Traditional classrooms have turned into scheduled Zoom calls, and in 2020 when social and political movements are on the rise, teachers must navigate what they are allowed to express in a classroom environment, especially when there are additional ears listening besides students.

In August 2020, at Alton C. Crews Middle School in Gwinnett County, parents complained about a teacher having a Black Lives Matter background for her Zoom call, according to Sloan Roach, executive director of communications and media relations for Gwinnett County Schools. Parents argued that the background was a distraction to students.

The incident sparked a discussion within the community as to the extent to which teachers can express themselves in a classroom environment. 

 Why It’s Newsworthy: With many classrooms virtual in 2020, there are more eyes on teachers in the classroom, especially when it comes to self-expression. 

 

Would Clarke County Schools Have Responded Differently?

Roach explained the occurrence at Gwinnett County Schools.

“In late August, the principal of Crews Middle School spoke with a teacher after he received complaints from two parents about the teacher having a Black Lives Matter poster in the background of her video conferencing sessions with students. He made her aware of the complaints but did not ask her to take the poster down. The principal also has worked with the families who made the complaints to address their concerns,” Roach said.

Miller Barnett is a sixth-grade middle school teacher at Hillsman Middle School in Athens-Clarke County. Barnett said he believes Clarke County School District would have responded in the same way to the Gwinnett County incident. However, he said most of his coworkers would hold the same view as the teacher in Gwinnett.

“In the school community that I teach in, all of our teachers I feel are more or less of the same understanding that [in regard to the Black Lives Matter movement] this is the position that we have to have for our kids, and this is the position that they need to see, especially right now,” Barnett said.

What Are the Official Rules?

CCSD (Clarke County School District) has not updated any existing policies or written new policies regarding free speech by our staff in regards to in-class instruction,” Beth Moore, the communications manager for Athens-Clarke County school district, said. “As a public entity, we are not allowed to endorse political or religious viewpoints. That is not to say political issues cannot be objectively discussed where appropriate (upper-level High School classes, for example) where the issue is relevant to the subject taught,” Moore said.

Antwon Stevens serves on the Government Relations and Finance Committee for District 2 of the Clarke County School District Board of Education.

 Athens-Clarke County is very progressive and our school board is one of the most progressive in Georgia. Several of us as board representatives have expressed support for Black Lives Matter, so certainly teachers and students can do so,” Stevens said.

“I have a Bernie sign behind me in Zoom, and our Board loves the freedom of expression,” Stevens said. “I don’t think the incident in Gwinnett would’ve been allowed to happen in Athens without fellow board rep[resentative]’s including myself speaking up for freedom.”

The rules as to what a teacher can say are dependent on whether or not the teacher is simply presenting their beliefs — or enforcing their beliefs. 

“As long as a teacher brings up the other side as well in a respectful manner, I think it’s completely fine. As long as the teacher is not enforcing their beliefs on their students, I think it’s completely fine,” Barnett said.

 You have to present the information in a neutral way. It’s not that you can’t state your political views, but when you are teaching you have to remain neutral,” Barnett said.

Black Lives Matter As More Than Political

Todd Dow’s son, Todd junior, is a freshman at Clarke Central High School.

“l guess there’s got to be a certain level of professionalism, and you’ve got to understand that your role there is as a teacher,” Dow said. “So you gotta kind of separate your personal views on social and political issues, but at the same time, let’s be realistic. It’s part of what makes you up. What you believe in, how you think; you know that’s going to come through in your teaching and how you relate to the kids.”

Dow said he believes the Black Lives Matter movement is both a political and human rights movement.

“It’s probably a little bit of both; I think it’s more so a human rights issue,” Dow said.

“I probably wouldn’t take issue with it. I wouldn’t have been upset with it. You kind of have to take it the way you take the rest of it. I mean the rules have all changed with the pandemic,” Dow said, in regard to whether or not he would take issue with the incident taking place in his son’s class.

Barnett also said he believes the Black Lives Matter movement is more so an issue of human rights. 

“Thankfully I work in an environment that is very supportive of those kinds of causes. I know a lot of teachers who have Black Lives Matter posters and flags in their room,” Barnett said.

While Barnett does not believe that Black Lives Matter is solely a political issue, he does believe that political opinions should be a teaching moment.

“As long as you can explain that you have a perspective, and that you can see other people’s perspectives, and that you can back up why you believe what you believe, I think that you are teaching students skills that will make them successful,” Barnett said.

If a parent came to me and said why do you have all of these Black icons on your wall, I’m going to say because 90% of my children in this classroom are Black and brown students, and we have generations and generations filled with white icons that we can look up to that are both historical and fictional. Why can’t I do that for these kids too,” Barnett said.

Demographics of Athens-Clarke County

Below is an infographic containing the information regarding the demographics of Gwinnett County versus Athens-Clarke County.

Xernona Thomas, the current superintendent of the Clarke County School District, wrote a letter during the summer regarding the Black Lives Matter protests.

The letter was “exactly the leadership that we needed to see,” Barnett said.

Here is a portion of an interview with Barnett regarding his views on the letter sent out by Thomas.

 

Barnett said he feels that his priority is to make his students feel comfortable in his classroom. “Anything I can do to make them feel safe and welcome in my learning environment it’s just going to make them better, in the end, make their scores better, make them learn better, why would I not do everything I can to make that happen,” Barnett said.

Chelsey Perry is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

 

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