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Politics in the Classroom: How Not to Do It, Courtesy of Diantha Harris of Asheville, North Carolina

For an update from Cumberland County Schools Superintendent William Harrison – and for analysis of his statement – check out the new post.

diantha harris, politics in Asheville

Discussing politics in the classroom is a delicate thing. It’s a bit like open heart surgery; if you know what you’re doing, you can perform miracles. If you don’t, you’re going to cause irreparable damage.

A couple of months ago I heard of a local school district board member who curtly instructed staff that politics are not to be mentioned in the classroom. That stance is absurd and there’s no inherent, justifiable reason for it. Politics past and present can be discussed by any two reasonable, informed parties.

I assumed that this board member’s worry was that some teachers wouldn’t approach the subject honestly or in a disinterested, unbiased way – she was playing it safe. Some teachers can’t be objective because they don’t want to be; others simply don’t know enough about politics and history to engage in a proper discussion of either.

It’s time to meet Diantha Harris of Asheville [turns out Ms. Harris is from Fayetteville in Cumberland County] North Carolina.

Ms. Harris was included in a recent Swedish-language Finnish documentary called From Bill to Barack. She’s shown teaching a class of what looks like ~7th graders. In an interview portion of the documentary, Ms. Harris explains her philosophy for discussing politics in the classroom:

Diantha Harris: “Now I can support whomever I want to support, as long as I don’t browbeat another person for the candidate that they supported. Like I have some students that support John McCain, and when they told me that, I said ah … “that’s good’ and I just moved on. So, I think that everybody is entitled to their own personal opinion.”

Not terribly eloquent, but we get the idea. What Ms. Harris describes is a mix of freedom of and respect for intellectual diversity. This is a fine foundation on which a teacher might build a disinterested discussion of politics in the classroom.

That Ms. Harris didn’t show up for class. The real Ms. Harris lured her students into a degrading, brow-beating indoctrination session that buffed her 13 year old political allies and demeaned her barely-pubescent opponents.

The entire exchange – caught on tape below, with transcript – shows Ms. Harris:

  • Demeaning a student for supporting John McCain, with dismissive laments of “Oh no, John McCain… Oh Jesus, John McCain…”;
  • Coaching another student on reasons to support Obama;
  • Berating a girl whose father is apparently in the military over the “senseless war” and how her dad will be in Iraq for “100 years”;
  • Setting same girl up for ridicule from peers, Harris pushes her until girl almost cries.

Here’s the video clip – it’s a harrowing three minutes. The English portion begins 15 seconds in. [Click here if you're reading this in RSS]

… and here’s a transcript, courtesy of Tundra Tabloids:

Diantha Harris: We want to talk about the presidential election. Ok, what I want to ask you, who are you pulling for? Raise your hands.

(Kids seen dutifully raising their hands one states ‘Obama’)

Diantha Harris: You’re pulling for Obama

Diantha Harris: (Speaking to another student) Who you’re pulling for? And if you’re pulling for John McCain, that’s fine say him as well. Who are you pulling for?

Student’s answer: Obama.

Another student: John McCain

Diantha Harris: Oh Lord John McCain!

Another student: John McCain

Diantha Harris: Oh Jesus, John McCain! Ok, Now I want to ask you something. (to the girl who is ‘pulling’ for McCain) Why are you pulling for John McCain. Now it’s ok! But why are you pulling for John McCain?

Student: I think it’s because of my parents are going for him too.

Diantha Harris: Ok, your parents are going for him. (Now to another student) Why are you pulling for Barack? (pronounces it differently) Or Barack?

Student: Because I just want a black president sometime.

Diantha Harris: Ok, you want a black president. Addresses another student.

Student: The reason I want to pick Barack Obama is because he is making good changes, in the good country and stuff like that.

Diantha Harris: So he’s making good changes for our country. (Shaking her head affirmatively) Ok, now can you tell me just a little bit more like, like what type of changes?

Same student: Like, …..not having um, a fight between Iraq, and having soldiers killed.

Diantha Harris: Shaking head up and down) So in other words, B-a-r-a-c-k is going to end that war (shaking head up and down) in Iraq. (Speaking to the classroom) What do you all know about that war in Iraq? Now talk to me, because your dad is in the military!

(Same female student who supports McCain shown noticeably biting lips)

Diantha Harris: Talk!

(Female student shown again but doesn’t speak)

Diantha Harris: It’s a senseless war! (shown staring at her) And by the way Kathy (the girl’s name), the person that you’re picking for president said, (Harris seen shaking head) that our troops could stay in Iraq for another hundred years if they need to! (emphasis added),

(Kathy shown biting lips and looking nervously in silence, while kids stare at her smiling, laughing and smirking)

Diantha Harris: So that means that your daddy could stay in the military for another hundred years!

