The charge of “harm”

“That’s how a chilling effect works: It makes everyone terrified, resulting in self-censorship and preemptive punishments on teachers who transgress some imagined line of propriety.”

-Waldman and Sargent, Opinion | Teachers are under fire in increasingly bizarre ways: One Mississippi educator was fired for reading kids a silly book about butts.
The Washington Post, 3.11.2022

In today’s Washington Post opinion piece, Teachers Are Under Fire in Increasingly Bizarre Ways, authors Waldman and Sargent also write:

“In Idaho, the appropriately titled House Bill 666 would provide jail sentences for teachers or librarians who disseminate “material harmful to minors.”

How, the article wonders, and how (I ask) can librarians do their jobs? How can teachers possibly teach (or enjoy teaching) when the message is that they are probably up to no good? When they are surveilled and scrutinized? How can a teacher be playful, creative, spontaneous, joyful, loud, funny, confident, encouraging, or authentically engaged when she might be fired for the “wrong” expression of any of those qualities?

Claims of harm–and the extremely general denunciation of “harmful” acts — are specious, like calling someone a witch if they act in ways that you decide are disobedient. The proof of a “Witch!” allegation was found (or not) by strapping down and dunking the ostensible witch under water, where, if she drowned, she wasn’t a witch after all– and if she did not drown, she was obviously dangerous and must be burned at the stake. Unlucky was she who ran afoul of the local clique of “Christian” mean girls, who’d smile in smug satisfaction while enjoying the spectacle of their victims running out of air or writhing in the flames.

“Harmful” (the term now thrown at anyone bullies don’t like) is a charge that is used to justify self-righteous attacks against educators who have run afoul of some cabal. The term has no clear or useful definition. It relies upon hearsay. It privileges the accuser’s feelings, words, and perspective over the feelings, words, and perspective of the accused (and over any counter-narratives provided by witnesses, and over curiosity or reason). “You caused harm!” now excuses attacks. Pointing the finger at someone with the claim, “You caused harm!” is like crying out in the public square, “You murdered my child, you Devil!” The imputation is likely to get the accused set upon by an angry mob without any further evidence, much less dialogue.

“Harm” is subjective. In contexts where “harm” is used to fire someone (the teacher in the article reads a book to kids that includes butts and farts, and is out of a job in no time, having thus potentially harmed children) the term “harm” functions as an incontrovertible label. “You caused harm” is used to shut down lively discourse, criticisms of authority, nuanced thinking, and (gasp) humor or other forms of free expression.

Can harm actually be caused by a teacher? Of course, duh. I won’t go into sexual improprieties or assaults here, or patterns of obdurate abuse of power. Let’s just talk about offenses like reading a funny butt book to kids, or challenging college students to think beyond and outside their comfort zones and political scripts. We teachers can and do (all, I imagine) sometimes hurt others, inadvertently or on purpose. That’s the nature of being a person in a room with other people, or a living thing among other living things. Part of the courage needed to be a teacher– to stand, day after day, in front of a roomful of mixed learners (some perpetually mad; some eager; some smart; some not so smart; some hypercritical; some eternally bored)– involves finding ways to connect, to enliven interest, to spark change (for learning is change) while remaining, ourselves, engaged, and hopefully while being present in each moment, even sometimes forgetting ourselves as we enter into classroom conversations. When we forget ourselves– stop monitoring our behavior–we’re way more likely to make a quip, or to speak sharply about a topic we care about, or to accidentally step on a student’s emotional toe because we assumed we’re all on the same friendly page, but we’re not.

Most of the time, if we’re wrong, we say “Oops!” and “Sorry! Misspoke! Didn’t intend offense!” or “Here’s what I meant to say,” or “Won’t happen again.”

To productively deal with alleged harm, prosecutorial types as well as the prosecuted might be wisely advised to be curious and specific: What happened? What was said or done? By whom, to whom, with what effect, according to whom? Was there an error or misperception involved? Was there a physical assault? A verbal assault? Is a conversation in order? An apology? Should mutual understanding be sought, or perhaps not? Was the harm truly egregious? Or maybe were someone’s feelings hurt in a way that might heal after a few hours’ anger and a glass of wine with friends (or even with the purported “harmer” to mend the relationship?)

One remembers, with profound gratitude, being guided or sometimes just propelled through uncomfortable feelings and resistance, by great teachers and librarians… whose business it was to expose students to new ways of thinking; whose life’s calling was to wake students up to their own creative, intellectual and emotional capacities. Thank you, Miss Tyler! Thank you, Monte Henrie! Thank you, Joanie Evans, Casey Kizziah, Lisa Jacobson, Robert Perillo, Fay Simpson, Polina Klimovitskaya.

One remembers being helped to laugh at one’s own ignorance, weaknesses and fears. Thank you, Jimmy Tripp, Mario Siletti.

One remembers experiencing, in school, brilliant moments of insight and growth after having been surprised, even shocked, in transformative classrooms. Thank you, Barbara Dobos!

Gone are those days, thanks to the tyrannical Crusaders (not for anything truly good, only against what they deem bad) who– believing only in their own pumped-up feelings of perfection–cannot imagine how wrong they are, nor acknowledge the harm they, themselves, wreak.

Waldman, P., & Sargent, G. (2022, March 11). Opinion | teachers are under fire in increasingly bizarre ways. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from

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