Wait…WHY Was this Teacher Fired?

HT: MM

I know I’m not quick on the uptake, but usually I can follow the standard culture-war scripts. This story, though, has me confused. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what people didn’t like about this teacher’s activity. Or, to be more precise, I think I might get it, but I’m puzzled by the weird vagueness of this case.

Most intriguing, this seems to be more proof that our schools work with a hair-trigger sensitivity to lowest-common-denominator protests. Protestors don’t even need to explain their reasons, they only need to announce their stance as protestors.

Here’s what we know: According to Kristine Phillips in WaPo, a middle-school teacher in Hernando County, Florida, was fired after asking her students to complete a survey assignment. The questions asked students to rate their comfort level when encountering different types of people. How would you feel if a group of African American men walked toward you on the street? How about if a “Fundamentalist Christian” was your lab partner? What would you think if someone of your same sex asked you to dance?

how comfortable am i

Racist, sexist, anti-religious…is that it?

Now, I can think of a couple of reasons why different sorts of people would object to these sorts of questions for middle-school students. But no one involved seems willing to go beyond a vague and vacuous condemnation. It leads us to three tough questions:

  1. Why don’t they like this assignment?
  2. Why are they being so vague about it? And
  3. Do schools always ban first and ask questions later?

For example, one school district spokesperson explained, “In no way does this assignment meet the standards of appropriate instructional material.”

Why not? Does the school district object to the use of racial and ethnic and cultural stereotypes? Or does the district think students should not be asked to think about their reactions to homosexuality? Christianity? …what?

We can get a little better idea of the objections from one parent’s complaint:

How comfy are you if you see a group of black men walking to you on the street? That’s completely inappropriate. In no world, whatsoever, is that okay to question a child on.

She seemed most ticked about the use of racial stereotypes. And I get that. But I would also think that some conservative religious groups would be offended by the idea that their twelve-year-old sons and daughters would be asked to think about their own potential homosexuality.

So is it the generally “adult” material of the survey, including ideas about racism, gender, sexuality, and religion, that have parents and administrators spooked? Or is it more specifically the use of racial stereotypes?

We can’t help but notice, either, that both complainers used the word “appropriate” in their comments. Materials in middle-school, we might conclude, must remain appropriate. But to whom?

Here’s the thing that really has me intrigued. Time and again, in all sorts of schools from kindergarten through graduate school, teachers and administrators race to box out anything that anyone might accuse of “inappropriateness.” In this case, we hear from a few of the people involved who don’t feel any need to explain why they thought something was inappropriate. The accusation is enough.

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6 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  April 12, 2017

    Well, suppose an employer asked these questions of his employees, or an interviewer of an interviewee? Such questions would be dynamite in today’s hair-trigger political/cultural environment. Even someone who tries his hardest not be racist or homophobic might be afraid to walk this minefield. My guess is that what scares parents is that their child might give an “incorrect” answer which could be taken as a bad reflection on the parents. Some of the more paranoid variety might go so far as to wonder whether this was the school’s way of trying to tell the bad parents from the good, which if true would be extremely disturbing.

    Reply
  2. But that’s just it: What is the “incorrect” answer on these questions? I understand some of them–like people aren’t supposed to be nervous when approached by African American men–but are people supposed to be comfortable having a fundamentalist lab partner? It seems to me this minefield is designed precisely to poke a whole list of culture-war sore spots.
    My hunch is that the teacher wanted to make students uncomfortable, to challenge their stereotypes and to find out more about themselves. Is that by definition inappropriate in school? Or maybe just in middle school? Aren’t schools supposed to help students figure out our cultural minefields?

    Reply
    • Agellius

       /  April 12, 2017

      Adam:

      The correct answer on these questions is the politically correct answer. I realize that some of them don’t touch on political correctness directly, but most of them do. Do you notice that none of them asks “What if your lab partner is white?” or “a man” or “straight”? The WaPo article says that the quiz seems to be lifted from the book “Exploring White Privilege,” and exploring white, straight, cis-gendered (if that’s the right term) privilege is what it seems to be about. Exploring these things in school might not be inappropriate if the PC specter were not constantly looming over us all (which possibly a liberal like yourself doesn’t perceive as acutely as some of us do) but as things are, parents want no part of it, or want to deal with it in the home.

      Reply
      • I also wonder at the obvious-but-not-mentioned inappropriateness of the age level of these questions. No middle-schooler has an “RA.” No middle-schoolers go to gay bars.

  3. This is fundamentalist metaphysics again Adam, but it will extend to even some secular conservatives (maybe even self-identified liberals) who retain deep anxieties about the theshhold in consciousness that adolescence represents.

    Parents who are repressive and anxious about the intrinsic categories of identity that are legally protected and suppressed from normal, mixed, “polite” conversation do not want other adults (or maybe not anyone) probing into these matters with their kids. Some might be worried their kids will be labelled racists/homophobes/elitists and this will reflect on them. Behind that and more broadly I think there may be a fear that these things don’t just sort themselves out naturally and the kids may “come out different” than their parents. So they double down on the idea that these are private and protected categories of an intrinsic and unchanging nature that can be left alone and in good families at least, all will be well.

    People tend to be essentialists by default; they want to assume their kids will turn out like them by nature and not attend to how contingent, variable, and socially constructed our identities and views are. But they know better, and their child’s adolescence will likely remind them of this and the gaps that open up between the generations in the teenage years. An exercise like this may reawaken whatever troubles and traumas the parents went through. They don’t want other adults, or maybe anyone, treating their kids and these topics as if there is any uncertainty or choice involved in them.

    Who are you to evangelize, sexualize, gender, racialize, or raise my kid’s Klassenbewusstsein? Some kind of creep, no doubt.

    Reply
    • I get that, I really do, but this story doesn’t seem to be that kind of thing. It’s hard to tell for sure, but it seems like this fired teacher WANTED to challenge her students racist/homophobic/elitist/etc. backgrounds, but in fact she got fired because some kids and their parents thought the exercise was “inappropriately” racist, not inappropriately anti-racist.

      Reply

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