This March, brainstorming was underway for the spring concert recital at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha. The students and staff were excited for the performance, which had been canceled since the pandemic. The school’s music instructor discussed song choices with the other teachers. Louis Armstrong’s classic “What a Wonderful World” was in. “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles was a logical choice. Then the music teacher brought up another idea – how about singing “Rainbowland,” a 2017 song by pop icons Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton? The song lyrics imagine a “paradise, where we’re free to be exactly who we are.”
Sunshine, rainbows, a wonderful world – it all seemed like a great way to celebrate spring. And who doesn’t like Dolly Parton?
The teachers, first-grade dual-language educator Melissa Tempel among them, agreed the lineup of song choices was a good one. “Maestra Melissa,” as her students know her, has been a teacher for 24 years. It runs in the family – Tempel’s parents are both retired teachers, her aunt and sister both teach, too.
Tempel did an internship at Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School while she was still a high schooler, went on to get a degree in education, a master’s in cultural foundations of education and has a recently renewed National Board Certification. She also was co-editor on a book titled Pencils Down, about the repercussions of standardized testing, and one of the co-editors of Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality, an award-winning book about inclusion and representation in schools.
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After years of working at Milwaukee Public Schools, Tempel found that the bilingual program she was part of was being cut, so she found a job working for the dual-language program at Waukesha School District.
The students began to practice “Rainbowland.” But concern about the school district’s aggressive new “Controversial Issues in the Classroom” policy led one teacher to run it by the school principal, who passed it on to the district office.
Word came back down: no.
Although the reasoning was not spelled out at the time, Superintendent Jim Sebert later told Fox 6 that the song violated a district policy against materials addressing “controversial issues” in the classroom. “It was determined that ‘Rainbowland’ could be perceived as controversial,” he told the station. “Rainbowland” shares the colors of the LGBTQ Pride flag.
“We had already started practicing the song. We didn’t expect there would be any issue because there’s nothing wrong with it,” Tempel says. “When I found out it was a no, I finished my day and went home, where I tweeted about it. In my mind I wasn’t complaining because I was at home on my own time – I was stating something I knew people were going to be interested in hearing.”
Tempel’s March 21 tweet reads: “My first graders were so excited to sing Rainbowland for our spring concert, but it has been vetoed by our administration. When will it end?”
FRUSTRATIONS AND CONCERNS about the evolving “controversial issues” policy for Waukesha middle and high schools have been growing for months from a community of parents and teachers, so much so that they’ve formed the Alliance for Education in Waukesha to address these issues.
First, the school district came for signs that said read “anti-racist classroom” or “Black Lives Matter.” Sebert singled out those messages and symbols in a 2021 memo to teachers.
“They added ‘Thin Blue Line’ in there to make it seem equal or balanced,” Tempel says, referring to the pro-police symbol. “They started taking down rainbow signs after that and it just progressed quickly this year to where staff can’t even wear rainbows,” Tempel says, noting that last year, a teacher was disciplined for refusing to remove a rainbow flag from class. As new policy was put in place that students must use the names and pronouns on their official record, Tempel says, students who identify as trans were afraid for their safety.
“We know that there’s research to back up that if students see supportive signage at school and can identify teachers and staff that are supportive of them and care about those marginalized groups, that they have much higher success rates at school,” Tempel says. “They have better mental health; they report less depression and suicide attempts.” Tempel says that’s why signs and symbols, now banned, are so important.
TEMPEL’S TWEET WENT VIRAL over spring break. Local media outlets picked up the story and as word spread, Miley Cyrus’s charity Happy Hippie Foundation retweeted “to the inspiring first grade students at Heyer Elementary, keep being YOU.”
“Yes, because all rainbows are gay,” Stephen Colbert cracked in his monologue on The Late Show. “That’s why the school vending machine only serves grey Skittles with the slogan ‘taste the hetero.”
When Tempel returned to school the Monday after spring break, she discovered that principal Mark Schneider, the deputy superintendent, a school board member and the head of HR were waiting at the front doors for her. The police were also there to monitor the situation. They told her she wasn’t allowed to go to her classroom and that she was being placed on administrative leave. She was told not to discuss the matter with staff, students or parents.
“I was blindsided,” Tempel says. “I knew I would probably be disciplined just because of how the climate is. But I didn’t expect that they were going to remove me from my classroom. Parents … weren’t even told I was gone. Nobody knew where I was.”
Tempel says that she thought she might be suspended for a couple days, but time stretched on for over a month and a half, and she says she was replaced with a substitute who doesn’t have lesson plans. The worst part for her: the separation from her students.
One of her former student’s parents, Melissa Ratzburg, is emphatic that the feeling goes both ways. In an impassioned letter to Sebert and other school officials, Ratzburg says Tempel was a favorite teacher of her daughter, who had her class last year. After witnessing the tragic 2021 Christmas parade attack firsthand, in which six people died and over 60 were injured by a rampaging SUV driver, Ratzburg says Tempel was instrumental in helping her daughter cope with the aftermath. She recommended a therapist, helped create a “happy book of images to look at when she was sad and an opportunity to talk to her whenever she needed to,” Ratzburg wrote. “If it wasn’t for Ms. Melissa last year, I truly don’t know how we would have survived the days, weeks, and months following the parade.”
WHEN ASKED TO COMMENT for this article, Sebert declined: “As this is an ongoing personnel matter, we are unable to comment at this time.”
However, in a letter to Tempel dated May 15, Sebert wrote to her that “the manner in which you chose to express your disagreement with the district’s decision over the song was inappropriate, disruptive and in violation of various district policies.” As such, Sebert wrote, “I will be recommending to the Board of Education that your employment with the School District of Waukesha be terminated.”
Tempel had until Friday to request a hearing before the School Board and has decided to proceed with a board hearing. She’s unsure what will come next, but says it’ll probably involve legal action.
“I feel strongly that this is an attack on my First Amendment rights, and I’m certain it is going to deter other educators from exercising their own rights,” Tempel says.
A fundraiser to help cover her lost health insurance, bills and legal fees passed its initial goals and as of this writing is approaching a stretch goal of $30,000. But that won’t replace what she really wants.
“I just want to be a teacher,” Tempel says. “I don’t have any aspirations to be anything else.”
Ratzburg is counting her limited blessings. “Selfishly, I’m thankful I don’t have kids in that class right now, but I did last year, and I will next year,” she says, referring to her second-grade daughter and son in kindergarten. “Anyone that amazing should just realize that they are better than that and go somewhere that will appreciate her. But it makes me sad to say that, too.”
Ratzburg says her daughter stops by Tempel’s classroom almost every day, gazing in, hoping to see that her favorite teacher has returned.
“She’s been very distraught. Every morning she goes to see if Melissa is there and every day, she comes home to report she’s not,” Ratzburg says. “She wants to know when she’s coming back.”
That doesn’t seem likely to happen.