May 11, 2007
Michael Baker worked for the Lincoln, Nebraska, public schools since 1981.
But after he showed the documentary "Baghdad ER" to his geography class on April 18, his career there was over.
This, despite the fact that in 2006, Baker was one of only 47 teachers in the state to win National Board Certification, according to the Lincoln Journal Star, which broke the story.
Baker tells The Progressive that he cannot talk freely about what happened because he reached an agreement with the school district. Part of that agreement prohibits him from saying anything "disparaging" about it, he says.
But he does acknowledge this: "The morning after I showed the documentary 'Baghdad ER' was my last day in class."
HBO, which aired "Baghdad ER," describes it this way: "2-time Emmy Award winner producer/director Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill capture the humanity, hardships and heroism of the US Military and medical personnel of the 86th Combat Support Hospital, the Army's premier medical facility in Iraq. Sometimes graphic in its depiction of combat-related wounds, Baghdad ER offers an unflinching and honest account of the realities of war."
Even the conservative magazine the National Review gave it a good review, calling it "refreshingly earnest."
Baker waxes philosophical about his departure. "Teachers that teach against the grain often have difficulties with school systems," he says. "What has happened to me is certainly not unusual."
But his supporters are not so circumspect.
Michael Anderson taught with Baker at East High School for eight years. Now he's the director of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville.
"It's outrageous," Anderson says of Baker's departure.
"I believe there were students who went home and were troubled about what they saw, and there were parental phone calls to the principal, and the next day she walked him out the door because she didn't have the courage to stand up to the complainers," he says. Anderson says Baker was first suspended for ten days with pay and then "got the lawyers involved."
Anderson thinks that the administrators seized on this incident to get rid of Baker.
"What's obvious is that the showing of 'Baghdad ER' was only an excuse to remove a progressive educator from the classroom," Anderson charges.
Baker has clashed with administrators before. In 2005, they objected to his innovative approach to teaching history, which was to start at the present and work backwards, an approach he'd been using for four years.
But then, the school district forbade him from teaching that way any longer. The school's consultant said it was "not logical, does not contribute to effective teaching or monitoring of progress, and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests, according to a paper on the subject by Professor Nancy Patterson of Bowling Green. Baker appealed but lost, and was eventually "prohibited from teaching U.S. history," Patterson writes.
"I think they wanted me to become so disenchanted that I would leave," he told Patterson in an interview in December, according to her paper, entitled "History That Is Made in Our Time: The Backwards Tale of One History Teacher's Experiences with Reverse Chronology." He added in that interview: "They are trying to make my life miserable, and they are succeeding."
Nancy Biggs, the assistant superintendent for human resources at Lincoln Public Schools, gives her account of why Baker no longer teaches there.
"He asked to retire, and we accepted his request to retire," she tells The Progressive.
Was he suspended for ten days?
"I couldn't comment on anything related to his employment status," she says.
Was he disciplined for showing "Baghdad ER"?
"I can't confirm that, but I have read that in the paper."
Any other comments?
"I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be evasive, well, I am being evasive, and I need to be, so I don't violate confidential personnel information."
Baker's departure has caused controversy in Lincoln. The Journal Star newspaper has posted at least 132 e-mail comments.
Most defended him.
"This is truly a tragedy," wrote Kendra Kazebeer. "I am a Lincoln East graduate from the year 2003. . . . Mr. Baker was one of my favorite teachers. . . . I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking about the world and myself, and for once in school I wasn't pushed to conform. I was valued because of my unique opinions. . . . Mr. Baker, you were wonderful, and thank you for everything you taught me about the world and myself. I would not be the person I am today had it not been for your influence and the motivation you gave me to never give up. Because of you, I make a difference."
"I am a former student of Mr. Baker," Jared D wrote. "We hardly ever agreed on political issues, but I have to tell you, being in his class benefited me in ways that I never thought were possible. He does not deserve to be treated like this!!! He is a very kind man who wants nothing but the best for his students."
Of course, there were some negative comments, too.
"Baker is an anti-American socialist who has been using his classes to attack capitalism and democracy," an e-mailer named Craig wrote. "There are many students who were unhappy with him. . . . This is a teacher who should have been fired a long time ago. This is a good day for Lincoln."
Baker sounds dejected. "I really enjoyed engaging high school students in critical dialogue," he says. "I found that very satisfying. A lot of kids are in classrooms where they are lectured to. I'd much rather engage in critical thought and problem-solving, and I've always had classrooms where we show respect for each other."
He expects to continue teaching at Southeast Community College and at the University of Nebraska, where he gives a course on the history of American public education.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.
(c) 2007 The Progressive
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