Jump to content

Teacher reprimanded for word choice


Recommended Posts

Teacher reprimanded for word choice

By Sherry Jones

Staff Writer


A fourth-grade teacher at Williams Elementary School has received a formal reprimand for teaching her students the word "niggardly," the teacher's son said Tuesday.

Last week, teacher Stephanie Bell said she used the word "niggardly," which means stingy or miserly, during a discussion about literary characters. But parent Akwana Walker, who is black, protested the use of the word, saying it offended her because it sounds similar to a racial slur.

Ms. Bell said the N.C. Association of Educators has told her not to talk to anyone about the situation.

"I really wish I could," she said.

But Tarl Bell, Ms. Bell's son, said nothing prevents him from talking about it.

Mr. Bell, who is 17 and a high school graduate, said a letter from Principal Susan Hahn stated that his mother used poor judgment. The letter, he said, also instructed his mother to send an apology to her students' parents, a step she took last week.

The letter, which Mr. Bell said he has read, also admonished Ms. Bell, who is white, for lacking sensitivity to the school's diverse population of students and not being aware of cultural differences, he said.

The letter said it would go in Ms. Bell's personnel file within five days, Mr. Bell said. It also gave Ms. Bell the option of responding and said failure to comply with the directives in the letter, which included sensitivity training, would lead to further action, he said.

In addition to the letter, Ms. Walker's daughter was moved to another class, and Ms. Bell agreed not to use the word again with her students.

Dr. Hahn did not return messages left at her home and office Tuesday. Superintendent John Morris said Tuesday that the principal had handled the matter, and he was not expecting any further action.

As for New Hanover County Board of Education members, mum's the word.

"I don't think it's an issue the board should comment on," board member Nancy Wigley said Tuesday.

It's a personnel issue and something the superintendent needs to investigate, she said.

Deputy Superintendent Norm Shearin reiterated that Ms. Bell made a bad decision when she taught her students the word "niggardly." It was an inappropriate word to teach children at that grade level, he said.

Board members Steve Bilzi, Jeannette Nichols, Don Hayes and Maryann Nunnally all said they could not comment on the situation because it is a personnel matter. Dr. Morris also advised board members not to express their views on the matter.

Mr. Hayes stressed that the school system has a strong grievance policy, which would eventually allow the teacher to appeal any disciplinary action to the school board. For that reason, some board members said they didn't want to seem biased.

"I do have a strong feeling about this," Mr. Hayes said. "The board makes the final decision, so I'm hesitant if it might come before the board."

Ms. Nunnally said she wants to sit on the appeals panel if it comes to that.

The situation, however, has generated much discussion. Mr. Bilzi said he has received "tons of responses" from the community and people across the country.

Likewise, the Wilmington Star-News has received more than 100 e-mails from readers across the country. In addition, more than 120 people commented in an online forum and more than 1,200 have voted in an online poll. The response, although in no way a scientific sampling, has been overwhelmingly supportive of Ms. Bell.

The Rev. John Fredlaw, president of the New Hanover County chapter of the NAACP, said he had heard about the situation from several people.

"Maybe to some people this might have been a wrong approach," he said.

But he added that if the word "niggardly" was used in a nondiscriminatory manner, he doesn't have a problem with a teacher teaching the word. He said he could not be sure of the teacher's intentions in this case.

"We have to be careful with what we're teaching," Rev. Fredlaw said.

He added that he expects the topic to be discussed during a candidates forum at 6 p.m. today at the Family Neighborhood Institute of North Carolina, 1102 Orange St.

Meanwhile, Tannis Nelson, president of the N.C. Parent-Teacher Association and a New Hanover County resident, said the incident concerns her.

"If the teacher chose to teach her students this word, I would like to think that she did not mean for it to be offensive," she said. "Many of us know that it is offensive, and we choose not to use words that may offend other people."

She added that this incident shows the need for effective diversity and sensitivity training throughout the school system.

"Incidents such as this can polarize the community," Mrs. Nelson said. "We can't allow that to happen. This can be captured as a teachable moment, and we can learn from it."

Sherry Jones: 343-2378


Link to comment
Share on other sites

It's kinda funny (tragic) when people get offended by how words sound as opposed to what they mean. I remember at the height of the budding Politically Correct Words era there was a list sent around the university of words that were no longer acceptable. One word on the list was "Chairman" which was to be changed to "Chairperson."

Ignorance makes me sick. "Chairman" is a shortened version of "Chair Manipulator"

Preyty soon they'll want all the masculine words taken out of the French language to save us all.

Betcha all these people wear "No Fear" shirts, bloody scaredy-cats.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The Dept Superintendant is the only one with a coherent explanation, saying it may not have been appropriate for their level; those fourth-graders in that school may not be able to differentiate the close sound of a slur from a Norwegian-originated word with a meaning which has been misappropriated because of its homonymic qualities with said slur. If the teacher didn't explain where it came from and what it didn't mean, then she was indeed being a little clueless... but then, the article never states in which context the word was learned... was it in a book which was required reading, and someone asked what it meant?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A similar incident happend in Quebec (I think) recently, when a colour was described in racial terms (tete de negre, or some such ... I don't speak French--DF? Help me out).

I agree with DF. Makes me wonder what would have happened if the teacher had used the word "denigrate."

Link to comment
Share on other sites


  • Create New...