Hate in the Classroom

The teacher’s responsibility to redirect and prevent hateful behavior and build community in the classroom

Jordan Godwin
Jul 29 · 8 min read
Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

The comments started out ugly and got worse. My students threw insults at one another across the room. Race, language, family, names, the way they looked and what they wore, nothing was off limits. Anger contorted their normally pleasant fifteen-year-old faces.

My heart pounded.

“Hey, hey!” I called, but it drew zero attention from either of the students yelling or the rest of the class.

How was I supposed to address racism, xenophobia, hate, and personal attack all in the same moment?

When students use derogatory language and hate speech, whether in general or directed toward another student, it falls to the teacher to set the tone for their classroom.

In this case, we weren’t dealing with just a minor annoyance, or even a stolen girlfriend. This time the fight was more deeply personal and reflected the lack of emotional safety among that collection of students.

This is often the moment that teachers, trained for it or not, have to wing it. In the easiest of circumstances, tensions are high, teenage egos are at stake, and classroom management and learning are either already compromised or are dependent on the outcome of this interaction and the teacher’s decisions and follow-through.

I placed my body directly between them, breaking their line of sight. “Let’s take this into the hall.”

I instructed the rest of the class to finish what they’d been working on (knowing full well that they would instead be on their phones, tossing Hot Cheetos from table to table, or eavesdropping at the door) and escorted the pair into the hallway for a conference.

My mind raced. How was I supposed to address racism, xenophobia, hate, and personal attack all in the same moment between the same two students? How was I supposed to address it when it ran rampant across the entire class? And how could they be expected to learn anything if none of them felt safe in this space with these people?

I was angry that they were hurting each other. Angry that they compromised the safety of our time together and the space for learning I worked hard to create.

I stood in front of both of them, took a deep breath and let it out. A mixture of professional development trainings from various districts coursed through my mind, each with their own merits and own procedure. The students both gave a reluctant flick of their eyes in my direction, uncertain of what was going to come next.

“What is going on?” I asked finally. I led each boy through a recounting of events, then asked them to consider their actions and how they thought it affected other people involved. Finally, I asked each in turn what they needed to move forward.

Teachers must create a safe space for their students, as a learning environment and as a space to live and be.

I recently listened to the ReplyAll podcast interview of Carlos Maza, YouTuber and self-identified queer person who has been harassed by a fellow YouTuber. In the interview, Carlos gives the backstory of his experience in high school in which derogatory language and hateful comments about his sexual orientation were the norm, and no one did anything about it. He mentions the “beloved AP English teacher” who not only did nothing, but also referred to gay people as the f-word. In a way, he said, by accepting the students’ behavior, the teachers were at fault for allowing this behavior to continue in their student body.

I think he’s right. As Chris Cuomo once tweeted “What we ignore, we empower,” and this philosophy rings true to me from my many years in the classroom. If we teachers ignored a student putting her feet on the desk, other students would see this and realize that it was acceptable behavior by virtue of the authority figure not saying anything about it. The same way, if we ignore a student who makes a hateful remark, subtle or overt, the other students in that space learn that it is acceptable there.

Teachers must create a safe space for their students, as a learning environment and as a space to live and be. Students who feel marginalized for some part of their identity are effectively blocked from learning as they have to go on the defensive, or put up walls to shield themselves mentally or even physically. This leaves little or no focus for academics, often makes them afraid to speak up to share their thoughts or opinions, and creates mental stress or even trauma.

Often cited in teacher training and professional development, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (well explained in this article on simplypsychology.org) posits that a person must have certain needs met before the next level of needs can be sought after. They begin with physical needs, food, water, shelter, and progress to safety and security. Only once these are squarely provisioned can a person worry about their emotional needs and eventually desire what he calls “esteem” and “self-actualization” — the achievement and creativity requested of students in an academic setting.

This is why students who don’t get breakfast or don’t have money for lunch struggle to focus in class, or struggle to care about school work. This is also why if students (or god forbid teachers) make others feel unsafe, the classroom is no longer a learning environment. Those students’ primary objective is now maintaining their safety and security.