During an interview later:

Diantha Harris: Now I can support whomever I want to support, as long as I don’t browbeat another person for the candidate that they supported. Like I have some students that support John McCain, and when they told me that, I said ah … “that’s good’ and I just moved on. So, I think that everybody is entitled to their own personal opinion. And we have something in our school system that called ‘Kids Voting’, and in my class….Barack Obama won. (Smiling).

Ms. Harris was in the news once before. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush met with Roy Harris – Diantha’s ex-husband and former member of the Asheville City Schools Board of Education – and our Diantha. A transcript of that exchange is available on the American Presidency Project’s website.

Over the last three months, the level of discourse at that point where politics and education meet has been disappointing and worrying. Public school teachers aren’t all Diantha Harrises, but tendentious, overzealous, underinformed discussions are more common in the classroom than most folks realize.

It isn’t clear what Ms. Harris’ job was in Asheville, though I’d find it odd if she was filmed for a documentary while serving as a substitute teacher. Either way, Ms. Harris needs to find a new line of work.

Teaching is a tremendous responsibility. That’s no secret. If you, as a parent, teacher or administrator, can’t discuss politics or history responsibly, don’t do it yourself. Find someone who can, sit back and learn.

Ms. Harris has embarrassed herself, her school system and her profession – and in that order of importance. But what she taught 15 young kids about political discourse is the real problem. Harris showed these children that it’s acceptable [and a desirable means to an end] to abuse someone into submission over ideology; that it isn’t important to respect one’s views, or engage in discourse that furthers understanding; that intellectual diversity and dissent is to be crushed for political expedience; that a sneering, mean-spirited contempt drives politics.

We’ve heard a great deal about hope, change and goodwill over the last two years. Ms. Harris’ disgusting display undermined the efforts of folks on both sides of the aisle.

Other takes on Ms. Harris:

RiehlWorldView: Harris needs to be fired.

Scoopthis.org: Teacher bullies students who support McCain.

BelchSpeak: Reason 142 to homeschool.

TundraTabloids: Browbeating, with update.

HotAir.com: Hope and Change.

Michelle Malkin: Harris is a child abuser.

Poligazette: It’s extremism.

The Forum: Teacher embarrasses student.

Rhymes With Right: Utterly unprofessional.

19 Responses to “Politics in the Classroom: How Not to Do It, Courtesy of Diantha Harris of Asheville, North Carolina”

  1. Discussion of politics in the classroom may be a touchy subject but I think even the most biased of teachers are capable of putting their beliefs aside to do it in a proper and useful way. Ms. Harris was capable as well, she just chose not to.

    On the positive side, Ms. Harris almost achieved a good discussion in that classroom. If you look at the way she treated students who said “Obama,” she asked them why and asked them to be specific. She then used active listening skills to repeat back what the student had just said.

    If she wanted to carry on the discussion properly, she should’ve done the same with students supporting McCain. At no point should she have interjected her own opinions because she is in a position of Authority over students that are too immature to properly interpret an opposing view from such a high level. As an older college student, I would go so far to say that many of my younger colleagues aren’t capable of handling debate with a professor either so I think the same principles should apply in the undergraduate classroom.

  2. Kelsey,

    I think everyone is capable of a responsible discussion, and you nailed it when you said that Harris didn’t want to.

    Harris’ bright spot was when she pressed the student who said “Obama” for an explanation. That’s discussion, critical thought and exploration. For the 6 seconds before she coached the answers, Harris was a teacher.

    And then, as you pointed out, she took a different approach with the McCain students.

    I don’t find that there’s much difference between discussing politics with kids than with adults or college students. Kids usually require more information and help fleshing out their thoughts – like when Harris helped the student say that Obama would end the war. Adults/college students require more conceptual steering [almost like intellectual herding/organizing] because they’ve got more information. In the end, it’s all about the same, as long as the teacher is committed to disinterested inquiry/analysis.

  3. SixDegrees says:

    I contacted the Asheville school board. They replied that Ms. Harris has not worked for them since 2004. Although the tape clearly shows her in a classroom, it is apparently not a public school classroom. I suspect it is a church classroom, perhaps in the church depicted at the end of the clip. Does anyone speak Dutch well enough to see if there is a reference to the location being filmed?

  4. SixDegrees,

    Thanks for the research on this – I think the folks at TundraTabloids, and several others, are digging as well.

    If this is a church classroom, it’s the best-funded church school I’ve ever seen. The video opens with a building-wide bell system ringing and depicts large hallways in what is obviously a school building. The classroom is well-equipped with everything you could imagine, including a mounted TV in the corner.

    I don’t care where Harris is or why the students are there – that it’s a public school is of little concern to me. Harris is engaging in intellectual malpractice with children. The effects on those kids are the same whether the school is private or public.

