By Kevin A. Stoda, in a kind of exile: Kuwait
This week Democracy Now ran an important interview, "Ousted NYC Arabic School Principal Debbie Almontaser Speaks Out on the New McCarthyism & Rightwing Media Attacks." Debbie Almontaser was the founding principal of the Khalhil Gibran School, which opened as the first Arab language school in the New York City School System last September.
However, just weeks prior to starting this school, the good principal--who had worked diligently to build the schools new program, hired new staff, and had developed its recruitment-was forced into resigning or seeing the whole program and school canceled in 2007.
As any mother would sacrifice her welfare for her baby, Almontaser agreed to resign in late August.
In opening this news program on the Almontaser case, Amy Goodman explained, "Last August, just weeks before fall classes were set to begin, Debbie Almontaser was forced out as the founding principal of New York City's first public Arabic-language school. At issue were Almontaser's comments in the New York Post when she explained the use of the word 'intifada,' or 'uprising.' The Post had questioned Almontaser, because the word 'intifada' appeared on a T-shirt of a women's organization that sometimes used the offices of a community group where she was a board member. The T-shirt had nothing to do with her school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, but Almontaser came under rightwing criticism for not denouncing the use of the word 'intifada' on the T-shirt. She stepped down days later."
Soon, a segment was played of a NYC councilman supporting Almontaser's case and who voiced this opinion, "There's no reason why this sister shouldn't be the head of a school that she started, she founded, she gave life to. This is absurd. This is xenophobia. This is racism. This is disrespectful. And we are standing here today solidly behind her to say that not only should she be considered, she is the most qualified, the best qualified and should be put in that position immediately. Immediately."
Al-Montaser, herself, notes: "The school is a secular school. It has absolutely nothing to do with religion. And unfortunately, the rightwing groups began to spin the school as a religious school. The school is a secular school offering the New York City curriculum and meeting the state and city's standards that all New York City public schools are mandated to, you know, meet. And it was a school that was going to be teaching Arabic as a second language, as many other schools do across the city, across the country, and provide students with a better understanding of Arab culture and history. As you may know, anyone who seeks to learn a foreign language, to be effective and proficient in that language, they need to know and understand the cultural nuances and the history of the people to use the language effectively without offending the natives of that language."
As I was reminded of the Almontaser case, I thought to myself, "How often does it happen that a teacher or educator must fall on his (or her) sword because administrators and school lawyers are about as weak-kneed as most any of our nation's politicians & Supreme Court justices when it comes to doing the right thing?"
REFLECTIONS ON TAKING A DIVE
I recall my first full-time high school teaching experience in western Kansas in 1990-1991. As fate would have it, the very month I started teaching at Great Bend High School was August 1990, i.e. the very month that Iraq had invaded Kuwait.
I was very proud to be taking over the German program at a high school that had built a wonderful school-to-school exchange-program--involving dozens of students and families in Germany and Barton County, Kansas in the 1980s. Great Bend city had even created a partner city relationship with where Great Bend high school had created its relationship with a private high school in Villengen-Schwenningen (situated in the Black Forest region of Germany) four years earlier.
In March of 1991, the partner school (and nearly 2 dozen high school students) from the sister city in Villengen-Schwenningen was expected to visit our school in Kansas. Three months later we were to take our youth from Kansas to their school for three weeks.
Meanwhile, as September, October and November 1990 came along, the drumbeats of the Allied Coalition's (led by the USA) War in the Persian Gulf were already being heard in every corner of the United States.
As the Great Bend High School was situated directly across from the National Guard building, all students and teacher were aware that some of the parents and older siblings of our students were being sent to Saudi Arabia to prepare for the January 1991 war with Iraq. The whole National Guard base had been emptied and moved to Saudi within a few weeks.
By late September 1991, I had slowly begun to open my mouth upon entering the faculty lounge stating, "I don't like the revolving door this high school has for army and military recruiters."
In the four or five short-weeks I had been teaching at Great Bend, I had observed not only military recruiters wandering about in the hallways, but I had seen them eating lunch with numerous students in the cafeteria several different days-all this with a great war looming on the horizon!
I was incensed at this blind-way of mis-educating youth to think that joining the military was either (1) their only chance in the future or (2) was their only opportunity to serve the nation.
To make a long story short, it is clear that the principal of the school did not like what I had to say.
