Photo finish

Here’s a bizarre story from South Brunswick, New Jersey: A middle-school teacher got in trouble for posting a photo of President Bush in her classroom — and not discussing her politics with students and parents.

Parents e-mailed an assistant principal accusing (Shiba) Pillai-Diaz of suppressing free speech because the teacher refused to talk to pupils about why the color photo hung in the room.

“Students said, ‘You like George Bush? He’s killed people,’ ” Pillai-Diaz said. “As a rule I don’t talk about my politics in the classroom.”

According to Pillai-Diaz, Assistant Principal Mark Daniels said he had no problem with the photo, which hung next to posters of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. But Daniels told the teacher she should address questions that arose because of the photo.

“He wasn’t giving me the power to direct conversation in my classroom,” said Pillai-Diaz, who regarded the picture just as an image of the current president.

At Back to School Night, a parent asked about the photo, a debate broke out among parents and the assistant principal told the teacher to take down the photo. She walked out.

Here’s more from the New York Post.

When she refused (to take down the photo), the matter was taken up by the principal, Jim Warfel, who Pillai-Diaz said accused her of “causing disruption and hatred” with her “inflammatory politics” and told her to “get out” of the building.

The principal told the Post that Pillai-Diaz had not been fired. No report yet on whether she’s back to work today.

Update: Digger’s Realm reprints the superintendent’s claim that Pillai-Diaz was told to take down the photo because students and parents complained she’d been using class time to promote Republican politics. It’s now a he-said-she-said stand-off, though she’s clearly right in saying the superintendent didn’t want her to talk to the media.

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  1. carol mcl says:

    What on earth is the problem with having a picture of the current president? Isn’t that a legitimate part of the curriculum; part of Social Studies, History, or Current Affairs?

  2. Mad Scientist says:


    Sometimes a photo is just a photo.

  3. And I suppose if there were a picture of Washington up there (as was the case in many schools some years back), some kid would surely bring up his slaveholding habits.

    I don’t know. It’s frustrating and sad. I thought it was perfectly OK to have a picture of the current president up in the classroom – at the very least, it may keep the kids from being those sort of kids who shrug and grunt “Idunnknow” when asked who the President is (and yet, ask them who in Hollywood is dating whom, and you get a whole Hedda Hopper run-down)

  4. It’s just getting absolutely ridiculous as to peoples priorities these days. It’s like ambulance chaser mentality everwhere U look. The system is broke when one outways the many.
    Some of these issues, such as this simple picture of G.W. and like the one in L.A. county about the seal of Los Angeles that has a cross on it, need to be put before the public for vote. In this case about the pic, bring it up at a parent teachers conference or something. Don’t have one parent make a decision that all the other parents have no say-so to.

    Then there are some things that should NEVER be touched. The fore-fathers of this country are spinning in their graves as to how todays so-called americans at every turn try to undermine and corrupt the simpliest of values and ideals.

    The reality of it all is, we have far too many people in this country at present who will chip away at the very foundation of what has held this country up for years. They will surely not be happy until they bring america down. And as such will look at each other like fools for what they have done.

    For people in some cases to come to America for a better life, then complain about symbols that they probably couldn’t even discuss openly in some of their homelands, is absolutely insame to me.

    If some of these entities were interviewed, I suspect that U would find a majority have NEVER sacrified a thing to help preserve the democracy and freedoms we enjoy. But yet at the drop of a dime, or if they are bored they nit-pick at anything and everything, sadly sometimes just to get that 15 minutes of fame!

  5. Good grief. It’s a public school and the President, of whatever party, is the head of state. Don’t they still have pictures of the Queen in classrooms in the UK? There’s no more partisanship involved than that.

    In general, I’d suggest a picture of the governor instead or alongside, since education is not (supposed to be) a federal function but, um, Jim McGreevey? Maybe not. 😉

  6. The picture doesn’t seem to be the real issue. When a student asked about it the teacher refused to talk about “her politics.” Well, if it’s just a picture of the current president, you say that and go on. Nothing political about it. Teachers who can’t handle student questions effectively need some in-service work.

