Written, read aloud or otherwise: CBE reminds teachers that use of racist language not permitted

After multiple incidents and complaints from families, the Calgary Board of Education is reminding its staff that uttering, writing or using racial slurs — including when reading aloud — is not permitted in the school division.

“Since the school year started, there has been at least three of these complaints that have come to my attention that we’ve had to address,” said CBE chief superintendent Christopher Usih.

“Teachers can certainly read content or teach content, but that they don’t verbalize the word. In one particular case, for example, it was a use of the N-word in class.”

It was these complaints that prompted Usih to send all staff a note earlier this week reminding them that the use of racial slurs in any capacity is forbidden. He said this isn’t about censorship or removing books from classrooms.

“I want these conversations to happen in classrooms. [It’s] important for young people to engage in conversations, to learn about their lived experiences, and teaching why the language is inappropriate remains important,” he said.

“We don’t want you to write it all out on the board or to read it all out loud. The vast majority of times those words are not  verbalized, so this is not new. What we wanted to do with this message was to really clarify expectations so that if there is any misunderstanding, that teachers know.”

One CBE teacher, who CBC News has agreed not to name as she fears professional retribution, said the note caught teachers at her school off guard. 

“It was just like a total blanket statement to all teachers and it was like, very reprimanding [to] me in nature. For something that most of us don’t do anyway,” she said.

Thousands gathered in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza on June 6, 2020 for a candlelight vigil in honour of victims of racism and police brutality. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The teacher said she feels the note should have been accompanied by a conversation between principals and teachers about why the note was being sent. Instead, she said “nothing has been said.”

“No one is going to reply to the email because it’s from the superintendent. So everyone’s afraid for their job,” she said.

The teacher said CBE teachers also haven’t been offered any professional development on best practices when teaching texts with these sorts of words and slurs.

“We don’t have any discussion and people are afraid now, and I don’t know if that’s how we should be feeling,” the teacher said.

Usih said while the note may have seemed sudden, it does provide a number of links to resources for teachers to help them tackle these conversations and topics with students — and he promises more education for teachers is forthcoming. 

“There’s no question that professional learning is going to be important going forward, because that’s how teachers can share best practices and we can talk about the fact that these are conversations that we need to have,” he said. “These are good teaching moments for young people, but intent does not negate impact.

“What we don’t want is to place students in situations where they feel uncomfortable and they feel afraid or hurt, because the word that is used in the classroom is one that does not make them feel good about themselves.”

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