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Opinion: Today’s Teachers Should Be Apolitical

Longtime Seattle Public Schools teacher advocates education, not indoctrination

Published on: July 04, 2021

High school students in a classroom

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” — Albert Camus

Publisher’s Note: For the first time in my life, I am painfully revisiting the usual uplifting messages of July 4th, commemorating our magnificent Declaration of Independence, and what freedom means to me as an American and as a Jew. Over the past many months, racism against Black and Asian Americans has come to the forefront of media reporting, worldwide, including at ParentMap. We take great pride in stepping forward especially this year in our support and coverage of the The Who We Are Project, which chronicles the history of anti-Black racism in America.

One area where I have failed to be personally vulnerable, and to share my fear and deep sadness, is around the growing anti-semitism and the underreporting of it. Just this past week, a rabbi in Boston was held at gunpoint and stabbed eight times. Our community has seen the most severe global spike in anti-semitism in recent memory, with incidents doubling from May 2020 to May 2021. In the United States, synagogues have been vandalized and Jews have been brutally assaulted in the streets; in Europe, crowds have chanted for the death of Jews; and in the United Kingdom, anti--semitic incidents are said to have risen by almost 500 percent since mid-May.

In recent weeks, National Education Association (NEA) affiliates in San Francisco and Seattle have passed anti-Israel resolutions. The one passed by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) is especially egregious and has sparked backlash for promoting a vicious anti-semitic conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, NEA members overwhelmingly defeated a motion attacking Israel at their 2021 Representative Assembly, which took place virtually June 20–July 3; and hundreds of members of the NEA affiliate United Teachers of Los Angeles have signed a letter strongly opposing a similar resolution that is scheduled for a vote in September, 2021.

As a diagnosed pathological optimist, I know we can do better for people of all races, creeds and religions as we continue to unpack that self-evident but often hidden truth: We are all created equal and we all possess “unalienable rights” that must always be protected. Below, we offer an opinion piece by longtime Seattle educator Michelle Kaufman.

— Alayne Sulkin, publisher

I am a retired Seattle Public Schools teacher and member of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) for over 30 years, and I am concerned that the SEA has profoundly lost sight of its own mission. The SEA’s recent resolution endorsing the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (“BDS”) movement undermines teachers’ mission and ability to educate Seattle’s students.

When the United States was fighting in the Gulf War, I was teaching fourth and fifth grade in South Seattle. My coworkers believed in nonviolence and suggested a schoolwide march in protest of the war. I argued against it.

One of my students was a girl whose dad was fighting in the war; sitting next to her was a girl who was falling asleep in class because her mother kept her up late posting anti-war signs. I believed that the school must be a safe place for both girls. I persuaded my colleagues not to hold a school-sponsored march, but instead to protest the war on their own time. My students never knew what my own views were on the issue — I was educating my students, not indoctrinating them to my opinion.

The century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, with strong emotions on all sides. Some may argue that the Jewish people cannot be “colonizing” their own ancestral homeland, or that the BDS campaign denies Israeli sovereignty (not just disputing its borders), or that the Palestinians in Gaza elected as their leaders a terrorist organization, Hamas, which advocates for killing all Jews. Others may argue that Israel is occupying the land of others. But this political debate does not belong in our schools and classrooms. It does not help our students learn and grow.

Seattle is a beautifully diverse community, with students, for example, from Pakistan and India. By the same token, the SEA did not take a position on the century-long geopolitical dispute between Pakistan and India, for the same reason. Nor did it take a position on the dispute between Northern Ireland and England, which resulted in violence for decades in both places.

Teachers are entrusted with educating our youth to understand and navigate a complex world, not promote simplistic, one-sided views. Teachers can and should discuss world events in their classrooms, educating students to have an open mind, to gather information from reliable sources, and to consider facts and arguments on all sides of a debate. They should not be promoting one ideological viewpoint or political agenda in the classroom.

And when a one-sided ideological view condemns only one country, the one Jewish state, it borders on anti-semitism. As a result, Jewish students — whose cultural heritage and ethnic identity are closely tied to the land and people of Israel — can feel singled out and ostracized by their own teachers.

The connection between events in the Middle East and anti-semitism is clear. Last month, during the fighting between Israel and Hamas, anti-semitic incidents and hate crimes against Jews in the United States doubled compared to the same period last year. The SEA may not realize that it is emboldening those who attack Jews wherever they are.

As a retired educator, I don’t understand how SEA can even devote its time to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated educational and socioeconomic divisions in our community. Teachers must prepare for re-opening schools for in-person instruction this fall. They should focus on addressing the educational discrepancies that grew over the past year. They will need to reintegrate students with a range of abilities and backgrounds into cohesive classrooms and cohorts. They should work to reverse the flight from Seattle schools to private schools, to the Eastside and to homeschooling. Addressing the Israeli-Arab conflict is nowhere on the list of priorities of Seattle educators, who face so many challenges right here in our own community.

The purpose of the Seattle Education Association is to support teachers in educating the students in Seattle. Taking sides in a complex political dispute does nothing to further this mission. The SEA claims that the anti-Israel resolution is “an opportunity to increase respect for the profession and public education.” Sadly, it does precisely opposite.

Education should not have a political agenda. Public schools must educate all children; learners with diverse backgrounds and views must feel safe and supported by the educational environment. Openly siding with one party in a complex geopolitical debate is the opposite of fostering a supportive educational environment for Seattle’s students. I am glad the SEA did not take a political stance on the Iraq war and it should have done the same here.

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