Commentary: Classroom racism incidents highlight the importance of good teachers to society

Commentary: Classroom racism incidents highlight the importance of good teachers to society
A white teacher told a black student his friends would lynch him if he didn't do his school work. (iStock/Getty Images)

A white social studies teacher in Ohio told a 13-year-old black student his friends would lynch him if he didn’t get back to his school work, according to The Washington Post.

Why do we report on stories like this?

That’s the question I had to ask myself when I first read it. What good comes from these headlines showing up in the media every day?

We often report news like this because it has shock value. Because it evokes powerful responses from people on both sides of the issue. Because it generates numerous comments and page views. But at the end of it all, if I just drop this story off with the facts of the incident and no perspective, it probably just leaves everyone feeling a little worse for having read it.

But it still needs to be reported on. Not to fan the flames of racial division, but to zero in on the story of a child and what it does to his psyche to hear his teacher speak to him in such a way, and to think seriously about the reasons we need to hire highly-qualified teachers and pay them according to the importance of their profession.

What happened

Renee Thole is a teacher at Mason Middle School in Mason City, Ohio. She admitted to telling a black student in her class, named Nathan, that his friends would form “an angry mob and lynch him” if he didn’t get back to work on his studies.

Nathan said he responded to the teacher that the comment was racist, after which Thole asked Nathan why he thought that. Nathan waited a week to tell his mother about the incident, because he didn’t want to get in trouble for challenging a teacher.

Once school officials found out about the incident, Thole was reprimanded and ordered to complete cultural sensitivity training, but she was not terminated.

‘We lose trust’

In the school’s statement about the incident, Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline condemned Thole’s remarks and emphasized the need to move past only taking corrective action and to also invest in better training and resources for school staff and administration.

One quote in the statement is what we should focus on here, though:

“When adults act in a way that is not in line with our values, we lose trust.”

That’s the big problem here. Racial tension isn’t some big, abstract thing that exists between the greater forces of black versus white. Racial tension is the result of countless individual interactions when a person is disrespected, or humiliated, or misunderstood, or mistreated. It’s the result of countless encounters between people of different races in which one of the people makes the wrong choice.

That’s damaging when it happens between a police officer and a citizen who hasn’t committed a crime. It’s damaging when it’s an employer overlooking a qualified candidate for a job.

But it can be damaging for generations to come when it’s a teacher showing a minority student that white authority doesn’t respect him, and therefore he doesn’t need to respect white authority. That may sound overdramatic on first read, but really think about it. How do you think we end up with minority adults who are actively antagonistic to white people in positions of power? Somewhere along the way, trust was lost.

This is why we should report stories like this, the same way we report law enforcement abuse or employer discrimination. These individual encounters, and the ripple effect they have in a child’s life, set us up to have the same racial problems in 30 years that we do now.

Value the teachers

I don’t know anything about this teacher, whether she’s good or bad at her job or whether this is in or out of her character. So I don’t have a problem with her not getting fired. Presumably the district understands her body of work well enough to make that judgment.

But she’s going to have a hard time walking back in that classroom, facing that student and his friends and classmates. She will have work to do to regain their respect and trust. You can’t teach someone anything if they don’t trust you. I hope the child forgives the teacher, and that the teacher goes on to learn from this and respect her students more.

And I hope, in the bigger picture, we learn from this. I hope those that set the budgets for public schools and those at the schools responsible for using the funds see stories like this and learn how important it is to have teachers that are not only well-educated and qualified, but who are compassionate and respectful and understand that all it takes is one off-hand comment like this to send a student down the wrong path. To get more of those people, you have to make it worth their while and illustrate that you value them with how much you pay them.

It’s easy to look to the president or other politicians to solve racial tensions in the country. But it’s just as important to work toward resolution in a middle school classroom in Ohio as it is to work on it in the White House.

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