But the question of exactly how to address offensive and hateful speech in the classroom is left to the discretion of the teacher. Perhaps a person who only wanted to share their love of biology with young people now must navigate, respond to, and discipline, everything from subtly offensive teasing to outright demeaning comments, or even physical fights.

Teachers, I’m sorry. This is possibly the hardest part of your already insanely difficult jobs.

This is why students who don’t get breakfast or don’t have money for lunch struggle to focus in class, or struggle to care about school work.

It might have been week three or four in that class when I finally asked my students (let’s be honest, I’m sure I yelled at them) to meet me in a circle in the back of the classroom. While they dragged chipped plastic chairs into the most lopsided circle I’d ever seen, they insulted each other’s complexion, intelligence, and race.

I held up the plush dinosaur I used as a talking piece until they got quiet. My body shook with anger and fear, tired of all the hate they expressed despite my attempts at Restorative Conferences and afraid I might not be able to do anything about it.

I needed questions for this class circle that would guide them to the realizations and commitments I needed them to make.

“How do you feel,” I started, “when someone speaks badly about your culture, or language, or family?”

Each student held the dinosaur and gave some version of “bad.”

“How do you want people to talk about you and your culture and family?”

This time, students either said they wanted to hear good things or nothing at all.

“What could you personally do differently in this class to make our space feel better?”

Some students said “nothing” but others truly reflected on how they could change their words, hold their tongues, or choose a different seat.

They all sat in sulky silence waiting for the next question, but I didn’t have any more questions.

This was the point at which I needed them to understand that hateful speech is serious and seriously unacceptable. It didn’t feel like a simple question and class agreement would be sufficient to handle the intense fighting that had pervaded my room. So I broke from the Restorative Practices protocol when I told them, point blank, that there would be consequences for any further offensive speech.

We all knew how the class felt about receiving hateful words, so the instant I heard a single one, there would be a consequence. We agreed as a class that consequences would include a phone call home the first time, for any single offensive comment, and would result in a referral the second time.

“This is your warning,” I said. There would be no more.

It took the better part of a school year, and a few more isolated incidents, but that class learned to manage themselves. They met me in the back for circles once a week and, for the most part, interacted positively with each other.

I needed them to understand that hateful speech is serious and seriously unacceptable.

From a teacher’s perspective, there are many programs and strategies for classroom management that we’ve all learned and implemented over the years, but there’s that moment of panic or uncertainty when we’re in the middle of a serious incident. What is the best way to handle this? What will establish boundaries and discipline but build or maintain relationships and community? Will I be able to follow through?

After teaching in multiple different schools and districts in the U.S. and abroad, Restorative Practices is one of the most effective strategies I’ve seen. (See Further Resources listed below for studies and articles about Restorative Practices in schools.) However, it takes a schoolwide effort, lots of training, and dedicated staff. Additionally, some recent articles, such as this one in The Hechinger Report, explain the ways in which Restorative Practices aren’t providing the level of results schools had hoped for in academic achievement and reduction in bullying.

We put trust in our teachers to determine the best course of action in these situations, and give them an overabundance of trainings, some of which are even contradictory. In the face of all this information and the reality of our classrooms, two things are certain — one, relationships build the trust and community in which students and learning thrive, and two, hateful speech and actions must not be allowed to destroy those relationships and that community.

Teachers, I encourage you to think of these situations like physical emergencies. We cannot be bystanders, but we should be protected by a Good Samaritan law. Doing something is absolutely better than doing nothing, even if you can’t remember the exact procedure of your school’s latest discipline or restorative practice. Even if you end up with your foot in your mouth, or not exactly the outcome you hoped for, the point is maintaining the safety of the students in your space. The responsibility is ours and we can do something about it.

Further Resources:

Jordan Godwin

Written by

Writer, linguist and educator. www.jordan-godwin.com. Fiction at www.jordanfelker.com

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