We speak with first-grade teacher Melissa Tempel, who was fired last week for a viral tweet in which she criticized the Waukesha, Wisconsin, board of education’s decision to ban her students from singing “Rainbowland” during a school concert earlier this year. The hit song about inclusivity by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton includes the lyrics “We are rainbows, me and you / Every color, every hue / Let’s shine on through.” The school district said Tempel’s firing was not about the song but about the way she protested the decision. Tempel says the Waukesha school district’s so-called controversial content policy, which bans discussions about race, LGBTQ identity and other speech considered political, is “disturbing” and “dangerous.”
AMY GOODMAN: “Rainbowland” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
We end today’s show with a first-grade teacher who was fired after she protested her school district’s decision to ban students from singing the hit song “Rainbowland” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton during their school’s spring concert. Officials said they were concerned the song was not, quote, “appropriate for the age and maturity level of the students.” The song supports inclusion, with lyrics like “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in paradise / Where we’re free to be exactly who we are.”
The Waukesha, Wisconsin, board of education voted to fire Melissa Tempel after she complained in a tweet, that went viral, that school officials decided “Rainbowland” was too controversial for students to perform.
Superintendent Jim Sebert told Democracy Now! Tuesday in a statement, quote, “The Board found Ms. Tempel did not follow Board Policy on multiple accounts, which resulted in considerable disruption to the District. The decision of the Board was not about any particular song that may or may not have been selected for a concert, but the process by which an employee goes about expressing their concerns in a productive manner in accordance with Board Policy,” unquote.
This comes as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports a group of parents, students, teachers and members of the public are calling for the state’s Justice Department to investigate claims of repeated discriminatory behavior toward LGBTQIA+ students and staff by the Waukesha superintendent.
For more, we’re joined by Melissa Tempel in Milwaukee.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. We just have about five minutes, Melissa, but I wanted to ask you if you can talk about what “Rainbowland” meant to the students, why they wanted to sing it, and why they were stopped from singing it.
MELISSA TEMPEL: Good morning. It’s really, really nice to be here. I am just so honored that I have a chance to talk about this with you, Amy.
So, my students heard about this song. The music teacher introduced it to them. They had practiced it a few times with me. And in our daily morning meetings, the person of the day gets to lead the meeting, and then they get to pick a song. And so, “Rainbowland” was the song that they wanted to pick, just the one or two times before I was put on leave.
When I was told that we couldn’t sing it anymore, I wanted to just make a point that when I tweeted about it, my students were obviously devastated. They love the song. They had gotten used to it. But I didn’t view what I was doing as making a complaint. You know, the song had already been taken out of the program. The music teacher was conducting the program. It wasn’t part of my specific job duties.
But in addition to that, it was really horrifying to know that a school district’s — or, I’m sorry, not nondiscrimination — our controversial content policy would go so far as to say that we couldn’t sing “Rainbowland.” So, that’s why I knew people were going to be interested to find out that that had happened. And I knew that it was going to create a lot of public discussion, and I think that’s exactly what it did.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what was the response, Melissa? Could you elaborate on that?
MELISSA TEMPEL: So, in response to my tweet from the public?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Correct.
MELISSA TEMPEL: So, overwhelmingly surprise, shock. People were saying, “What’s wrong with the lyrics? What’s wrong with the song?” I mean, if I had a dollar for every time somebody said, “Well, I listened to the song, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it or why they didn’t like it.” You know, it’s a really wholesome song. I equate it to any other song that we would sing. In fact, I would say “Rainbowland” is, ultimately, even more of a first-grade song than something like “Rainbow Connection,” because the message is just such a great piece and, like, you know, coming together song about acceptance.
AMY GOODMAN: Has Miley Cyrus or Dolly Parton responded to the kids not being allowed to sing “Rainbowland” in their concert?
MELISSA TEMPEL: Both of those artists have library or book-type foundations, where they donate books. And Miley Cyrus did mention my students and make a donation to her foundation. But I haven’t heard anything specifically from either one of them, no.
I also wanted to mention, as well, that — you asked me about the response. People have asked me, “Well, how many parents complained? And what did they say?” And I heard zero complaints from parents. Nobody has said to me that they wanted me to be gone. Nobody has said to me they didn’t like the song. Nobody has said to me that they thought it was inappropriate for their kids. I had 24 students, and zero complained to me or to anyone that I heard — any administrators that I know of.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Melissa, just finally, I mean, have other teachers in your school district been similarly attacked?
MELISSA TEMPEL: Yes, I believe so. But their stories haven’t gone public yet, and so — but it is really dangerous. I think that these policies, like the controversial content policy, are expanding. And we’re seeing that places like Wisconsin, where they haven’t really been affecting our public education system, are now being affected. So, teachers aren’t allowed to wear rainbows in my district. We’re not allowed to have signs that say “antiracist classroom.” We’re not allowed to have anything that could be deemed controversial, although the controversial content policy does not explain what “controversial” means, other than something that could be seen as political.
So, we’re seeing the same things that are happening in Florida and other places, where we’ve all seen and been really horrified, and those things are happening in Wisconsin now, as well. And I think it’s really important that people realize that school boards and school board policies are really, really important, and we can’t let groups like Moms for Liberty come in and take over and pretend that they’re these grassroots, homegrown groups, when they’re really well-funded political organizations designed to take down our public schools.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you’ve been a teacher for 23 years. You won the outstanding teacher award from the Wisconsin Badgers. You recently renewed your National Board Certification because of your commitment to the profession. We have 10 seconds, but there’s a call for the Wisconsin Justice Department to investigate what’s going on and the superintendent?
MELISSA TEMPEL: I don’t really know a lot about that, because the parents in Waukesha and the Parents Alliance has been so amazing. I think that they’re doing exactly what parents should be doing all over the country, and that is getting involved in the education of their children. And I really commend them for that.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Melissa Tempel, first-grade teacher at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha, Wisconsin, fired after publicly criticizing her school district over its decision to censor the song “Rainbowland” from a school concert, the choice of song by the students. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.