If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself looking at your social media timeline recently and muttering “what in the world is happening?” In late October, a teacher in Davenport, Iowa, decided to wear blackface to a Halloween party as part of her "Napoleon Dynamite" inspired costume. A few days later, a group of teachers at a school in Idaho thought it was a good look to dress-up in stereotypical Mexican outfits and as a replica of the (proposed $21 billion) Trump Wall. The Wall was emblazoned with the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Then, in Wisconsin a photo emerged of the male members of Baraboo High School’s senior class throwing-up a Nazi salute. In mid-November, news emerged that a teacher in Missouri allowed a student to wear a Ku Klux Klan outfit in class, as part of a skit about voters’ rights. That’s a lot and as of this writing, none of the adults involved have faced termination. That’s unfortunate.
I’ll be honest, I don’t understand what was going through the heads of the adults in these situations. I don’t know if they thought these were good ideas. I don’t know if they thought “this is bad, but it’s all in good fun.” What I do know is that these adults have shown they don’t deserve the public’s trust and don’t deserve the right to serve students.
Teachers (self included) are constantly demanding the public treat them with respect—we demand to be viewed as professionals. But, bad judgment and racist tom-foolery like this sets our cause backward, especially with parents of color.
We shouldn’t have to explain these things, but fellow teachers: Cultures aren’t costumes.
Teachers dressing up as “Mexicans” in ponchos and sombreros or in blackface are inappropriate. Skits where students play the role of costumed Ku Klux Klan members are not “engaging instruction.” Nazi salutes have no place in school (or anywhere in America). Asking students to write essays looking at the bright side of slavery—just stop it. While we’re at it, this Thanksgiving week, please don’t have students make and wear paper headdresses to imitate Native Americans. If a teacher lacks the judgment understand any of this, I have questions about their ability to make any sound pedagogical choices. These incidents are embarrassing for our profession.
The bar to become a teacher should be high. The bar to remain a teacher should be higher.
As far as I’m concerned, if you aren’t making a positive, measurable impact on students—especially with students from historically marginalized populations—you don’t belong in the classroom. Students of color and their parents have enough to worry about in America in 2018. They shouldn’t have to worry whether their teachers are permitting or engaging in gestures of prejudice and hate. In the past, folks have proposed a Hippocratic Oath for teachers. The pledge that doctors take includes a promise to “I will do no harm or injustice” to my patients. I don’t think symbolic pledges are the answer. But, we have to start having tough conversations with our colleagues in our schools. Teachers, if you see a student or especially a co-worker engaging in these or other similar problematic behaviors you have an obligation to interrupt it. We ask our students to be thoughtful and courageous. Teachers, as a profession, we have to do the same.
Nate Bowling is a high school government teacher in Tacoma, Washington, who was named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. He is also a recipient of the 2014 Milken National Teaching Award and founding member of Teachers United. In August 2017, he came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk ...