Teachers unpin Obama buttons

You might have seen a story today about teachers at Soquel High School, near Santa Cruz, who agreed not to sport their “Educators for Obama” pins in class.

According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a parent — a John McCain supporter — complained about the presence of campaign paraphernalia, and the principal of Soquel High asked teachers to take off the pins while they were teaching. They did.

What’s the practice here in Oakland? I know that a number of teachers, particularly at the high school level, are active in political issues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama pins were in evidence on OUSD campuses.

Do you think it’s appropriate for a teacher to show their support, in class or at school, for a candidate or a controversial issue? Should they also be expected to expose kids to the other side of the issue (or campaign)?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    Public School staff are public employees and are subject to various rules – like no politicking at work. That’s a big civil service rule. The school may have phrased the instruction to remove partisan political buttons as a request – but it was an order.

    I don’t have a big problem with a teacher saying in context of the class subject that have decided at this point in time to support a candidate – but it is problematic to do so and might be avoided or at least downplayed. Doing this invites a debate – and sometimes you need debates so that could be just fine. Wearing a button is just against the rules and they know it.

    It’s important that the students not think the world is one dimensional and that there is only one good side to an issue and one bad side. That’s the problem with political correctness. If the teachers line up for Obambi – or gay marriage, abortion, or whatever the subject is this week – there is too much risk that they will be teaching that this is the party line. Perhaps arranging a debate of evenly matched political opponents? Or something the Nuns did at my East Bay Grade School – they assigned us to take sides in political debates that we indicated we didn’t like. Then we had to debate before the class with the Nuns assigning points. The unpopular sides tended to do well and the populars got caught by surprise. They took things for granted.

    Oh, in Catholic schools there was a party line and it was made clear who and what had the endorsement and who was a heretic. Left wing Democrats all the way.

  • Catherine

    The teachers at our school had to cover their Obama t-shirts even though the shirt did not say Vote Obama.

    They did not have to cover up other shirts – Martin Luther King Jr. shirts or even Jesus Christ shirts.

    I understand the implication. However, I don’t like it and neither do the teachers.

  • Nextset

    Catherine – Does anybody care what teachers – or other employees “like” when they are forced to submit to long held and reasonable policy?

    Teachers would not be wearing a MLK shirt or JC shirt either at any school worthy of the term. It’s not professional. Teachers aren’t buddies or social equals of the students and they should wear nothing to come down to the level of public school students. There is a reason for this distance.

  • Jose, Former Student

    I spent 4 years of high school in Oakland. Each election the teachers tried to brain wash us with their socialist views.

    I am a Democrat and it was too much for me. The few students who were Republicans kept their views to them self because they thought it would affect their grades.

    Now, I relize this was wrong, however, that was part of the learning process at Skyline High School.

    It’s not too different now that I am in college.

  • Katy Murphy

    Are any teachers out there wearing Obama or McCain buttons (or t-shirts, etc.) now? How about students?

  • Catherine

    Our school, no students, no teachers, no workers, no volunteers are wearing any shirts or buttons. There may be no discussion about watching the debate.

    Indeed at back to school night I asked my child’s 3rd grade teacher about whether she would use the election to talk about voting, the three branches of government, etc. She said they would not cover those topics – that the government and voting is dealt with in 5th grade.

    When I noted that when my child is in 5th grade there will not be a presidential election – I was told that if I feel so passionately about the subject I should teach my daughter at home about the branches of government and the election process – that the school year is packed and there is no time to cover it at school. My child is working ahead in language arts, math and science. So I believe what the teacher is saying is that SHE does NOT have time to cover it.

  • Catherine


    What should proper teachers at proper schools wear to school to teach? Suits? Dresses, high heels and pearls? Jogging suits?

  • Nextset

    I would expect teachers at public schools to wear at least dressy casual or business attire.

    What have you noticed being worn? Is dress a problem? Is there a difference between the younger generation of teachers and the next generation older?

    With lawyers the largest problem seems to be the younger women. The younger men get it pretty fast. I am amused to see open friction between the older women and the younger women on dress issues. The minorities I see in this business usually know better than to come in looking like they haven’t passed the bar yet. They would be stopped by the bailiffs attempring to walk past the rail of the courtroom first is they dressed down.

    Younger women who dress like slobs start having respect problems – and the clients don’t like it at all either. Many younger public defender women I see dress like Velma. It goes with their politics.

    Doctors have uniforms typically so I doubt they have the same issue.

  • Nextset

    Catherine – interesting that the school stays away from the election – like they are afraid of the very subject. You’re right, it only comes up every 4 years and it should be incorporated into subjects. At least the mechanics of the election.

    Most kids don’t even understand that there is no national popular election – voters only vote in state elections. The states vote for the presidents.

    Even better – student field trips to elections offices – and to victory parties… (Well the parents would have to organize that I suppose, not the school.)

    Over 20 years ago I took several teens to a election night gathering in Sacramento. They wandered around and chatted with a statewide office winner all by themselves waiting to see if he won. He was standing around alone – and he did win one of the statewide offices (his first such race). I have precint walked also over 20 years ago, for days. There were teens around for that and it was a big project with over 30 people in our team with computer printouts about the people who were in the houses we approached (party affiliation and number of voters, did they vote last time, etc.).

    Teens should get some exposure to the process – but on the partisian side it needs to be done through their family and private associations. But I’d love the schools to arrange select groups to be at the vote counting offices themselves and watch the drama.

    Something big could come out of exposing kids to this early.

  • Catherine

    What I notice is that the teachers who bend down to help the younger kids wear khakis or other twill-type pants with t-shirts or sweaters with loafer style shoes.

    The teachers who do not sit on the floor, bend down to help with science experiments, participate in art projects or squat down to help a child sound out words wear dresses or dress slacks, pantyhose and medium heel shoes. The only male teacher at the school works with special Ed kids and wears khakis and a pullover.

    I would rather have the teachers engaged in active learning and not worry about what they wear. I know that I have more respect for teachers who engage with children than I do for the very well dressed teachers who do not get on the floor to assist with science experiments and help children sound out words.

    There’s no excuse for dirty, torn clothing by teachers, but at our school, that has not been a problem at our school.

  • Catherine

    One of the things that I have noticed about private schools is that kids work in groups and are required to understand the basics of the candidates’ positions on major subjects – beginning in first grade. Of course, the understanding of a first grade student is different than a third grade student and different again from a fifth grade student.

    I believe that our school in fifth grade is still stating that we are a democracy – when in actuality we are a republic which is why the states actually vote for president.

    I have elected (pun intended) to go to the polls to vote rather than absentee voting so that my daughter has the experience of going to the polls, understanding that poll workers in America are expected to be fair and impartial and to make sure that all votes are counted and that every registered voter has the right to vote.

    I know there are third grade students who may not yet be able to understand the election process, just as there are third grade students who do not yet know multiplication tables, however, that is not a reason to avoid complicated subjects.

    In the good ol’ 70s when there was gifted education, government, politics, political thought, dividing up children’s opinions from their parents’ opinions, basics of debate and issues were covered in the weekly pull out class with research and homework during the week. It was an exciting time. My father a union mill right was a Democrat. During this process, I was able to tease apart my own thoughts from my parents’ thoughts. I was required to argue the Republican point of view.

    There are ways to cover politics in the classroom in a way that can be incorporated into language arts (reading and analysis), math (poll numbers, statistics on an elementary level), and social studies (how does our form of government differ from a country of the child’s ancestry or choosing). So much potential being thrown out the window for the sake of political correctness.

  • Nextset

    Catherine: I think there is a dress style difference between teachers of young children and teenagers. The high school teachers should generally be in business attire.

    There shouldn’t be loungewear on high school faculty.

    Political correctness should not exist in high schools. The kids are supposed to be well prepared for the workplace, etc. They need to deal with reality. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some limits, but not hurting anybody’s feelings is a terrible policy. Hurt their feelings on a regular basis if it gets the job done. High school students shouldn’t have to deal with a universe of sensitive subjects and real world issues after graduation with no introduction to reality.

    Graduating high school students should have little illusions about the nation or the world – or their place in it. A working grip on economy, mortality, law and society issues ie: contracts (including community property & agency), criminal laws (including sex and vicarious liability) etc should not be optional.

    Otherwise we really need to reset the age of majority back to 21 so these kids have some legal protections while they adjust. At 18 they are roadkill in our courts.

  • Sue

    Depends on the h.s. subject, I think, Nextset.

    In my Home Economics class (73-74 school year), the teacher and students had to be very careful about clothing or hairstyles during cooking lessons and when we were working on the sewing lessons too. In Biology (74-75 school year), our teacher wore a tie when he lectured, but took it off and put on a lab coat when we were disecting anything, doing blood testing, or any other type of lab. Same with the Chemistry teacher (75-76 school year), except he was a total clown and *the* favorite teacher in the whole school, so he’d do things like turn his tie backwards instead of taking it off. My P.E. teachers didn’t wear business attire either, come to think of it (73 through 77). I didn’t take Auto Shop (girls weren’t allowed to back then), but I can’t remember that teacher wearing anything that could have been ruined by oil, grease or antifreeze.

    Maybe standards have changed in the 30-plus years since I graduated, but I think h.s. teachers’ dress should to be appropriate to the activities of the classes they are teaching. Just like elementary school teachers.

    If the Civics teacher shows up in a political wardrobe, I think it’s fine, as long as the candidate-of-the-day changes each day (or maybe each week?) and the discussions are about the elections process and the issues of the day.

    In the 4th grade I put up a sign in my classroom for the presidential candidate my parents supported. When the teacher walked into the classroom (I was trying to be sneaky) he removed the sign – completely appropriate. The school had a legal obligation to avoid any appearance of bias or endorsing any candidates because the school’s gym was a county polling site.

    In general, schools have an obligation to remain neutral on a lot of different things, including political candidates – getting back to the original topic here – and teachers or staff wearing political campaign buttons (or t-shirts, or anything else) can give the appearance of the school’s endorsement, so I don’t see a problem with not allowing those wardrobe items.

  • Teri Gruenwald

    I teach 8th grade History and Language Arts, so it is completely appropriate to teach about the elections. We are going to have a mock election at our school site, and I hope that the 7th and 6th grade teachers spend at least some time on the election. Although I have my own views, I refrain from telling my students where I stand. I tell them that on Nov. 5th I will tell them who I voted for. I think it is really important that students not be preached to because we have students in our class who come from families who feel very differently from me. I want them to feel comfortable to express their opinions.

    I am requiring my students to watch one of the four debates and fill out a form. I also had my students rank what their essential questions/issues are about the election and then ask their parents/guardians or other adult. Likewise, I had my students fill out a survey about key values that are debated between Republicans and Democrats so they could figure out whether they are liberal or conservative. Then they were to ask their parents/guardians and write a reflection. All of this is designed to first, have the students talk with their adults, figure out their values, and decide which candidate best represents their way of thinking. Next, we will be doing election projects and they will end up writing a persuasive essay about their candidates of choice. We will also be studying the propositions.

    My goal is to ignite an interest in our Constitution, our political process, and our democracy. I want them to grow up to be engaged, active citizens who understand the importance of voting and then act on it. I want them to grow up knowing that they have the responsibility of protecting our Constitution.

  • Nextset

    Teri: I think the important thing is to make sure the kids understand that people are different and they are going to have different selections politically. And that is what our political system is all about. Political differences. We’re not the USSR and Red China.

    My teachers (4th grade & up?)started out explaining the different points of view between the British and the Colonists, then the East Coast of the USA vs the Frontier, then the East Coast/West Coast differences. You continue getting that one in law school. American law starts on the Easten Seaboard and gets “different” as it goes west – with the Western states (CA mainly) having the opposite point of view to NY in self defense rules and community property.

