in students. He said that I shouldn't stop, but that it was easy to accidentally cross this line.
Though I work in other districts and am not entirely put out in the cold by this situation, I can't help but feel bitter about it. I am not sure if my rights have been violated, or if it was I who was in the wrong. I have found mixed results when searching the internet, and a friend suggested I contact my local branch of the ACLU. I figured it couldn't do me any harm.