Samuel J. Tanner 7 minute read

Democratic Education

Students asked me where I’d been when I returned from my first unpaid, three-day suspension.

“Defending your democracy,” I told them with a wry smile. I said nothing else about my strange absence. In fact, my school district included that stipulation in the letter that was placed in my file. I was not to share the ways I’d been disciplined by my school district with anybody. Ever.

Incidentally, I’m breaking this rule in my upcoming memoir. Playing with Sharp Objects will share the ways I was disciplined by my school district with everybody. Always.

I was placed on two, three-days suspension during my 6th year as a high-school teacher. This was the same year the student body voted me most inspirational teacher in the annual poll the school newspaper conducted. The director of human resources threatened to fire me twice that year, even though I’d been tenured by two different high schools by that point in my career.

My crimes? Being inappropriate. What does it mean to be appropriate as a teacher? Or inappropriate as a teacher? In may case, it meant so many different things to so many different people. I expand on these measures of appropriateness in the upcoming memoir, to be sure. Yes, I said the word bullshit to students. And yes, I tried to model what it meant to speak and think openly with a group of people. And yes I was wacky, goofy, intellectual, and didn’t teach in ways that many of my administrators or colleagues might expect me to. My soon-to-be-released book captures much of the complexity of my teaching career. Buy it. Read it. Think about it. That’s all I ask. It’s gratifying to openly share something that was so devastating to me. Writing and sharing that book will bring peace, I think.

I still laugh when I think about telling those students that I was defending their democracy. It was a silly joke. What else could I tell them? I was ashamed, and something about my comment felt right. I was punished for not being what people with authority in that school district wanted me to be. And wasn’t democracy about accepting different ways of being? Wasn’t a democratic way of being about cultivating and bringing together difference? And weren’t schools in the United States designed to promote democratic ways of being? Don’t we believe in the freedom to say and do things that might be different from what we expect to be said and done? All the while existing together in time and space?

These are complex questions, to be sure.

I’ve been working on an essay about democratic, patriotic education this year. This paper will come out with the Bank Street journal in a few months. In this essay, I reflect on a project one of my drama classes created. This work happened in the same school that punished me for being me. My students worked together to create a contentious play about a boy coming out of the closet. Why was this contentious work? Not all students in the class were advocates of LGBTQ rights. And there are plenty of people in this country with lots to say about gender and sexuality. My students had plenty to say too, and we spent three months collaborating on the project. The play that emerged from their work was, in some ways, profound. The students used characters from the movie Toy Story and the video game Mortal Kombat to explore how a boy discovered he was gay, repressed those feelings, and came to accept them. It was a really good play. What was most interesting to me was how our group came together. We worked through material that, for all of us, challenged our understandings of what was and what wasn’t, to use the words of the school district, appropriate.

In part, this project seems important because it became okay for all of us in the room to think and feel differently, while still working together. Certainly, I’m a straight man. Still, I validated difference by facilitating the material that students wanted to explore. We connected in solidarity with each other, I think, because we came to care for each other. Drama pedagogy often has this effect on people. Good teaching does too. We come to care about people in schools, if we design a way to facilitate our connectedness. John Dewey wrote about this as the important work of democratic education nearly 100 years ago. Dewey (1916/2011) wrote that democracy can only be achieved through education, and requires a “harmonious readjustment,” through “a modification of emotional and intellectual dispositions,” in order that “a better balance of interests may be effected” (p. 332). Certainly, the emotional and intellectual work of making theatre with people requires us to adopt certain dispositions to serve a balance of the groups’ interests. This is important if we are going to live together regardless of our diverse perspectives on politics, religion, living, etc.

Joel Westerheimer is an educational scholar. He explores patriotism in education. Essentially, he argues that schools in the US teach two kinds of competing versions of patriotism: Authoritarian Patriotism and Democratic Patriotism. For Westheimer (2006), “authoritarian patriotism asks for unquestioning loyalty to a cause determined by a centralized leader or leading group” (p. 610) while democratic patriots care “about the substantive values that underlie American democracy” and are “committed not only to the nation, its symbols, and its political leaders, but also to each of its citizens and their welfare (p. 612). Teaching democratic patriotism, then, means that schools take seriously the belief that there are multiple, competing definitions of what is and what isn’t appropriate. For Westheimer (2006), “to ensure the strength of our democratic institutions and to foster a democratic patriotism that is loyal to the American ideals of equality, compassion, and justice,” (p. 620) people must struggle with contentious ideas in all public arenas, especially in schools. Further, he warns that “trying to forge a national consensus in any other way or on any other grounds (especially through attempts at authoritarian patriotism) is what leads to troubled waters” (p. 620).

Troubled waters? Centralized governments in Europe (and the West, and everywhere else) have used national consensus as an excuse to murder and kill off difference (people who don’t adhere to an appropriate way of being) for thousands of years. This is certainly true of my family. My grandmother Edith, my Jewish bubbe, saw Cossacks put a bullet in her mother’s head when they were fleeing the Ukraine in 1919. Why? Because national consensus was that it wasn’t appropriate to be Jewish. Shit.

My school district didn’t try to murder me. Instead, they tried to fire me from the only profession that mattered to me. They only thing I knew how to do to make a living. The district tried to take away the paycheck that I used to pay my mortgage, feed and clothe myself, and survive. And they wanted me to keep quiet about it. Cover it up. Murder to a certain extent, sure, but not what so many people in this country and around the world face daily because they are different from an arbitrarily defined national consensus, because they are inappropriate.

I took a huge pay cut when I accepted a job in higher education. I did this because my work matters to me. Democracy matters to me. It seems important to me that people learn how to accept difference, rather than kill it off. Consensus frightens me. The universe is so complex, and our place in it so fragile. Certainly, we’d spend our time better if we learned to be peaceful with each other, working to understand the myriad complexities of our beings. Be appropriate? No thank you. I’d rather work and teach and live towards peace.


Dewey, J. (1916/2011). Democracy and education. New York, NY: Simon and Brown. Westheimer, J. (2006). Politics and patriotism in education. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(8) 608-620.