    The majority kids in any viewpoint have a tendency to think of politics as right or wrong. Or whose side you are on. Thinking that way keeps them blindsided when they deal with new people. If they are educated children they are expected to have a better grip on reality. This I don’t see in our public school students, especially the minorities who are far more Xenophobic and self-segregated. Just one more thing keeping them out of occupations.

    The schools do need to cover political science – it’s usually done in Civics classes, which were mandatory when I was there.

  • Diamond Broussard

    I believe that not allowing teachers to where their pins at school infringes on their first amendment right to freedom of speech. Teachers are not telling students to go home and tell their parents to vote for Obama or McCain. They are simply expressing their beliefs.

  • Nextset

    Diamond, your comment that freedom of speech is violated by forbidding public school teachers from espousing support for political candidates in a partisan race is typical of the constitutional fantasies held by OUSD students – who have not been taught much of anything about US Civics. I can say this having a female relative your age in a OUSD high school – she also is full of dangerous notions of what she is entitled to and shouldn’t be out in public unescorted at night.

    Refusal to learn the US Constitution and Bill of Rights and instead coming up with silly and childish notions of “rights” is part of why so many (especially minority) teens get themselves in all kinds of trouble in our courts and in their personal lives.

    I’m not saying this is your personal failing – you have not been educated. Your school has failed you. At your age you should be better grounded in what a person can get away with and not, and why.

    The attitude of entitlement you demonstrate is no different than pets/children playing in the roadway. Aren’t they cute – aren’t they dead – send in their replacements.

    So please cite a published Federal Appellate case stating that public school teachers are entitled to wear campaign buttons for a candidate? Just one case – ever – in 200 years of US History. Or how about a State Appellate Court case on the same point as to any state constitution?

    Or has your school taught you anything at all about how “the law” is delineated? At your age, they should have. You should be able to do basic research for a code section or a case, at least conceptually.

    If you go out into the street or even stay at home and interact with the world, knowing what your “rights” are can make the difference between a felony or not. And that’s the problem I see all the time. People – often your age through 30’s – doing things and talking about it without any clue that what they are doing is a crime and even a serious one. You may think I’m jumping the subject – your perceived “rights” over to criminal courts. No. People who “graduate” from the public schools have no clue of their duties and obligations under the law and instead run around town with a toxic opinion of a long list of “rights” that never did exist. Then they cry when they get taken down.

    We are heading into historically hard times. Keeping a good job, or staying alive – may soon depend on judgment and training. Urban Public school graduates are developing neither. Even that wisdom that something is “too good to be true” is missing from them, it’s not been excercised. And it’s too bad.

    The cognitively gifted and their children get richer and the rest of us just have all these problems for some reason…

    Brave New World.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Wow, Nextset, that was blowhard-y even for you!

    Actually, yes, teachers have the right to wear political pins at work unless they are disruptive. It has been challenged in the courts, and while there is no definitive line-in-the-sand on political expression, the example given here would almost certainly be allowed in most courts.

    But you just wanted to give your stock screed about Kids Today Should Be Seen But Not Heard. I understand.

  • Cranky Teacher

    First hit on Google:

    Kentucky teacher’s free-speech lawsuit reinstated

    By The Associated Press


    Printer-friendly page

    SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — A fifth-grade teacher who allowed actor Woody Harrelson to speak to her pupils about the merits of industrial hemp will have her day in court to argue that she was fired because of her choice of speakers.

    In a vehement opinion issued Nov. 9, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that a lower court erred when it threw out Donna Cockrel’s lawsuit against the Shelby County Public School District before the case went to trial.

    The appellate court’s three-member panel unanimously said schoolteachers retain the right to free speech not just in the schoolhouse, but also in the classroom.

    “Teachers don’t lose their First Amendment rights because they’re teachers,” said Cockrel’s attorney, Eugene Mooney. “There’s not a special rule for teachers — not even fifth-grade ones.”

