In March of 2020, when the pandemic hit, I had already been contemplating retiring. I had been teaching English at a Northern California high school for 31 years, and it seemed like the end of the 2020 school year might be a good time. Ultimately I decided that it was important for the students to have the stability and continuity of a familiar face on the computer screen when distance learning resumed in the fall of 2020. It was going to be hard enough to help kids succeed in this kind of distance learning environment without them having to adjust to a newly hired teacher whom they had never seen before. Just about every student knew “Mr. Mooney” (my gosh, he’s been around forever!), and it was that familiarity that helped us all have a successful year.
With schools pretty much returning to normal, I felt it was finally time to leave the classroom. Now I’m running for the school board so I can continue to serve our students in a new role. It’s a decision I hope more experienced educators will consider.
The decision to run didn’t come easy. I watched in dismay last year when our trustees were verbally attacked and threatened by small yet loud and angry groups at board meetings over COVID safety measures, distance learning, teacher staffing, and state orders. In some cases, the trustees had to halt the meetings due to hostile behavior and some members of the public’s failure to follow the rules. These distractions made it impossible to conduct the actual business of the school district and set a horrendous example for our students. The sensible (and possibly safest) thing to do would be for me to step away from all of this as a retired teacher. I could rest on my laurels and let someone else bear the brunt of being a school board trustee.
But I have a 4th grader.
He is attending a local school, and there is an attack on his right to an unfettered and comprehensive public education. So I decided I had to step up. For him, and every other student enrolled in our district.
In 33 years of teaching high school English, I have seen many attacks on public education come and go. Book banning is not new, but it has gained new relevance in an escalating culture war. In this present climate, books by and/or about people from historically excluded communities are at risk in public schools and libraries. And only recently has widespread censorship become a reality in many states across the country.
Anti-education proponents in other states have banned and challenged some of the most iconic titles in the Western Canon of Literature: 1984 by George Orwell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck are only a few targets of the over 1,500 book bans that have occurred in US school districts. And now they are targeting our local school district.
How can our children fulfill their potential if they are not allowed to use a diverse and inclusive library of literature as the primary technology to discover the nature of their own humanity? After all, it is often through diverse literature that our children discover that their longings are universal longings and that they’re not alone or isolated from anyone. They learn that they belong. Parents and voters understand that the biggest challenges we face today are not the culture wars of division but whether our kids are getting the rigorous education that prepares them for college, career, and life.
But it is not only books that are being banned. Some also want to ban entire topics from the curriculum, and there is a long list related to inclusivity and equity. Stopping these efforts here in our school district is why I’m stepping up and seeking a seat on the school board. But I know these efforts are not limited to my community. That’s why I’m calling on more educators to join me. I believe that a classroom teacher is in a position to bring a unique and qualified perspective to the school board. Someone who has gotten their hands dirty in the classroom day in and day out with 100 or so students each day is needed to serve on the school board and be a first-hand witness to the effect of school board policy and decision-making on the classroom and on students.
Most of us want the same thing for our kids – strong, quality public schools that give every student the freedom to reach their potential. All students, regardless of race, religion, national origin, or gender, should have the opportunity to learn and succeed. And because we embrace diversity, every child, no matter who they are or where they live, has a right to feel like they belong to our greater community. When we water down the Holocaust, American Slavery, or the Gay Rights Movement, we deny our students the opportunity to learn who they are and where they come from. If we want our children to find their place in the world that lies beyond their town limits, we cannot restrict the learning that will help them find it.
Our school boards must partner with parents and educators to expand, not limit, learning opportunities for students. It must ensure that libraries, curricula, and teachers themselves, all who have been fully vetted by the school district, students, parents, and members of the community, are protected. It must guarantee that students have access to the mental health support they need and ensure that all of our schools are fully staffed with talented and dedicated people to care for and educate our children. As an educational community, we must protect and promote educational practices that are founded in research, are inclusive, culturally relevant and responsive, and serve all of our students.
This November educators have a responsibility to vote in our local school board elections. Your vote this November 8 for the school board in your community has never been more critical. Vote for experience. Vote for commitment. Vote for qualified and level-headed candidates who will protect our students’ rights, including those of my 4th grader. Once this election is behind us, I hope more educators will move past voting to running. We need school boards run by experienced educators. Together we can protect students’ right to learn all there is to learn and to know that in their school, no matter who they are, where they come from, or who they love, they are accepted, valued, and respected.
Patrick Mooney is a recently retired 34-year secondary English teaching veteran in Northern California, with a bachelor’s in English and an MEd in Educational Management. Patrick has written for a variety of publications on the topics of education, writing instruction, mentoring new teachers, raising children, and ski racing. He is also the dad of three fine boys.
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