    Of course, it’s a silly dust-up, but one triggered by the teacher’s clumsiness or lack of candor. Hard to tell which from the reports.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Oh, come on, Sullivan. The teacher very appropriately refused to get sucked into a politically charged debate with someone not interested in learning. I had a chemistry teacher who work summers with the canneries.
    Ask him about canneries and relax for the period.
    Since liberalism is a religion, religious positions like the leftist jihad against Bush are not appropriate in the classroom.

  8. Richard Nieporent says:

    Of course she should be fired. A teacher is not allowed to be a Republican.

  9. Well, Wally Two, I’ve been handling student questions in classrooms for over 40 years, and skilled teachers can deflect hostile or disingenuous questions without creating a political crisis–or getting off topic. That’s a basic part of the job.

    And if she knows how to handle these situations and chose to turn it into a political dust-up, then I say let her. Based on Richard’s comment, I guess Republicans feel a need to play victim these days.

  10. Tim from Texas says:

    Yes, John L, you’ve painted the picture well in both posts. Anyone who has taught any length of time would have to concur. Any experienced teacher that allows discussion to stray or get off the lesson’s beat is allowing it because he/she is tired/bored with the lesson or feels the need for a short break from the lesson.

  11. John L.;

    On what evidence do you base your assertion that the teacher turned it in to a political dust up? The “I don’t talk about politics” was what the teacher said to the reporter. There are no quotes about what she said in the classroom. It was the parents who made an issue an issue of it.

  12. Clearly the whole picture isn’t out yet. Someone claiming to be a student has written that the teacher was insulting to students who asked why both parties weren’t represented and this type of thing occurred several times.

  13. I recall from the 80’s a meeting with a French governmental official wherein I asked about the photo of Mitterand on his wall, knowing that their politics differed: he icily informed that it was not a picture of Mitterand, but a picture of the President of the Republic 🙂

  14. Richard Nieporent says:

    John L, clearly sarcasm is lost on you.

  15. You are absolutely right, Richard. I enjoy paradox, I appreciate irony, and I delight in satire. But sarcasm is a cheap form of rhetoric and it goes right by me.

  16. baseballdad says:

    As this story unfolded it baffles me how people across the country have taken this woman’s side of the story at face value and completely dismissed the administration’s response. I live in South Brunswick, NJ, my wife teaches at Crossroads South Middle School, my oldest son was in the Delta Unit that this teacher is part of and my youngest son is currently going to school at Crossroads North Middle School. Not that any of that matters much, but I guess I have a bit more of a close tie to the school than most of you, so I suppose it is relevant.

    1). The issue isn’t the picture, it’s the fact that students in her class have said that she’s openly criticizing them for having opposing views on politics. According to the school district’s official statement, “Recently, the school administration began receiving complaints from students and parents that Ms. Pillai-Diaz was using her position, classroom and teaching time to engage in partisan politics. Students reported that she had made statements which denigrated one party over the other.” Also, according to students she has stated, “It’s a good thing you aren’t old enough to vote” and “you should be ashamed to be a Democrat.” She has said the school administrators are lying, now she’s saying the students are lying. There are a lot of people on the other side of this issue that seem to be lying and she seems to be the only one that anyone believes….

    2). A direct quote from Sylvia Lee, the president of the South Brunswick Education Association (teacher’s union). “She was never relieved of her duties and there are expectations that she will be in tomorrow,” Lee said. (from the Newark Star-Ledger, Tuesday, Oct. 5th). In other words, the Union isn’t standing behind her (it’s important to note that apparently because she is a first year teacher she isn’t represented by the union, but I can’t confirm that, I seem to recall my wife paying union dues from day one, but I just don’t know). Instead of showing up for work, she hired an attorney because the school district put out what she calls a “press release that smeared her.” Of course, it was OK for her to go to the New York Times, Good Morning America, the O’Reilly Report and who knows where else she’ll show up and say that she was fired, when she never was, but it’s not OK for the school district to put their side of the story out. From the beginning she stated that she was fired and that she was told to turn over her keys. I don’t see her saying anything about the keys in any of the recent interviews, did she forget that part?

