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KKK roleplaying and crude rap lyrics: Mistakes but should they end careers?

Education professor Peter Smagorinsky peppers his University of Georgia undergraduate students with daily email compendiums of teachers-gone-wrong news stories under the heading "Don't try this at home."

"I share these stories any time a teacher gets in hot water due to poor judgment so my students know how teachers get in trouble," said Smagorinsky.

This week produced two more cautionary tales for his collection, including the DeKalb music teacher who asked her middle school students to put a positive spin on an obscenity-laden verse of a rap song.

The second contender is the South Carolina teacher who assigned a work sheet to her fifth graders that asked: "You are a member of the K.K.K. Why do you think your treatment of African-Americans is justified?”

"When you see these stories, you have to ask what in the world did this teacher have in mind," said Smagorinsky. "It can come from making a quick decision. Especially when they are overburdened with declining resources and increasing numbers of students, teachers sometimes make decisions that look terrible in retrospect. When I was a teacher, I made some decisions that I heard about from parents, although I probably didn't make decisions quite as bad as these."

Today, teachers who make classroom blunders don't just hear from parents. Social media provides a daily churn of wayward teacher articles, and many people seem ready to seize on any mistake as grounds for termination, regardless of the teacher's intent.

For example, teachers are now supposed to help students understand historical perspective -- why did someone act this way -- and that is likely what the South Carolina teacher was attempting, albeit badly. Although they missed the mark by a wide mile, the teachers in both these instance were seeking to engage students. Neither teacher is in the classroom; they are on leave.

Should the consequences consider whether this is a first-time offense by an otherwise commendable teacher or whether the teacher is inexperienced and needs guidance rather than the guillotine?

"When a misstep occurs, it does not have to be termination of one’s employment," said DeKalb Schools Superintendent Steve Green. "Every disciplinary situation is unique, and you want to be fair using due process. Depending on the circumstance, we consider other options such as focused professional development to not only assist the employee, but to serve as a teachable moment for other instructional staff. The goal is to be fair and to use discipline proportionately to protect the standards and values of the district and its students.”

Smagorinsky says teachers have to appreciate and respect the family values of their parents, especially when introducing pop culture into classrooms, as did DeKalb teacher Bonnecia Williams with the crude rap verse.

"One of the dilemmas of using pop culture is that a lot of it is vulgar by design," he said. "There is a tension between wanting to use pop culture because kids like it and being careful about using it because parents don't like it."

"We always encourage teacher creativity and allow some teacher autonomy in terms of how one presents a lesson," said Green. "We never want to force our teachers into figurative box, because that stifles innovation and clear thinking. But this freedom is a responsibility, and requires a teacher to use sound judgment based on experience, the age group of the students, and the rigor and relevance of the lesson to our instructional standards."

I asked some other Georgia superintendents to consider these two stories and discuss how such cases should be handled.  Here are three responses:

Allen Fort, superintendent/principal in Taliaferro County K-12 schools, said:

This is indeed a very delicate situation. As said, we encourage teachers and students to be creative, use their intelligence, and "think out of the box." However, in today's society we must be fully aware of the current attitude of the public, the hot button issues, and be cognizant of what reaction from parents and the community will be when this work is assigned to the students.

I encourage my teachers and students to use creativity and the freedoms we have in our country to express ourselves in writing and speaking, but to understand what audience you are targeting, the academic purpose for which the assignment is done, and what is the true reasoning behind the assignment. I do have my teachers to discuss any assignments like this with the Academic Coach and myself in order to understand why this assignment is needed, does it follow the standards in the state or local curriculum and have you enlightened students and parents about the assignment or work that is to be done.

Often during the school year, I ask the teachers to use common sense, good judgement and understand the appropriateness and consequences of what you are doing, and are you ready to handle that situation that may occur out of work and what repercussions may come about if you do this? I ask if this one small assignment that represents one small grade for a student during the year is worth the drama it may or will cause.

However, to me, student work in which commentary, opinions, or thought that may have controversial overtones, but allow the student to think, be creative, and form a valid opinion on a worthy subject can open a student’s mind to cause more interest in society and what can he/she do to make positive change in our world.

Former Pelham City, Ga. Superintendent Jim Arnold said:

The lack of professional judgment here in both cases is appalling. I do not know either teacher's background or experience but, were I the principal involved, would think long and hard about exactly what it was that convinced me to recommend them for employment in the first place. There seems to be a disconnect between the teachers involved and the school administration.

One of the things every good principal will stress to teachers -- especially the new ones -- was that any assignment that you might think the least bit questionable or inappropriate must to go through the department chair and, if there is any further doubt, passed on to the curriculum council (made up of dept. chairs from each department and the principal).

I'm sure every school at every educational level has something of that type already in place.  This policy applies to assignments, movies, film clips, YouTube clips, videos or music.  While we did not monitor every lesson and every assignment, assignments like these would certainly have been the subject of scrutiny, revision or outright rejection.

These assignments appear to have been made in isolation by teachers that demonstrate a serious lack of professional judgment, and didn't know, understand or follow protocol for assignments of a questionable nature. Age-appropriateness of the material is also missing in both cases .

Any teacher that doesn't understand what is age appropriate for their students certainly needs the mentorship and guidance of more experienced teachers or building administrators or both. I'm not sure that the lack of professional judgment demonstrated here can be effectively remediated, and that must also be considered.

Sometimes, the solution is simply telling someone they are in the wrong profession. When I first began teaching my principal warned me "never do anything that will lead to you and me getting fired."

Still good advice, and he only had to tell me once. I applaud and encourage teacher creativity. These assignments do not meet that standard.

Here is what Sandra Carraway, superintendent of Columbia County School District, said:

Most school districts provide their teachers with curriculum guides that identify the core standards or goals for student learning. These guides do not provide prescribed activities and materials. So teachers have to have discretion in choosing the supplementary materials needed to provide engaging, enriched instructional activities for students. In the ideal school environment, teachers should have the opportunity to plan with others, so that they may share ideas and create exemplary lessons. In this kind of environment, it would be far less likely that a teacher could broach a topic or assign an activity that could be offensive.

However, when teachers do make such mistakes, purposefully or not, administrators can help calm the waters by properly and quickly responding to the parents of the child, apologizing for the offense, assuring them that we will address the matter with the teacher, and, if necessary, removing the child from the class. Generally, the kind of relationship the teacher has with the child and the class and his or her reputation will directly influence the parent’s willingness to accept these assurances. It is important to communicate with parents. If parents have confidence and trust in their child’s school, they are far more willing to accept that we’re not perfect, but we try to be, and we seek to do what is best for children.

In addressing the matter with the teacher, our response depends upon the teacher’s actions and their previous history. For example, if the error isn’t too reprehensible and if the teacher is young in the profession, we can counsel him or her and provide a professional learning plan that will help this teacher avoid such pitfalls. If the teacher has a history of such actions, it may be that a suspension or termination is in order.

Lastly, I would hope that the activity and word problem identified in the two articles you shared would be extremely rare, as educators should have far greater insight into what is or isn’t appropriate as it relates to the KKK and such caustic topics.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.