Moreover, a month later when I tried to encourage some of my students to learn something about the many pacifist German language (Mennonite) speakers who had made Kansas great, the principal got onto me for promoting my alma mater, i.e. Bethel College.
Over the next weeks, I took an alternative tact. I began to write public education letters to the editor in the local and regional newspapers in response to the U.S.A.'s overspending on weaponry and war in the previous decade. I also noted that education need to be emphasized more than prisons in America.
In school, I encouraged students to read books like, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, THE WAVE, and other books by German authors translated into English.
Moreover, I showed films like the classic 1930 version of All's Quiet on the Western Front, The Bridge (Die Bruecke), and several works made into film by Hienrich Boll and Gunther Grass, including the anti-war classic, The Tin Drum.
In the midst of this, the Gulf War to free Kuwait began.
By the end of February 1991, the fighting by the USA would largely be over in Kuwait. However, in early February-and without even talking to me or my partner school principal in the Black Forest community in Germany-my high school principal unilaterally canceled the large German-American exchange program for the year.
That principal, who had been a marine in his younger years, had simply decided to cancel the exchange program, based upon an unidentified fear of war-time travel-or so he said. I soon came to believe that the principal wanted the German program and the German exchange program to collapse with me apparently holding responsibility for its failure.
The bottom-line for me, in early February, as an educator was that I should have been asked to give my input into the decision to cancel-as should my German cohort.
In the meantime, that same principal told me that my contract would not be renewed for the 1991-1992 school year.
He stated some blatantly inaccurate innuendos and lies about me but in the non-renewal letter there was no-cause given for nonrenewal.
It is typical in the USA that a teacher or professor can have their contract non-renewed in the first and second year with no cause given.
However, I took my case to the county teacher's union. Sadly, I was told that until I was tenured I didn't have much of a chance of beating the non-renewal in court.
This was not entirely true, as the school district was soon in the midst of a major hiring and firing scandal that Spring and practically all teachers were automatically renewed due to the fiasco.
In the meantime, I fell on my sword and did not try to raise Cain with the many disappointed parents and students who had had their trip to Germany--and visa versa-- canceled.
I knew they would have been outraged had they known that the principal had not taken anyone's advice nor even called Germany before canceling that trip.
In short, here was one time in the past 20 years when those young Americans from the Midwest could have come face-to-face with Germans their age-i.e. who had a completely different understanding and education about war and peace-making than our American youth generally receive--but they were cut off from face-to-face contact in the midst of a war out by the combination of (a) one principal's fears of travel and (b) his ongoing decision to have me replaced as head of the German program in the coming year.
My decision to not protest publicly that non-renewal and to finally simply go with the flow that Spring was based primarily on my desire to make sure that the Villengen-Schwenningen (Germany) and Great Bend High School (Kansas) continued in subsequent years.
Therefore, I worked hard in March and April to make certain that even more students were signed up to take German the year than I had taught the year I had arrived. In this, I was successful.
[Note: Only by May was it clear that if I had protested in March 1991, I may have had the parental and community support to override the principal's desire to not renew my teaching German at Great Bend high that subsequent year.]
In any case, I am able to say, as Debbie Almontaser has done so eloquently in her interviews concerning her case against the NYC school system, that (whether I like it or not) I was a pawn educator-simply trying to do my job in the realm of school- and community education. However, when the winds of war and prejudice against alternative world views swept across the Kansas plains in 1991, I had it just as hard as Ms. Almontaser did.
DISCUSSION AND EXAMPLES ENCOURAGED
I could share at least three other such similar stories from my own 25-year teaching career, but I would like to encourage readers and educators to share their own support for Debbie Almontaser (and her case) below-as well as to share stories from your own educational and learning experiences where good teachers have had to take the fall for administrators.
We need to shine the light on how pervasively this occurs in schools and universities in America and around the globe.
We also need to lift up good educators around the globe and encourage them not to give up.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020629/
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: Info Page, http://www.bwdd.com/allquiet/
Die Bruecke (The Bridge), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0233386/
"BROADCAST EXCLUSIVE...Ousted NYC Arabic School Principal Debbie Almontaser Speaks Out on the New McCarthyism & Rightwing Media Attacks", click here
Ende Einer Dienstfahrt, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067051/
Gulf War: The German Resistance, click here
The Tin Drum (1979), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078875/