Do you have complete freedom to choose materials to use in your classroom?
Question: "I am a teacher. Do I have complete freedom to choose materials I want to use in my classroom?"
Answer: No. Teachers do not have an absolute right to teach materials they select for their classroom, even if a book is a New York Times best seller. Although it is true that students and teachers do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or freedom of expression at the school house gate," those rights are tempered by the broad authority that the legislature and courts have granted school boards to determine the curriculum and control teacher classroom behavior. (Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 510-11 (1969). Thus, while academic freedom may be a topic applicable to college campuses, it does not carry the same weight for teachers in kindergarten through twelfth-grade classrooms. The Texas Education Code grants the board of trustees "the exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district." Included in that power is the board's right to determine whether materials selected for classroom use are consistent with the educational objectives of the curriculum. The commissioner of education has strongly supported the school board's authority over curriculum selection. For example, in Hammonds v. Mt. Pleasant I.S.D., 322-R1-793 (Comm'r Educ. 1995), a teacher received a directive after using the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Not Enuf as an after school project. Parents complained about the sexually mature themes and profanity. The next school year, the same teacher selected portions of Brighton Beach Memoirs to be read aloud in class; the portions contained sexually explicit language. The commissioner upheld the teacher's termination based on failure to comply with official directives and failure to meet the district's standards of professional conduct. The commissioner rejected the teacher's arguments for academic freedom and freedom of expression, holding that a teacher's activity in selecting materials for a class activity does not constitute constitutionally protected speech.
Compared to the limitations on the selection of classroom materials, teachers have more protected speech rights insofar as classroom discussion is concerned. Nevertheless, those rights can be abused, resulting in a loss of the protection. For example, there is no constitutional protection for profanity, even when used to "motivate" or "relate" to students. Continuing to use profanity in the classroom after directives not to do so may lead to termination.
So, what should teachers do in light of these restrictions? First, teachers should be familiar with the school policy on the selection of materials. It would also be helpful to be aware of the procedures for handling materials that have been challenged. Teachers should select materials and teaching methodologies with care, taking into consideration the age and sophistication of the students, the relationship between the teaching method and valid educational objective, and the context and manner of the presentation.
Then, it is important to take the proper steps to get materials approved before instruction begins. Approval in writing is preferable to an oral confirmation of the selections, but it is not essential. If materials are properly approved, the teacher has some protection against challenges to personal judgment or the classic charge of "failure to meet the district's standards of professional conduct." In classroom discussion, teachers should make sure that the comments are reasonably relevant to the subject matter of the class, demonstrate educational purpose, and are not proscribed by a school policy or regulation.