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Was it bad politics or bad supervision of the antiwar teacher?

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© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

As a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in the early 1980s, I wrote a thesis on how to dump tenured teachers in New York. My research indicated that the great myth of the "unfireable teacher" turned out to be a coverup for lazy or incompetent school principals who failed to do what it took to vigorously supervise and evaluate their teaching corps.

This research comes to mind as I learn more about the case of Ian Michael Harvey -- a nonprobationary teacher in Collier County whose leftist views and vocal antiwar activism have put him at the center of controversy. If the man is an unprofessional teacher, as the school district now suggests, then why did he receive satisfactory marks in every evaluation for his first 11 years of teaching? Why weren't red flags raised before he earned nonprobationary status, the Florida equivalent of tenure?

Harvey has been a teacher in the Collier County School District since 1990 but it wasn't until local veterans complained about his appearance at a December rally protesting American involvement in Afghanistan that his teaching competence was called into question.

To be honest, there are some legitimate questions surrounding Harvey's teaching methodologies -- he apparently uses little in the way of a structured curriculum and lesson plan, he makes class participation 60 percent of a student's grade and last semester he flunked or gave a "D" to two-thirds of his students. But to pass the smell test, those concerns needed to be raised long ago and under very different circumstances. Now, it all just looks like the political persecution it no doubt is.

With "patriotic" Americans questioning school officials as to why Harvey was both against the Afghani war and still teaching in area schools, an internal investigator was duly dispatched to look into Harvey's English and Mass Media classes at Lely High School in Naples. After talking to 15 of Harvey's 172 students, taking a look at the antiwar posters on Harvey's classroom walls and reviewing the reference materials Harvey used to teach the courses, investigator Peter DeBaun issued a scathing report.

According to the DeBaun, Harvey "fed students a diet of anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, anti-war materials and predicated grades upon the satisfactory digesting on (sic) this material." DeBaun said Harvey had no tolerance for students who disagreed. And DeBaun was appalled by the "radical left and anarchist Web sites" from which Harvey's assignments were drawn, complaining that Harvey failed to offer "alternative materials for reading and reflection."

Ultimately, the district punished Harvey by suspending him for three days and transferring him to Immokalee, a farming town about 40 miles from his former school, where he now teaches English to Spanish-speaking adults. Also, a complaint has been lodged against him before the state Department of Education which could result in his teaching certification being revoked.

Interesting, teachers who have responded to the events of Sept. 11 by adding patriotic programs and assignments to their class lessons haven't been similarly condemned for presenting a one-sided viewpoint to a captive audience of students. Michelle Barron, a mother of an 8-year-old daughter who attends a local public elementary school wrote of how her daughter has been force-fed support for America's military action. Barron said the school's entrance sports a banner in support of our troops. Music class now consists of a cornucopia of patriotic songs and her daughter is constantly encouraged to "dress like a flag on Fridays." Barron said the explanation given the children is: "President Bush is helping Afghanistan."

Harvey exposed his students to writers like Noam Chomsky, presented videos on the antiglobalization movement and pushed them to peruse alternative media sources such as Alexander Cockburn's (All listed as exhibits in DeBaun's report.) Maybe he was too loose with the syllabus and too quick to insult a student who didn't warm to his perspective, but high school should be a place to challenge conventional thinking.

Harvey's banishment to adult education and the steps taken to endanger his teaching certification say less about his teaching abilities than the school district's lack of confidence in the inherent righteousness of American actions. Why is it running so scared of exposing students to a little self-criticism?

If Harvey is a bad teacher then his decade-long personnel file should have reflected it. Either school administrators have allowed an underperforming teacher to continue working for years -- indicating that they are the ones who need to be fired -- or Harvey is being punished for his politics -- exactly what tenure is supposed to protect against.

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