Opinionated teachers

Ideally, while a teacher can and should deal with controversial issues, he or she should do so without presenting personal political opinions in the classroom.

teacher370 (photo credit: Courtesy, The Abraham Fund)
(photo credit: Courtesy, The Abraham Fund)
A Kiryat Tivon teacher has aroused quite a bit of controversy. Adam Verta, who teaches civics, philosophy, and Jewish thought at ORT Greenberg High School, became famous overnight after one of his 12th grade students complained in a letter to Education Minister Shai Piron that Verta had expressed extreme left-wing positions in the classroom.
According to the student, Verta had said that the IDF is unusually cruel and violent compared to other armies and that the State of Israel is not for the Jews, but rather for the Palestinians. Former right-wing MK Michael Ben-Ari posted the letter on his Facebook page and added the following status update: “Sapir from Kiryat Tivon writes to Education Minister Shai Piron: Will he [Piron] meet with her to hear how the anti-Zionist Left is poisoning the wells of the education system?” ORT CEO Zvi Peleg told Ynet that Verta confirmed during a hearing that he does not think that the IDF is a moral army and that he participated in pro-Palestinian protests and even shouted “Viva Palestine.”
However, Verta’s attorney, Michael Sfard, wrote a letter to Peleg claiming that, because Peleg understands that there is nothing wrong with what Verta said in class, he is therefore “disseminating a malicious version that will allow him to continue the political persecution he began.”
Many of Verta’s students have come to their teacher’s defense. A group has signed a petition in his support that claims he always encouraged and fostered open debate and respected the opinions of all students. One student who supported Verta said, “We talk about these kinds of things all the time. We do not always agree, and we argue, but this is part of democracy, isn’t it?” Piron said in a letter to teachers and administrators that “some of the statements made by Adam Verta were inappropriate; but others were legitimate, even if they were not pleasant to my ears or to the ears of many Israelis….”
The Verta controversy raises a fundamental question regarding the role of the teacher in the classroom: Is it appropriate for a teacher to present his or her political views in the classroom? In many national-religious schools, teachers take right-wing positions on issues such as settlements, state and religion, and IDF policies. Moreover, national-religious high schools for boys and girls regularly encourage their students to take part in demonstrations against territorial compromise or in favor of settlement expansion.
Most parents enroll their children in these schools with the knowledge that right-wing positions will regularly be expressed in both formal and informal settings.
In secular schools, in contrast, the political environment is more diverse. Nevertheless, expressing certain political positions, even in the classroom, are considered acceptable and even desirable. A teacher would never be disciplined for expressing unqualified support for the IDF or for defending Israel’s right to promote Jewish immigration via the Law of Return.
Ideally, however, while a teacher can and should deal with controversial issues, particularly in civics class, he or she should do so without presenting personal political opinions in the classroom. The teacher has an obligation to stimulate free, open debate and present opposing views fairly and even-handedly. But because students are a captive and impressionable audience, a teacher can easily exploit his or her position of power and intellectual superiority to sway opinions. Doing so stifles open debate by intimidating students who might be reluctant to dissent from their teacher.
The job of the teacher, then, is to create intellectual space and an open atmosphere for students to embark on their own unique paths and reach their own tentative conclusions. Discussion should be unfettered. No opinions should be delegitimized prima facie. Positions should be judged fairly according to their relative merits, with the understanding that different people view issues differently. The best way to generate this sort of free and open atmosphere is by the teacher refraining from voicing his or her own opinions.