Not so much C.H.A.N.G.E.

Writing a racial slur about Barack Obama on the white board may end the career of Greg Howard, a teacher at Marianna Middle School in Florida. Howard, who’s been teaching in the district for 17 years, asked seventh-grade social studies students what Obama meant by “change” and then wrote on the board:

“C.H.A.N.G.E. — Come Help A (N-word) Get Elected.”

The class included 17 white students, six black students and one Asian.

Howard is serving a 10-day suspension without pay; he must write a letter of apology to the students. He will be reassigned to teach adult-education students.

It’s hard to imagine worse judgment than using a deeply offensive word to express political views in the classroom. What was Howard thinking?

What’s worse are the comments I’ve read on several versions of the story. Some people seem to think that Howard was “brave” to “speak out” about . . . His contempt for blacks?

About Joanne


  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    Assigned to adult students? What does it take to get fired?

    I could understand the mere suspension if Howard had been overheard using the N-word at school in a casual conversation with adults when students were present, or something like that. But a teacher who uses the N-word in an assignment, apparent without expecting official sanction, is just unqualified to teach any student, adult or child.

  2. Wow, that’s awful. Language like that has no place in the classroom, especially coming from a teacher.

    I’m no fan of Sen. Obama’s but in this day and age we should be discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of his policy positions not the color of his skin…

  3. That’s reprehensible. And that’s the nicest way I can put it.

  4. I’m sure that he’s glad that he has a union right now. At least he provided a “teachable moment” for his class: there are still losers like him around.

  5. Well, it is “brave” in that it requires courage. (Along the lines of the comment that the 9/11 hijackers were “brave”; well, sure, they displayed physical courage.)

    It’s just not “good”, “right”, or “noble” (again, exactly parallel to the 9/11 hijackers, except pathetic rather than evil).

    Bravery is a virtue, but bravery alone doesn’t make a person or an action virtuous – one may be brave in the pursuit of wicked or wrongheaded ends, after all.

  6. Mrs. Lopez says:

    Unbelievable that he can’t be fired for that.

  7. Mr. Lopez says:

    Start with banning words. Then ban books. Then just burn the whole damned library.

    Keep that lid on the boiling pot until it boils over and scalds us all. Good thinking.

  8. There may be more to the story.

    I don’t know if anyone is aware of this, but that interpretation of “CHANGE” is, and has been for many weeks, making its rounds via cell phone text messages. I received the text a few weeks ago from a NYC-based number that I’d never seen before.

    “What was Howard thinking?”

    I don’t know, and I’m not about to guess. I do recognize that there’s a possibility Howard was about to introduce the translation in terms of political communication/memes and thought he’d do it provocatively.

    Poor judgment and outright racism/hate aren’t the same things. The article Joanne cited doesn’t provide a bit of context about the incident. Did anyone else notice that the article mentioned nothing but Howard having written the phrase on the board?

    Save the vitriol until more facts are in. You might be right anyway, but it’s better to be sure your reaction is justified. Good Lord, even the NAACP is holding off until they know more.

  9. Bill Leonard says:

    I am apalled by most of the responses. Kudos to Mr. Tabor, who has offered the only non-knee-jerk response thus far.


  10. Bill Leonard says:

    I believe I mispelled appalled.

    The mistake is mine.


  11. Mrs. Lopez says:

    For the record, I do NOT know the Mr Lopez who is posting here.

  12. I’m also glad to see Matthew speak up. I found the article to be a little vague and incendiary. As said, it may well be justified, but I’d like to know more. Poor judgments on the part of teachers may sometimes be the product of pressure to engage and inspire on the level portrayed by media and Hollywood, and perhaps this is where this teacher stepped over the line. It’s a difficult line to tread, certainly.

  13. Dick Eagleson says:

    What was he thinking? That he’s a union teacher and, therefore, as close to untouchable as it’s possible to be. And it seems he thought correctly on that point.

  14. What was he thinking? Maybe he was thinking about the fact that the N-word is in almost every rap song out there and he was trying to be “cool” in an attempt to reach his students. If a word is taboo it should be taboo for all, not taboo for some but mainstream for others.

  15. I don’t think vulgar language belongs in the classroom for any reason, period. Even when teaching a literary classic like “Huck Finn” one can find cleaned-up copies to use with the offensive word written as “n—-“. Adolescents use enough bad words as it is without adults encouraging them to do so by condoning the use of vulgar language in the classroom.

  16. Alex Bensky says:

    At best it was a foolish thing to do, but I think Matt Tabor is right–it is possible that there’s a context that makes it forgivable. Of course, it’s possible there’s a context that makes it unforgivable.

    I’d also like to know what the class was, what the assignment was, and how he presented it.

  17. @Matthew Tabor:
    1. Good point: why give the guy grief when all he’s doing is repeating what he saw on a text message? If you cant trust texts, what can you trust?
    2. I’m sure that nuanced deconstruction of political memes is a daily practice in middle school classrooms across the nation. Well, after the kids settle down, spit out their gum, stop throwing paperwads, and the like. But no; I’m sure they’re ready for deep discourse on subtleties.

