Teacher Showing National Flags Placed on Administrative Leave in Denver

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Denver World Geography teacher, Eric Hamlin (Denver Post/John Leyba)

This story from the Denver Post is one more outrageous example of why excellent teachers are leaving the classroom.

A seventh-grade geography teacher who refused to remove Chinese, Mexican and United Nations flags from his classroom was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday by Jefferson County officials who were concerned that the display violates the law. District officials said state law forbids the display of foreign flags unless they are temporary and related to the curriculum. Carmody Middle School principal John Schalk looked at the curriculum for Eric Hamlin’s world geography class “and there was nothing … related to any of these countries,” said Lynn Setzer, district spokeswoman. She said Schalk asked the teacher three times to remove the flags and warned there would be consequences, but Hamlin refused.

Hamlin, in his first year at Carmody, said he regularly displays flags from different countries, rotating them out based on countries being studied. He said that the first six weeks of school are devoted to discussing the “fundamentals of geography” and that the flags were randomly selected.

District officials are citing Colorado Revised Statute 18-11- 205. It says: “Any person who displays any flag other than the flag of the United States of America or the state of Colorado or any of its subdivisions, agencies or institutions upon any state, county, municipal or other public building or adjacent grounds within this state commits a class 1 petty offense.” It says an exception to that law is “the display of any flag … that is part of a temporary display of any instructional or historical materials not permanently affixed or attached to any part of the buildings … .”

My first thoughts were, “Hmm.. the Principal thinks the United Nations is a country and that a curriculum in World Geography could be effective without every mentioning China and Mexico.” But, of course, the real question is “How could the school district possibly believe that Hamlin’s flag display did not meet the exception to the law?” The exception does not say that the temporary display has to be directly related to a curriculum at all. A clue as to the administration’s over-reaction can be found in a speculation Hamlin made that was buried in the last paragraph of the article:

He said he believes school officials are being extra cautious because of a controversy at Denver’s North High School when a Mexican flag was hung by a social studies teacher and people complained.

This is a phenomena that has reached epidemic proportions in America’s public schools. Fearing complaints that might result in expensive lawsuits, School administrators refuse to defend teachers from politically motivated attacks. The result has been devastating to a central goal of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), to attract and keep the best possible teachers in the classroom.

Events like the one in Denver have played an increasingly important part in motivating good teachers to leave the field. Numerous studies have shown that half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. Of course, low wages and family issues contribute to teacher attrition in general, but new studies have shown that there has been a dramatic increase in attrition among the best educated and most experienced teachers. Among the most important factors that lead to the “best and the brightest” leaving are: lack of administrative support; narrow, scripted curriculum; lack of teacher autonomy and decision-making; portrayal of teachers in the mass media, and community attitudes.

All of this makes perfect sense. The more competent, capable and professional a teacher is the less likely they will put up with demeaning demands like those made on Eric Hamlin. In any profession there is a direct connection between the esteem and status that profession has in society and the professional commitment and morale among the members of that profession. Teaching is no exception.

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