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Brown: Firing of teacher a lesson in free speech limits

LisParsons Chicago fire captawho had embarked second career as schoolteacher until she was terminated from her substitute teaching positiwith CPS

Lisa Parsons, a Chicago fire captain who had embarked on a second career as a schoolteacher until she was terminated from her substitute teaching position with CPS when she allowed her students to conduct a short protest march. Thursday, January 17, 2013. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 21, 2013 6:48AM

It will be a terrible shame if the best day of Elizabeth Parsons’ fledgling teaching career also turns out to have been her last.

But barring some divine intervention from the powers that be, that’s where it stands.

Last April, Parsons taught such an inspiring lesson on free speech to her class at George Washington Elementary that it got her fired when she allowed the students to stage an impromptu protest march around the school.

Her firing is a lesson in itself about the limits of free speech — a lesson she never got an opportunity to share with her students. If nothing else, today we finish the unit, although I’d prefer to get her job back.

First, how she got here.

Parsons, 49, has a somewhat non-traditional teaching background. She is a captain in the Chicago Fire Department, where she has worked for 26 years, and is assigned to Engine 97 in Hegewisch.

Parsons is from a firefighting family. Her aunt was a firefighter, as is her husband and sister, which as you will see makes her mistake all the more surprising.

A University of Chicago graduate, Parsons went back to school part-time at Chicago State to get a master’s degree in education with plans to eventually retire from the Fire Department and teach.

Chicago Public Schools hired her as a substitute, and Parsons found work at Washington school, 114th and Ewing, “a wonderful place with wonderful kids,” she says, including her own two children.

“I had a wonderful experience there for five months,” Parsons told me wistfully as she explained the “hands-on” teaching philosophy in which she had been trained, her passion evident.

For a second-grade class studying healthy habits, for instance, Parsons engaged the kids in a game of charades. Students took turns pantomiming a healthy habit while the others had to guess what it was.

Parsons was using exactly this hands-on approach with a fifth-grade social studies class April 23 when her career ran aground.

The class was studying civil rights. Parsons wanted to teach them about the 1st Amendment, a subject near to her heart as a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

With Occupy Wall Street and the NATO summit in the news, Parsons decided to concentrate on freedom of speech. She asked her students if there were issues about which they wanted to speak out.

“Right away a hand shot up: How come we don’t have any say in the longer school day?”

It soon became clear the longer school day — then yet to be decided — was a hot topic with students, who viewed it as some sort of punishment.

“I did not steer it in that direction in the slightest bit,” Parsons told me. “They were just brimming with opinions.”

Students listed their concerns. Parsons wrote them on a banner, including one asking Mayor Emanuel to visit the school before deciding the issue. Later, they made protest signs and rehearsed chants.

Her plan was for students to stage a brief demonstration inside the classroom, but when the time came, they asked if they could go out in the hallway instead.

Parsons agreed, telling them first to put on their coats as school was 15 minutes from dismissal. The class marched through the hall carrying its banner while whispering a chant of: “No longer school day.”

“We came to a door. They said: can we go outside?”

And that’s where Parsons made the mistake you wouldn’t expect from a city worker schooled in the self-preservation philosophy of Don’t Make No Waves. She said yes again.

“Now I’m taking a chance,” she realized.

They marched around the school, finishing just as class ended: the students no doubt having learned for a lifetime what it means to have freedom of speech. Parsons was conflicted.

“I knew I’d pushed it,” she said. “I also knew it was the most amazing day of teaching I’d had.”

She was immediately called into the principal’s office and chastised for taking students outside without permission. She apologized and said she wouldn’t do it again. She says he told her he would chalk it up as a learning experience. She thought that was the end of it.

But two weeks later the principal told her he had filed an incident report and that an investigator would be coming to see her.

The charge was “Conduct Unbecoming a Board Employee.” The investigator found “credible evidence” Parsons had taken her students outside chanting “no longer school day.”

A union rep pleaded for a reprimand. The assistant principal at Washington sent a letter praising her teaching and urging that she be returned to work.

On Sept. 19, one day after the conclusion of the teachers strike, CPS sent a letter informing Parsons she was being terminated immediately for having “created an improper disruption.” Her career at CPS was over.

You see, kids, that’s the other thing to know about freedom of speech. If they don’t like what you have to say, they can find a way to get you.

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