  • Nextset

    Cranky: Do you have an appellate cite on that?

    Many government workers are not even allowed to participate in partisan campaigns off duty – much less wear campaign buttons to work. This is not news. The reasons are obvious – but the federal workers and the state judges banned from going to rallies, signing endorsement cards and kept from publicly supporting a candidate bear more of a burden than a public school teacher. If there is case law saying the teachers have some right to wear buttons banners and sashes to work during a campaign for a politician that’s news to me. Maybe it’s a 9th Circuit Case.

    My point – which I doubt you are capable of seeing – is that “rights” are never absolute. Rights are frequently subject to time, place and manner restrictions and can be lost when balanced against competing rights. This is what the kiddies don’t want to hear and are not taught. The public school kids are not infrequently given a little knowledge which is a dangerous thing, especially when mixed with toxic self-esteem.

    But then sometimes teachers are too full of fantasy “rights” also and it rubs off. If a teacher is experienced in a subject – such as biology – their experience and opinions are noteworthy. In law you want opinions from those who know the issues.

    As far as your appraisal of my positions – go for it. I enjoy reading your side of this. You are exactly the reason our kids are so unarmed in dealing with life on the streets. They aren’t being prepared in the public schools for work and adult life. And at 18 they are like puppies on a roadway. Tell your kids to run their mouths in season and out. Tell them they should act whenever the impulse moves them. Tell them they have “The RIGHT” to do it all.

    This kind of “education” is the difference between those that can make it and those that don’t. My way is more conservative, yours isn’t. Do you have a problem with that?

  • Nextset


    You think the wrongful termination suit mentioned above equals the schools being unable to block candidate buttons worn by public schools teachers? Have you read the appellate decision? Was it a published decision? Did it ever say such a thing?

    And you teach…

    What you have cited doesn’t give teachers the right to wear candidate buttons on duty. Try again.

    You see, you equate the free speech right to being able to do what you want, when you want. And that is what you are no doubt teaching your adolescent charges who only need an excuse to go out and try to fly on Icarus’ wings.

    Which is part of how OUSD and similar urban schools produce so many Boxcar Willies and female counterparts – and from largely minority kids.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Wow, Nextset, you are in fine fettle today.

    I am not a lawyer, nor do I wear political paraphenelia to work (as I don’t think it is appropriate), so this is only of passing interest to me.

    The point of my five seconds of research was only to show that the free speech issue for teachers is a live one, not a “fantasy” as you keep saying.

    But now I’ve done another minute of research and found out that the issue is hotly contested. To wit, the Supremes recently decided not to hear an appeal on a ruling that does limit teacher speech:

    The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a former Indiana teacher who alleged that she lost her job because she had discussed the Iraq war in her classroom.

    The appeal was one of hundreds turned down by the justices on Oct. 1, the first day of their new term.

    The case was notable because it led to a fairly broad ruling by a federal appeals court that teachers have virtually no First Amendment protection for statements made in the classroom, even on a topic of such public importance as the war.

    Deborah A. Mayer was a first-year teacher in the 11,000-student Monroe County, Ind., school district in January 2003 when she used an edition of TIME for Kids in a current-events discussion about the then-impending war.

    According to court papers, the magazine reported on a peace march in Washington to protest the prospect of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ms. Mayer was asked by a student in her multiage classroom of 3rd through 6th graders if she would ever participate in such a peace demonstration. She told them that when she had driven by recent peace marches in Bloomington, Ind., related to the Iraq situation, she had honked her horn in response to a sign that said, “Honk for Peace.”

    “And then I went on to say that I thought it was important for people to seek out peaceful solutions to problems before going to war, and that we train kids to be mediators on the playground so that they can seek out peaceful solutions to their own problems,” Ms. Mayer said in a deposition in the case.

    Some parents complained to the principal about the brief discussion, and the principal barred Ms. Mayer from discussing “peace” in her classroom, according to court papers. The principal also canceled the school’s traditional “peace month.”

