The Color Of Teachers’ Experiences And Opinions

One of my best friends, who is an educator, shared a tweet once of a teacher mentioning a colleague who was absent from work because she was poisoned, allegedly by a student. The student allegedly added hand sanitizer to the teacher’s bottle of water and that teacher drank it. What really caught my attention was the hashtags at the end of the tweet: #zeroconsequences #whyteachersarequitting.

My immediate thought was that in order to have an opinion, or at least for me to have an opinion, more context was needed. By context, I mean answers concerning the student’s grade level, age, if they have an IEP or 504, is there a record of behavioral problems, what’s the relationship with the teacher, are there any mental health concerns and etc.

… and if the student does have any special needs (mentioned in these questions), are those needs being met?

What needed to happen after the incident was for the parent to be called for the student to go home for the remainder of the day. Also, that teacher should see the school nurse and take direction from them. Next, an investigation into the incident should take The principal should already be aware of the board policy / district guidelines for any incident concerning harm performed on a teacher from a student and follow those procedures. Instruction from the policy guidelines, as well as counsel from the school district, should inform the appropriate action upon the investigation’s conclusion.

That’s my immediate reaction.

I then read the comments. Everyone, for the most part, wanted blood; they wanted that teacher to press charges. One person even said the child should be made an example of while another called what happened attempted murder.

To be clear, what happened was unacceptable and no, a recess detention isn’t the proper disciplinary action – not in isolation of other action—pending an investigation. But if we’re talking recess, that means the student is likely an elementary school student; middle school at the oldest. I understand the seriousness of what happened; this teacher was breastfeeding and she was concerned about poisoning her child.

However, science has well established that children aren’t quite aware of the severity of their decisions due to their continuing developing brain. Assuming the student was in eighth-grade (early teenager), because the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do; the amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behavior.

Putting hand sanitizer in a teacher’s water bottle seems mean spirited; so does sending a child into the criminal justice system for it.

Unfortunately, in these United States of America, punitive measures to “correct” undesired behaviors are the status quo. The U.S. incarcerates it citizens more than anywhere in the world, and has the highest rate of incarcerating children in the world. Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s highest youth incarceration rates. Black children are disproportionately sentenced to juvenile facilities and are tried as adults—as young as age nine.

Much of that has to do with Black children being perceived as older, due to racist ideas, informed by systemically racist policies relating to how Black children are educated. Teaching and learning isn’t crafted with Black children in mind, nor is staffing faculty, and singling Black students out as disciplinary problems facilitate behaviors one comes to “expect” from Black children. I suppose that’s why there are  incidents of teachers harming Black children—as recent as February this year—and not the other way around?

… and there was discussion about arming teachers. No thank you.

I spoke to another friend who is an educator and they shared a teacher response from an anonymous survey regarding professional development needs, with that response asking for CPR training, teacher self-defense training and education law training. Teacher self-defense training? I immediately went back to that hashtag from that tweet: #whyteachersarequitting… Sure, are the stats alarming around teacher departures, potential and actual? Of course, and is there a teacher shortage? Yes.

But consider the statistics.

Where my friend works, the vast majority of teachers are white. I suspect similar for the school where the teacher drank hand sanitizer. But the truth is that Black teachers are more likely to leave the classroom than white teachers, and it’s not because they feel threatened by their students. It’s because they feel threatened by white people in their schools. Between the invisible tax and CRT laws, Black teachers are concerned that they’ll be out of a job; a job that we know we can be effective for children, Black children specifically.

Tweeting about a problem or making a suggestion on a survey isn’t enough to address the issue in education, particularly when failing to account for the dynamics of power, privilege and context. Because the truth is that many Black children (and white children) are being poisoned everyday by the curriculum they digest and the experiences they have.

… and if teachers need self-defense training, so do the students.

I’m not saying the student who allegedly poured the hand sanitizer shouldn’t receive a consequence commiserate with their action. Nor do I think teachers knowing the law and understanding what constitutes self-defense is a bad thing. But these seem like reactionary measures rather than being proactive.

Not to sound corny, but building relationships, trust with students and families, having an understanding about the community where you teach and how community factors in to student experiences and the priorities of families matters when establishing a culture that makes teaching and learning not only possible but empowering is the goal.

Students with social emotional and behavioral needs should be addressed properly and given the help necessary for them to address conflict in healthy ways. For some, it means meeting the needs of students in culturally responsive ways.

Teaching certainly isn’t easy. However, #zeroconsequences aren’t #whyteachersarequitting. It’s time we get real about what both these things really mean.


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