Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Give Me That Old-Time Intolerance

The case of Melissa Hussain is making the rounds. An 8th grade science teacher in North Carolina, she posted on Facebook about her Christian students harassing her openly about religion, which she is calling a hate crime.

I'll get to Hussain's teaching in a minute, but there's no question that her students and their parents and the atmosphere in the school that tolerates this behavior is indicative of the utter hypocrisy of evangelical Christians. They push their ideas on everyone, both in the U.S. and around the world. They don't tolerate other viewpoints. And then they have the temerity to complain of discrimination against them because they can't have a copy of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom.

Amanda says it well:

The reports I could find on this don’t explain why they think Hussain isn’t a Christian.  It could be her last name---I’d be shocked if that wasn’t a factor---or the fact that she’s a science teacher.  Or maybe she isn’t a Christian and didn’t take pains to hide that fact.  So what?  This country supposedly respects religious freedom, and that counts even for school teachers and even for women and even in North Carolina.  The levels of harassment this woman was subject to are shocking, even for a bunch of ignorant rednecks.  The harassers are admitting that they were provoked by the fact that Hussain taught real world biology that included the theory of evolution.
On her Facebook page, Hussain wrote about students spreading rumors that she was a Jesus hater. She complained about her students wearing Jesus T-shirts and singing “Jesus Loves Me.” She objected to students reading the Bible instead of doing class work.
But Annette Balint, whose daughter is in Hussain’s class, said the students have the right to wear those shirts and sing “Jesus Loves Me,” a long-time Sunday School staple. She said the students were reading the Bible during free time in class.
So, what appears to be happening is that the parents are encouraging their children to disrupt class to harass a woman they believe deserves no respect by refusing to do their schoolwork, and loudly singing hymns.  And when called out on it, they play innocent, acting like open disruption of the classroom is just a legitimate, harmless expression of belief.  This is not all that Hussain was subject to.  Students got into the habit of leaving religious materials on her desk to taunt her.  Postcards with pictures of Jesus were left on her desk so that students could act all butt hurt when she did what you always do when junk mail is left for you, which is throw it away.  Bibles were left on her desk, presumably to create the same kind of faux outrage if she treated them like anything short of magical objects.  After the evolution dust-up, when kids tried to stop the lesson by squawking about Jesus and no doubt freaking out on the teacher, a student left a Christmas card on Hussain’s desk with the word “Christ” underlined.

This behavior, of course, is bullying, and it appears to be encouraged by parents.  Bullying is the absolute favorite tactic of the religious right, from women’s clinic blockades to calling the cops on women who dare admit while pregnant to being anything but as blissed out as a dog suckling her pups.  Men are subject to this kind of bullying, but generally, wingnuts prefer to set their sights on female targets, because they believe women are weak, and like all bullies, they prefer to pick on someone they perceive as weak.


Now, the other issue here is whether Hussain should have complained about this on Facebook. And the answer is of course not. Rule #1 in modern teaching should be to never talk about the specifics of teaching problems in a public or semi-public forum. There should be clear avenues for dealing with these problems. On one level, you discipline students--you control the classroom, you report them to the principal, you suspend them, you make their lives hell in your classroom. Of course, this is a lot easier for a man to do than a young woman. And who knows if she has the right temperament to handle a classroom of right-wing 8th graders. Lots of us don't.

If parents and your administration don't support you, take it higher up. Take it to the superintendent. Make someone listen. And if no one will listen, then you can consider taking it public, but in very specific ways that would probably include you quitting your job first.

Now, obviously this was a frustrated and hurt teacher who faced a very difficult situation that she didn't expect. I really feel for her. I can't say I know what I'd do in her situation. But I think the lesson for me if I am ever teaching on the pre-college level is to control the classroom and to tolerate none of that kind of behavior. I really couldn't care less if the students like me or not. That's actually  harder to do on the college level because administrators actually believe that teaching evaluations are legitimate critiques on your effectiveness as a teacher. In the public schools,  I can't see how your students not being a little afraid of you is a good thing.