When a young substitute art teacher used an American artist's work, illustrated by posters already on hand in the school's art room, to discuss controversy in art with her 8th grade class last week, she said she had no idea using the word "vagina" would push her lesson into the murky territory of reproductive health. That's a topic strictly forbidden without prior approval according to school policy, the principal later told her, explaining why she was being fired. But the school district says there is more to her dismissal than her use of the word, and that she should have stuck to an approved lesson plan. Allison Wint, 24, learned of her error the following day, April 22, when the principal of Harper Creek Middle School in Michigan showed up to tell her to pack her things and that her services would no longer be needed. "She asked if I could have my things out there in an hour. I left my keys on the desk and drove home and cried a lot," Wint said on Wednesday, breaking into tears again at the recollection. Wint said she first gleaned that she might be in a bit of hot water for the Thursday class when two students arrived late to her class on Friday and told her they had been talking with the principal. But she said she was totally blindsided by the termination when the building prinicpal delivered the news at the end of that day.
"My jaw dropped. I said: 'But I was saying vagina in the context of art history,'" Wint said.
Wint told the principal she was not being vulgar and had avoided use of any euphemisms for the word because she didn't want the lesson to become a joke.
"But she didn't ask to see the lesson, or to hear about what I had said. She just said:' I know our parents would not be OK with that.'"
Wint, who has a degree in art from College for Creative Studies in Detroit, said she had been substitute teaching at the school since January, on an assignment that became long term when a previous teacher retired. She had hoped the job would become a permanent one, she said, and had invested a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the program.
"I cleaned and organised the classroom, labelled things, and I brought in a lot of my own materials," she said. "I had planned to apply for the job."
A statement from the school district said: "Harper Creek Community Schools prides itself on being an outstanding educational institution which consistently operates with purpose, respect, and integrity. We are aware of the allegations that controversial subject matter resulted in a substitute teacher, employed through a third party agency, not being invited back for further service. This is not the case.
"We do not shy away from controversial issues. The District did have concerns that the substitute teacher did not follow district art curriculum. These concerns, in addition to other failures, were the basis for the determination. We work very diligently to ensure that all students, staff and contracted personnel are treated fairly with respect and privacy."
The school's 44-part online Bylaws and Policies page include sections on controversial issues and on reproductive health.
The controversial issue section states that: "The Board recognises that a course of study or certain instructional materials may contain content and/or activities that some parents find objectionable. If after careful, personal review of the program lessons and/or materials, a parent indicates to the school that either content or activities conflicts with his/her religious beliefs or value system, the school will honor a written request for his/her child to be excused from particular classes for specified reasons."
It says nothing about the teacher's responsibilities.
Wint acknowledges that she knows now that she was wrong in not advising administrators ahead of time of the potentially controversial nature of the lesson plan, but said that she had never been required to submit lesson plans.
In fact, when she was hired on, she said, she was told that they were "looking for someone who could work independently."
Nor was she advised, nor did it occur to her, that use of the word vagina would kick her lesson into the category of reproductive health, which the school's website on policy says "shall be defined as that state of an individual's well-being which involves the reproductive system and its physiological, psychological, and endocrinological functions."
She said that as far as she knows, no parent objected to her lesson, nor did any students approach her to complain of feeling offended.
The lesson was about American artist Georgia O'Keeffe. When her paintings of flowers were displayed in the 1920s critics compared the images to female genitalia and claimed they were fraught with Freudian meaning, an interpretation the artist denied.
Wint said she used the word vagina in discussing the controversy surrounding O'Keeffe's work when it was displayed in art galleries and patrons were made uncomfortable by them.
After the lesson, Wint said, a few students did jokingly ask if they would now be allowed to "'draw flowers' and I told them 'No.'" As she announced to students on the first day of her teaching, the class rule for their drawings was "no sex, no drugs, no alcohol, no violence in their art assignments for class," she said.