    For what it’s worth, though, I want you on my jury if I’m ever tried for some kind of wrongdoing.

    @NG: I trust you would also defend a teacher’s right to refer to women as “b—–s and h-s.” I mean hey, if it’s hip enough for rappers, teachers oughtta be able to use it, right?

  18. Mrs. Lopez says:

    I guess I must be unimaginative, because I can’t think of a single context where I’d want any of my 4 children to be presented with that in class as middleschoolers. I’ll happily admit I’m wrong if presented with a logical explanation.

  19. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Please don’t “clean up” any of the books I teach. I like them just as they are.

    I can envision a legitimate lesson plan in current events with that sort of lead-in, but not at the K-12 level. He used some poor judgment.

  20. Miller T. Smith says:

    The n word has no place anywhere. That is why I am in a fight with my principal for not punishing black students who I hear usingthat work in the hallways and evn my class. I get this, “You just don’t understand.” comments from her and the other security staff. When I call security to take a student out of my class for using the n word, they refuse to remove the student.

    Any advice?

  21. “Any advice?”

    Sure. Get over it.

    I’m not saying that is necessarily right; I don’t know enough about your situation. But it may well be necessary.

    By the way, who decided that the n word has no place anywhere?

  22. Margo/Mom says:

    M. Smith:

    You call security when a student says the n_____ word?

    My advice would be to start teaching what your problem is with the word. You might consult (written and spoken) literature from a few folks such as Dick Gregory and Whoopee Goldberg. You could dig into post Civil War history and Jim Crow. You might examine major players in the Civil Rights movement and their philosophies.

    I don’t know what you are teaching, but there are obvious ties (even standards-based) to English and Social Studies. If you teach science, then maybe you will be getting into genetics and race theory. If you are teaching math, it might be harder, but still not impossible.

    If all you can do is remove kids who either don’t understand, or don’t agree with you, I’m not sure that you have accomplished anything of value.

  23. Dean,

    “Good point: why give the guy grief when all he’s doing is repeating what he saw on a text message? If you cant trust texts, what can you trust?”

    This has nothing to do with trusting what’s in a text. First, read my comment above – you failed to understand much of it. Then read the entry I posted on my site for further clarification.

    “I’m sure that nuanced deconstruction of political memes is a daily practice in middle school classrooms across the nation.”

    It isn’t and shouldn’t be. We know this. If I had to guess – and all we’re doing right now is guessing because we don’t know enough – I think that what’s so obvious to us didn’t seem so obvious to Howard at the time. Terrible judgment.

    Hopefully I’ve translated your petulant sarcasm properly. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  24. LightlySeasoned,

    “Please don’t “clean up” any of the books I teach. I like them just as they are.”

    I’m with you 100%.

  25. Miller Smith says:

    If a white boy or girl uses the n word they are on 10 day suspension and transferred to another school.

    If anyone here does not see the 14th amendment violation, then American teachers you are not.

    Instead of getting over it I have just obtained an EEOC lawyer on a contengency basis. He told me that the principal has a duty to make sure that my environment is free of racism and the fact that there is differential traeatment on the account of race makes it a hands down winner-thus contengency.

    He think he can have her job just for the filing.

  26. Miller,

    Whatever the policy, if it isn’t meted out consistently, there’s a problem that needs to be corrected.

  27. There is a double standard for whites and blacks. Everybody knows that. There’s a multi-standard for whites and all non-whites. We’re living in a multicultural wonderland, so get over it and teach.

  28. Miller T. Smith says:

    BadaBing, instead of getting over it, I’m going to get paid and ruin a career.

    Double Standards on the issue of race IS racism. If I ever get told by anyone to “get over” racism, they will instantly loose their teeth.

  29. My point is that blacks using the n-word does not constitute racism. Whites using the n-word constitutes racism. Just ask Spike Lee.

  30. I doubt the teacher was attempting to express contempt for blacks. More likely he was trying to ingratiate himself with the class through the use of popular slang. The only interview of an actual student I’ve seen so far was of a black kid who said he didn’t consider it offensive. The interpretation within the class was likely something like “Come help a brother get elected.”

    I wonder who first complained? Someone in the class, or an adult who got wind of the story second-hand?

    It was certainly poor judgment on the part of the teacher, but from what I remember of public middle school it wouldn’t have been unusually so.

  31. Frank Zavisca says:

    I doubt this teacher was the head of his class in the School of Education

  32. The rush to judgment in the comments here is a pretty good example of why union protections serve a purpose.

    What this teacher did seems like pretty poor judgment to me — but if principals were able to react with this “off with his head” approach to lapses in judgment, teaching could wind up being a very fear-based profession.

  33. Rachel –

    What is wrong with teachers fearing the consequences of their own abject stupidity? People in private enterprise live under this threat and yet have the capacity to be quite productive.