    3). During the first meeting on Friday, she was not asked for her keys, she was not fired, principals do not have hiring or firing authority in the South Brunswick School district (nor in any that I’ve been part of and I’ve been a member of a school board in the past).

    4). This is her third school district in six years of teaching, why is she moving around so much? Has anyone called the school she worked for in Brooklyn to find out why she left, how about Tenafly, NJ? I wonder if this is a pattern…

    Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to other teachers in her unit to see what they think of this situation, but my wife has stated that they have some pretty strong opinions of her and what’s going on and from what I understand there are very few, if any, teachers in the building that back her on this. That says a lot to me because as we all know, teachers typically stick together, but it doesn’t seem like it on this one.

    The bigger issue that I’m upset about is things like people sending emails to my wife, who has absolutely nothing to do with this situation saying things like, ‘You people should be ashamed of yourselves…’ So because my wife, who’s taught in this district for nine years, happens to be in the same building with this woman, she should be ashamed of where she works and what she’s done for her students for the past nine years? Are you kidding me? I’m also amazed that people who have no idea of this situation are comparing this to communism, calling for people to send letters and emails to the administrators, call the school, etc., without the whole story. I spoke to the woman that answers the phone at school today, a wonderful woman that is always cheerful on the phone when I call to speak to my wife, can you imagine what she’s had to go through? Here’s a woman that comes to work every day, goes about her business, is an incredible ‘voice’ to our award winning school and she’s being harassed by people all over the country because they think they know what went on in our school. Put yourself in her shoes for two minutes, what did she do to offend anyone? Why should she have to put up with these calls? And please, don’t tell me it’s the price you pay or anything else ridiculous like that, I assure you, she doesn’t get paid enough money to put up with the stuff she’s had to put up with.

    The best quote I’ve heard through this entire thing is, “We are one lie away from being ruined.” I’m not going to mention who said it, but it was said a long time before this, unfortunately for him, it’s entirely possible that it might come true for him, which is sad, because he’s a one of the good guys…

  17. Andy Freeman says:

    > The issue isn’t the picture, it’s the fact that students in her class have said that she’s openly criticizing them for having opposing views on politics.

    I’m sure that the same issue arises for teachers who espouse “progressive” politics.

  18. Thank you, baseballdad, for that detailed, thoughtful posting on this situation. You’ve given texture to my own gut response that this teacher was simply not handling her class well.

    The media machine and the blog machine rarely ask the ethical questions first. When they find something that looks like red meat, they leap at it, fitting it into the narratives they are already determined to tell. Increasingly, we are a culture of assertions: data, nuance, complexity are too much trouble when there’s a slogan to espouse.

    The kids and teachers at that school did not earn this kind of grief. Again, thanks for helping us see the consequence of misplaced righteousness.


  1. Hube's Cube says:

    Hey — answer our questions, dammit!

    Shiba Pillai-Diaz, a middle school teacher in South Brunswick, New Jersey, hung a photo of President Bush in her classroom. But she refused to address students’ questions about it. Parents e-mailed an assistant principal accusing (Shiba) Pillai-Diaz of…

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    I’ve been following this one for a few days now. My desire not to blog over the weekend was a sincere one, however, so I had to wait for the first available opportunity today to let fly on this story. Way Off Bass comments and links to Joanne Jacobs….

  3. Hate pictures

    [source, source] [Shiba] Pillai-Diaz, 33, a volunteer with the Bush campaign and an English teacher, has had a publicity picture…

  4. I question the timing…

    Middle School Teacher In Trouble Over Presidential Photo? Shiba Pillai-Diaz, a teacher at Crossroads South Middle School in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, put a picture of George Laura Bush on a bulletin board in her classroom next to pictures of…