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Black students in urban schools deserve respect

GRAPHIC LANGUAGE WARNING: A Baltimore City school teacher uses the N-word in class.

When I first saw the video of the white teacher screaming a racist epithet at her black students, my instinct was to drive to Harlem Park Middle School so that teacher could scream the same thing at me and see if my response would be as cool as her students'. I'm doubtful. But I soon learned that the teacher had already been fired. I was surprised Baltimore City schools responded so swiftly, but I am glad. I am impressed.

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises was right to fire this teacher.

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Some argue that this young white woman was so desperately concerned for her students' lives that it was just her passion we saw on video. Perhaps. But her passion is misguided and misinformed, and Baltimore City students deserve better.

I began my career as a middle school language arts teacher in Baltimore City. Now in my 18th year as an educator, I teach pre-service and in-service educators. I have had good and bad days, good and bad years, so I know that teaching in Baltimore City — and urban schools more broadly — can be trying. But I know someone who should not be working in a school when I see one. That young white woman who screamed that students would end up as "a punk ass [n-word] who's going to get shot" should not be working in any school, not in Baltimore City. Not anywhere.

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Far too many of us forget black students in urban schools are human beings worthy of respect regardless of how they act. They are children. They are middle schoolers. They are young teens. They are looking for a reason to care about themselves, their education and their futures in a world and a city that continues to tell them their black lives don't matter. Our children deserve teachers who can see through students' childish behaviors and respond to them as the professional adults we are, not by racist tirades, berating them with threats of zeros or pulling on their clothes while screaming "Get out of my class!"

Might the teacher be concerned for her students' lives? Perhaps. When I watched that video, I saw a young woman trying to embody the hero educator/savior trope: a young, bright, novice teacher swoops into some urban school largely considered godforsaken because she's a good person giving education to needy students of color who should receive it gratefully. But the hero educator/savior trope is a myth. Educators working from this standpoint aim to berate and control students into "success," to manipulate and/or humiliate students into compliance. Even if students are behaviorally compliant, it doesn't mean they are learning. Educators who embody this myth seek to manage students' bodies and actions more than nurturing their minds. Our students deserve better than that.

The education savior myth is sexy, simple and easy to digest, though it yields our children as pathological. It positions our students as full of deficits while ignoring their assets. It feeds collective beliefs of urban schools as mostly unsalvageable unless some hero educator is angry enough to threaten, berate and control the children. The education savior mythology is a lie that harms students in urban schools. This mythology robs them of the opportunity to learn, to be critical thinkers, to be successful scholars, all because it's more focused on the teacher's righteousness and the students' obedience. And all of our children — whether they live in urban, suburban or rural areas — deserve teachers, classrooms and schools that make them want to learn, that help them see their possibilities. Baltimore City students deserve hope, joy and structure — not threats, not racist epithets.

Hero educators center themselves, though they don't know they do. They believe they are in it for the kids. That young white woman teacher had already lost the class when the student began filming. Students who believe you care about their best interests don't video your frustration and concern. Students are smart, and we don't give them enough credit.

It is a difficult decision to remove an educator from the classroom. Losing educators disrupts students' lives and puts a strain on the educators who remain. Still, not everyone is fit for the classroom. When people demonstrate behavior unbecoming of a professional educator, removing them is imperative.

Yes, CEO Santelises was right to fire this teacher swiftly. It gives me hope that she may move Baltimore City schools in the right direction.

Camika Royal is an assistant professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Urban Education. Her email is caroyal@loyola.edu.

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