While teachers at Ottawa Township High School are behind the building trades program, they are, as a group, walking a fine line on the student protests.
Teacher Wendy Sheridan, president of the OTHS Education Association, said the union supports fellow member Dave Keely, the building trades instructor dismissed effective May 30, and the building trades program.
"We also recognize that by well-established law, administration is charged with maintaining the learning environment in any school," she told The Times.
"Teachers are charged with doing this in their own classrooms as well," she said. "In fact, we are the primary caretakers for maintaining that environment, in the most literal sense.
"This doesn't mean teachers are unsympathetic to how students might feel. However, in a school setting, the right to free expression has to be balanced with legal requirements and that has been upheld repeatedly by the courts."
At Monday's Board of Education meeting, Sheridan was among the many teachers as well as students, parents and supporters of the building trades program.
Before speaking she presented the board with a petition signed by 353 students.
Sheridan was philosophical about the value of the building trades program as a setting for students to discover more about themselves and in some cases to become self-supporting.
She said it is part of a teacher's job to notice if a student has a unique talent.
"Students often have no idea what their own unique talents might be or that that talent might have potential for their futures," she said. "Along with that is being able to offer unique experiences in which a student can apply those talents. Putting students in different settings besides regular classrooms is often the key for them to discover the abilities they never knew they had.
"Not every student is meant to go to college," she said. "Offering those students situations in which they can discover their strengths will benefit not only them but also the community."
Sheridan noted OTHS and many schools in Illinois face serious economic challenges.
"Very difficult choices lie ahead and the communities we serve also have to understand what is involved in those choices," she said. "Many who are quick to criticize the board or administration or teachers are often unaware of what we actually do or how difficult it is to satisfy many competing groups — not to mention complying with various laws and mandates at the local, state and federal levels.
"Public education is not a simple task," she said. "All of us here are trying to do the very best job we can under some very difficult situations."
Sheridan told The Times there are other ways for students and the community to convey their feelings about the Board of Education decision.
"One is to attend school board meetings and become more involved with, and informed about, how a school is actually run. Ultimately, the community decides how tax money should be spent; that's why it elects school board members, to be prudent stewards of their tax dollars.
"More public involvement with local government such as school board meetings will promote well-informed decisions based on facts and reason and possibly prevent some high-emotion situations," she said.
Sheridan said the primary concern of teachers' union is representing and supporting its members — as they do Keely and his program.
"We cannot control what the people of the Ottawa High School district think," she said. "But we do feel they should become as well-informed as they possibly can in order to provide the education they want for their children — because ultimately they are the ones who decide what they want this school to be."