Living in a rainbowland
Where skies are blue and things are grand.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in paradise?
Where we’re free to be exactly who we are.
Those are some of the lyrics in the Dolly Parton–Miley Cyrus song “Rainbowland.” It’s a lovely song about inclusion. When the music teacher at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha, Wisconsin, shared it with first grade teacher Melissa Tempel and her grade-level teammates, they fell in love with it. It seemed like a perfect fit for the other spring concert song choices—“It’s a Small World,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “De Colores.” So she was shocked and angry when the district decided to pull the song based on “whether it was appropriate for the age and maturity level of the students” and because of “social or personal impacts.”
Melissa took to Twitter and is now facing termination for allegedly violating board policy. I spoke to Melissa (Disclosure: I met Melissa eight years ago at a facilitator training program for Welcoming Schools, a project of the Human Rights Campaign), and here’s what she had to say.
What made you decide to speak out in the first place?
This is about more than a song. People in our community have been concerned about discriminatory policies in the district for a while now. The equity work and diversity teams have been dismantled. New policies restrict what staff can do, wear, and say. For example, teachers are no longer allowed to wear rainbow lanyards, post Safe Space signs, or label their classrooms as anti-racist.
When the district banned the song, I knew the community would be concerned about it. I exercised my First Amendment right to share something of public concern. When the new policies were enacted, students gave personal accounts of how important safe spaces and supportive teachers are, and the school board ignored their pleas. We weren’t getting anywhere. I couldn’t not do anything. It’s not who I am.
But I don’t harbor any hard feelings toward teachers who don’t speak out. I know it’s difficult to take a public stance and, obviously, this is bad for your career. I’m willing to put myself out there because I have years of experience as a teacher and advocate for LGBTQ+ youth. I’m really disappointed in administration, though, because they haven’t stepped up for our students.
Walk us through the moment you learned you were going to be fired.
Honestly, it didn’t come as a surprise. After spring break, they immediately put me on leave. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my kids. I was told that my substitute didn’t get any direction, and I was getting reports of her crying and students acting out. They had me out of the classroom for a month and a half. At that point, I knew that they weren’t looking out for for any student’s best interests. I kind of resigned myself to not being back.
What has been the response from the school community?
So many people are incensed by what’s happened. I’ve received numerous letters of support, and I have parents texting me every day telling me how sad their kids are and how horrible this is. I have not had one person from my school community say that they think what I did was wrong or that they don’t want me back. It feels like it was a good move to bring this to everyone’s attention because it will eventually help the kids.
What will you do now?
I definitely want to continue teaching, and I want to teach first grade. I just want to be in my classroom and have my community and continue doing what I love to do. The longer I’m out, the more I just want to be back. I’ve worked really hard to form positive relationships, and I don’t want to have to start over again. I knew speaking up for this kind of stuff could be an issue. I just didn’t think the response from the district would be so swift and severe.
What else do you want teachers to know?
I want teachers to know that this isn’t a matter that only affects kids. There are so many teachers who are members of the LGBTQ+ community who feel unwelcome in schools. I think sometimes they get lost in these policies and directives. They’re walking into a situation where people are saying “We don’t want you here.” As allies, we have to speak up for our colleagues as well.
What has been the most surprising part of all of this?
It surprised me that the academics and social and emotional well-being of the first graders weren’t a priority in all this. Students shouldn’t suffer from adult conflict. I thought that was common sense.
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Plus, check out This Texas School District Canceled a Theater Field Trip After Finding Out Some Actors Play Male and Female Roles.