Civics Disobedience

A teacher at Thornton High School gets a lesson in social studies.

Andrew Hartman is only in his second year of teaching, and already he's out of a job.

The teacher's problems began last November, when students in the Thornton High School chapter of Students 4 Justice began distributing anti-military literature during a visit from armed-forces recruiters. It was the students' idea to protest the weekly presence of the recruiters, but it was Hartman who helped them make a list of ten reasons not to join, including: "The U.S. Military protects the interests of corporations overseas, thus increasing the gap between rich and poor" and "The military recruits poor minorities."

The club's twenty members set up a stand where they sold Zapatista organic coffee and handed out copies of the top-ten list as well as an essay one student wrote about the true meaning of anarchy.

Andrew Hartman won't be teaching at Thornton High next year.
Brett Amole
Andrew Hartman won't be teaching at Thornton High next year.

A couple of teachers who are Vietnam War veterans saw the list and complained to school administrators. That day, Hartman was called into an assistant principal's office, where he defended the students' right to protest. Although the school allowed the students to continue selling coffee, administrators banned them from dispersing any more literature.

Hartman, who had introduced the club to Thornton High in September, wasn't happy, but he went on teaching his ninth-grade American history class with the same zeal. When his students were learning about labor conditions, for instance, he had them do a weeklong project on sweatshops; they watched movies, participated in debates and made anti-sweatshop posters that they hung in Hartman's classroom.

At the same time, he encouraged the kids in Students 4 Justice to fight for social causes. They are currently working on an ambitious project to adopt a sweatshop worker in Honduras. The students want to raise enough money to take the place of whatever wages the young worker would earn toiling at a sewing machine so that she can go back to school.

On February 9, Hartman sat for his annual evaluation. Assistant principal Julie Lambert, who had observed his classes several times, provided "nothing but positive feedback" at first, he says. But then she told him she'd received an anonymous complaint from a teacher who didn't like his classroom decorations. In addition to the anti-sweatshop posters, Hartman's walls were covered with images of Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Malcolm X and the band Rage Against the Machine. Then Lambert asked Hartman where he sees himself teaching next year. "I see myself teaching here," he answered. But Lambert told him that the school had decided not to renew his contract, Hartman says. "She said that I don't fit into their plans for the school. No one has told me what those plans are. I just don't fit into them."

The following Monday, Hartman went to see principal Kerry Moynihan, who confirmed that he wouldn't be welcome back next fall (teachers who have worked fewer than three years must have their contracts renewed annually). "She said I was using the classroom to promote my political agenda," he says. "If teaching for social justice is an agenda, then I am guilty. I was accused of trying to push my socialist views on children. If teaching that human values are more important than profits is considered socialist, then I am guilty. I was accused of teaching the facts with a bias and not letting the students think for themselves, as if 'facts' exist in a vacuum, with no room for interpretation. If teaching that African-American males are 7 percent of the American population yet make up almost 50 percent of the prison population is not letting students think for themselves, then I am guilty."

Administrators at Thornton High deferred comment to Adams County School District 12 spokeswoman Susan Carlson, who said she couldn't talk about Hartman's termination because it's a personnel matter. "In general terms, what I can say is that the person held accountable for teaching and learning at each school is the principal, who is a trained evaluator. If an individual has not been rehired, it's because a trained evaluator has made a decision about the quality of the instructor's performance and whether he meets the goals and objectives of the school," Carlson says.

According to Carlson, those goals include: ensuring educational success for students; being responsive to the students, parents and the community; and honoring a diversity of individuals and opinions. Teachers are evaluated on four standards: planning and organization, instruction, professional growth and responsibility, and professional relationships, she adds.

Hartman is convinced that the quality of his teaching is not the issue; he says he has students who have stayed in school because he has made his lessons exciting and applicable to their lives. "I don't know why I pose such a threat, but that's how I'm viewed -- as a loose cannon, a renegade, as if there's no one else out there like me," he says.

There are other teachers like Hartman, and they don't mix well with authority, either. Alan Chimento, a popular West High School history teacher, was forced out after he accompanied students in May 1999 to a Denver Board of Education meeting where they delivered a presentation on the poor conditions at their school, including a shortage of textbooks, a lack of seats in the cafeteria and outdated computers ("Lesson Unplanned," May 13, 1999). Before that, Chimento had long encouraged students to speak out against injustice, and he often spoke his own mind.

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