    “We absolutely do not, as a school, promote any particular view on foreign policy related to the situation with Iraq,” Principal Victoria Rogers said in a memo to school personnel at the time. “That is not our business.”

    The school district decided in April 2003 not to renew Ms. Mayer’s contract for the next school year. The teacher alleged that it was because of her comments on Iraq, and she sued the district on First Amendment and related grounds.

    A Captive Audience
    A U.S. District Court judge in Indianapolis granted summary judgment last year to the school district. In a Jan. 24 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled unanimously for the district as well.

    “The First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system,” the appeals court said.

    The 7th Circuit judges held that Ms. Mayer’s comments were the type of on-the-job speech by a public employee that merited no First Amendment protection under a 2006 Supreme Court decision known as Garcetti v. Ceballos.

    In their Supreme Court appeal, lawyers for Ms. Mayer noted that the justices had stopped short of applying their Garcetti ruling to public education.

    “Teachers need to know if their in-class speech is ever entitled to First Amendment protection and, if so, when,” Ms. Mayer’s appeal said.

    The justices had expressed some interest in the case. When the school district initially declined to file an answer to the teacher’s appeal, the high court requested a response. The district’s brief may have convinced the justices that the case would not be suitable for deciding the teacher-speech question.

    According to the Monroe County district, some parents had complained about Ms. Mayer’s “demeanor, conduct towards students, and professional competency” even before the discussion of Iraq. During the second semester, the principal had placed Ms. Mayer on an improvement plan, but the teacher’s “job performance progressively deteriorated,” the district said in its court papers.

    “Ms. Mayer’s speech was not the motivating factor for the nonrenewal of her teaching contract,” the district said.

    The justices declined without comment to hear the teacher’s appeal in Mayer v. Monroe County Community School Corp. (Case No. 06-1657).

  • Cranky Teacher
  • Nextset

    Cranky: Here you go again.

    You took Diamond’s issue of wearing the buttons – jumped to a case involving dialog – and proclaim that “freedom of speech” allows the buttons. Well it doesn’t. But you would have Diamond and students reading this go to war over the buttons.

    I’m not saying that Diamond would organize a student strike over teachers being told to leave the Obama buttons in their cars. But that is the way she thinks. There is a difference between dialog in the classroom and wearing the buttons and that difference isn’t being picked up on by Diamond because she hasn’t been taught to be careful in throwing around “rights”. That kind of incaution can have life altering effects in the streets where these kids get hurt.

    The same incaution is what I’m working on when I say things that you interpret as my thinking that kids should be seen and not heard.

    No, I’m not saying that kids should be seen and not heard, although it’s often not a bad idea. I am saying that until they are experienced in various areas that should be especially careful in interactions with Meter Maids, Cops, Teachers, Banks & Credit Card Companies and public discourse. Children are in no position to go one on one with authority figures and generally shouldn’t defy them.

    The public school students are more likely to be taught indiscipline and incaution. They are taught this way by public school teachers. The students do not wear well for it. Especially the minority students, many of wich would have better lives if they were trained with greater discipline. For various reasons I believe the private school students learn better and know better. We should have the public school kids getting more of this and if we have to increase the Charters and close public campuses because the public schools won’t change, so be it.

  • kathy

    I think its important to teach about elections, “civics” was the subject we had in my class. But the teacher needs to teach the subject, without interjecting her own politics into it. Yes, the teachers were wrong to wear pins, they have the rest of the day and weekends to wear their pins, and if for some reason a student sees a teacher holding a sign for that candidate, or having that candidate’s bumpersticker, so be it. But raising the issue during class time how that teacher’s candidate is the one, is clearly wrong, morally and legally. Its pretty clear.

  • Jamica

    I think teachers should be allowed to expose students to various views…school is a place for learning!!! Why are we so afraid to step out of the box and let students see we aren’t robots, we all think and behave differently. Experiencing different things just may add a little excitment to the educational process! Use every situation as a learning experience.