Looking Back At 2021: When Educators’ Actions Are Violent

A teacher at the John Wesley North High School in Riverside California was suspended for her mockery of  Indigenous peoples while wearing feathers made of construction paper in an effort to teach a mnemonic device for trigonometry students to remember the functions sine, cosine and tangent.

The teacher jumped around the classroom while making what she believed to be indigenous gestures, screeching “Sohcahtoa” as well as tomahawk chopping, which is racist. Sadly, that doesn’t stop baseball fans, including former President Trump, from doing so at an Atlanta Braves game.

An Indigenous student took a video of what was happening because in his words, he “felt that violence was being committed against him and he had the right to record.”

The videos quickly went viral on social media.

Superintendent of the Riverside Unified School District, Renee Hill said, the teacher’s “words and actions, done during class time, were highly insulting and marginalizing to Native American and Indigenous cultures, among others.” John Wesley North reiterated the Superintendent’s words on the school’s Instagram account.

This isn’t the first time that a white teacher has engaged in racist mockery of people of color. Such mockery is all too common where enslavement is concerned. However rather than engage in commentary regarding why it’s wrong—because it is most certainly wrong and racist—educators, particularly educators of color, should consider how they might address this teacher if they were the principal of the school.

I say educators of color, because the likelihood of experiencing this sort of occurrence is higher because roughly 80% of teachers are white and not all of them are aware of how their “instructional techniques” are violent against Black, Indigenous, Latinx or Asian children.

Assume that after an investigation by the school district, this teacher is reinstated to school and as the instructional leader, it is the role of the principal to ensure that this teacher not only learn from this “lapse in judgment” but also how to properly incorporate culturally relevant pedagogical frames within their teaching philosophy as well as culturally responsive teaching methods within their daily instruction. 

According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, the student population of John Wesley North High School is predominately students of color: white students only make up 9.5% of students. However, Indigenous students make up .2% of students. Because of the extremely low population of Indigenous students at the school, it is plausible to think this teacher was attempting to inject some fun in her class by poking fun at herself, although a major assumption.

However, her display harmed the sensibilities of her students.

To assess how one would go about “mentoring” or “reintegrating” this teacher back into the entire school community, one must honestly assess their feelings about what they saw, assuming they watched the video, as well as get feedback from students. When I saw the video, I was uncomfortable watching it. I wondered why she displayed this behavior and for so long. I wondered whether this was in the lesson plan, but I reasoned that it wasn’t because I’d like to think any administrator worth their paycheck would flag something like this when seen in writing.

How can I restore this teacher to the school community, her colleagues, the students, and parents, while at the same time helping to develop her into a better teacher during the remainder of the school year, at the very least, while not getting caught up in my own thoughts and feelings?

I must also keep in mind that this teacher may feel humiliated for their display, rightfully so maybe. News of their behavior is detailed in national news. Their confidence maybe shaken and while leaving the school maybe the best thing for everyone, a long-term substitute for those students is not.

This isn’t an easy task. But it’s the sort of task any principal could have in front of them. 

What would you do if you were the principal responsible for supporting this teacher and reintegrating into the school community; what should you do?

Every administrator is different; some with multiple years of experience and others with few. Some are white and others are people of color. Myself, I am a Black male educator who has young children in school taught by white teachers. I know what I want for my children’s education and how I’d like for their teachers to regard them. I’ve taught Black and Latinx students and have leaned on both my knowledge of history as well as my experiences as a student to fuel my pedagogy. I speak from that place.

With that said, on our very first meeting, I need to hear from her an acknowledgement that she made a mistake as well as display an understanding on why it was a mistake and why it was offensive. I need her to say and understand that it was a racist thing to do.

If she can do that with contrition, I believe we can move forward.

Next, I would say like a head coach would to a quarterback who just threw an interception, put that day behind you and focus on the days ahead, because now is not the time to indulge in self-pity or double down on one’s ignorance.

From there, we develop a course of study from the year designed to do two things. First, ascertain her level of mastery of both mathematics (trigonometry) knowledge and instruction, and build on both. Second, develop her mathematics instruction to be more culturally responsive in culturally appropriate ways.

Lastly, I would strongly encourage, if not demand, that she apologize to the school community, particularly her colleagues, the class she delivered that display to, anyone she’s offended by way of her behavior, and specifically to the recording students and his parents. This is a restorative measure.

This is all discussed on the first day we meet.

This meeting cannot be about saving one’s job but rather being restored to the school community because if you aren’t properly reconciled and readmitted to the community, there’s no way you can do your job. And if this teacher is fired, may she be fired on whether she is (1) genuine in her efforts to be restored and (2) on her growth as a teacher of Latinx and Black students. Being redeemable in this case has less to do with one’s teaching ability and more to do with one’s human capacity. As to which is matters more for all parties involved concerning this teacher, only time will tell.                        


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