    If you find out more, though, please let me know by leaving a comment here or e-mailing me at mktabor@gmail.com . I’m sure there’s more to this story.

  5. sirpatrick says:

    Best commercial I have ever seen in support of school vouchers….The really sad part is the poor children who have to be exposed to this type of learning environment on a daily baisis.

    If you really love children please please pray that they get the same opportunity as their more affluent peers who go to private school.

  6. As a teacher this really angers me. Our job is to make kids think critically, not freaking indoctrinate them. Challenge their views but not humiliate them. And never make it a racial thing.

  7. sirpatrick,

    Ms. Harris is the exception, not the rule, but I think these uncomfortable situations happen more frequently than parents/taxpayers realize.

  8. vegas art guy,

    I didn’t see it as a racial situation, though I may be wrong. I think Harris would treat Obama supporters well and McCain supporters poorly regardless of race. Very difficult to know from this clip, but I don’t blame you for raising the issue. It’s possible.

  9. vanderleun says:

    She’s in Cumberland County… Fayetteville. A LONG way away from Asheville.
    Her Board:
    http://www.communications.ccs.k12.nc.us/Board/BOE.htm
    Her School:
    http://www.mmes.ccs.k12.nc.us/faculty_and_staff.htm
    Apparently you can email her directly from the school’s website.
    You can use your 1st amendment rights as an American to let this woman know what you think of her educational techniques!
    Email Diantha: http://www.mmes.ccs.k12.nc.us/email/diathaharris.htm

  10. vanderleun,

    If that’s the same lady, then a message to the Board of Education and/or administration would be most effective. If anyone writes, please be polite when stating your case.

    In short, stay classy.

  11. I don’t know how you found this, Matthew, but I’m glad you did. I feel a rant coming on.

  12. JL says:

    Thanks for this information. I wanted to double-check her email address (http://www.mmes.ccs.k12.nc.us/email/diathaharris.htm) since her name is spelled differently within the address than it is in other documentation.

    I do hope that readers will express concern (in a reasonable, well-spelled manner, if possible) to the school and board for Harris’ treatment of a student. I’m surprised, also, by her having taken the Lord’s name in vain–hardly appropriate in a classroom setting.

  13. Patrick,

    Boy, is this blowing up – and thank God for that. I’m starting to see links everywhere, and I think some of the larger talk guys are picking it up [Glenn Beck, I heard?].

    Oddly enough, there’s one demographic I’m *not* seeing outraged. Teachers. They should all be upset/disgusted with Harris’ approach because it demeans their profession and is clear malpractice. They are, right now, largely silent.

  14. Glynn,

    Thanks for continuing research on this – I think there’s more to the story than we know now, and I’d like to keep tabs on it. These incidents tend not to happen just once or in a vacuum.

  15. JL,

    I don’t envy her principal, superintendent or school board right now. For a week, they’re going to have the media collapse on them. This is one issue where they simply won’t get any sympathetic responses.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the inboxes and voice mailboxes are full by now.

  16. TeacherMom says:

    This is from theapple.com website:

    “Obama and Biden have big plans for what they call “Zero to Five.” This plan focuses on children from birth to five years of age and their parents. It supports early education and universal pre-school. They want to quadruple Early Head Start funding. Their efforts for this age group will be closely tied to their efforts to provide quality health care for this young age group. Obama’s health care program may make the funding for these early childhood programs difficult to carry out in the scope that they’ve planned.”

    Remember…The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world…

  17. sirpatrick says:

    Matthew,
    You say that this incident is the exception ; not the rule. However you also comment that teachers have been “largely silent” on the issue. I believe their silence reinforces “the rule” not “the exception”. Most teachers who view this video would probably think the teacher was a little clumsy in leading the discussion but, would have no problem with the thuggish ,blatant and belligerent Obama bias.
    The only way we would have heard any outrage from teachers would be if this were a white “McCain” teacher mocking a black student who was supporting Obama .

  18. Doug Taylor says:

    I just saw this situation. What has happened since November?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Remote Viewer » Blog Archive » Child abuser: Obama-supporting teacher bullies soldier’s daughter - [...] Politics in the Classroom: How Not to Do It, Courtesy of Diantha Harris of Asheville, North Carolina... [...]
  2. The Dumbing Down Of America One Classroom At A Time | Right Voices - [...] Politics in the Classroom: How Not to Do It, Courtesy of Diantha Harris of Asheville, North Carolina... [...]
  3. UPDATE: Analyzing Cumberland Superintendent William Harrison’s Response on Partisan Teacher and Bully — Education for the Aughts - American School Issues and Analysis - [...] Ms. Harris teaches in Fayetteville, not Asheville, in the Cumberland County system. Not that it matters to me [...]

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