As a high school English teacher, I find teachable moments everywhere. “Teachable moments” is the term educators use to refer to those wonderful times when the curriculum lines up with real life, and the teachers get a chance to show students exactly why these concepts are important.
My biggest teachable moment this school year came well after we had talked about banned books when Chicago Public Schools banned “Persepolis” and I was able to get copies of the book and teach it to them. Often, teachable moments are ones where the teacher has to take a risk or face something controversial in order to show students right from wrong. I, for example, had no idea how my administration would react to me teaching a controversial book like “Persepolis.” Luckily for me, they were all for it. Other teachers are not so lucky.
John Dryden wasn’t so lucky. Dryden is a history teacher at Batavia High School in Illinois, not too far from where I teach. He was instructed by his administration to have his students take a survey about their drug and alcohol use following a string of recent teen suicides in the area. The survey was meant to screen students to identify the ones who might be at risk and, as such, the survey had the students’ names on it. Dryden noticed the survey was not anonymous and, since it was asking students to admit to illegal activity, he informed his students of their right not to incriminate themselves guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. He not only used this as a teachable moment to show students a practical application of his history lessons, but he also informed them of a right they may not have otherwise known about. He is now facing disciplinary action for this.
School board president, Cathy Dremel, says the disciplinary action is because Dryden “mischaracterized” the administrators’ intentions about the survey. It was not intended to incriminate students; rather, it was to find which students were in need of help that the school could provide. It was not, according to the district, a way to sneakily find out who was up to something illegal, and Dryden’s informing students of their rights gave it that tone.
However, Dryden is right. As citizens of this country, his students do have a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves, and taking a survey that was clearly not anonymous might have led to other problems for them down the line. The students were not informed of those rights by the district before taking the survey, so Dryden saw fit to inform them on his own. This was not breaking the law or school rules in any way, as far as I can see. It was a survey, not a mandatory assignment, so students shouldn’t have had to participate if they didn’t want to or felt uncomfortable, and Dryden was simply giving them that option.
This situation also raises the question: what other rights are we not informing our students of? Students do, in fact, have rights in public schools, but their rights are severely limited due to the public nature of their environment. The safety of the majority of the students is always the priority, so if there is a reasonable suspicion on the part of disciplinarians, students’ backpacks, lockers, etc. can be searched, athletes can be drug tested, and school visitors can be asked to go through a metal detector. If you are interested in students’ rights, a comprehensive rundown can be found from the ACLU of Utah.
The bottom line is that students and teachers should not have their rights violated. Even though they work in a public setting, they are entitled to their rights as citizens, and being aware of those rights is the first step to protect them.
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