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Springfield Schools Tackle Tough Conversations After Black Teacher Resigns

A person stands in front of others seated outside in a park.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Springfield High School teacher Nicole Awaad leads a discussion on race relations at a Springfield Community for Change event on Friday, Sept. 11.

The Springfield School District has been trying to address systemic racism in its schools for a long time. And sometimes, it can feel like taking one step forward, two steps back.

Racial justice advocates applauded a recent school board decision to table a policy that they say would have stifled classroom discussions on hot-button issues such as racism and police violence.

But that move happened after a Black teacher resigned, saying he faced racism from school officials.

More from VPR: Debate Over Discussing Race In Grade School Leads To New Teaching Policy

Derek Johnson was hired as a literacy coach for the district earlier this summer. Johnson went to the southern Vermont schools of Marlboro Graduate Institute and SIT, and he was living in the Washington D.C. area when the pandemic hit.

Johnson moved back in the spring to return to a slower-paced lifestyle in Vermont. He got involved in some of the social justice protests that sprang up after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. And at a few events in Springfield, he got to meet some of the kids and teachers from the local school district.

“As I understand it, there have been a lot of racist things that have happened in Springfield,” Johnson said. “Like just most recently, there was a video going around on social media from the high school, of like, this argument between two students. And it was racially charged, a lot of derogatory language and racist language used.”

"I didn't feel like I could honestly go into work every day, knowing that there's going to be this stopping of learning. And especially around things that have really heightened in our community, and in this state and around our country at this time." — Derek Johnson, former Springfield teacher

Johnson said he knows what it’s like to grow up as one of the few Black kids in a mostly white small town.

“I know what racism looks like,” he said. “I mean, I’m a 40-something Black man who grew up in a very small town, somewhat similar to Springfield, on the eastern shore of Maryland. I remember the first time I was called the n-word walking home from school, just minding my own business, and kids riding by and yelling it out the window.”

Once Johnson started working in Springfield, he said he encountered microaggressions and racism that made him think that Springfield might not be the best place for him to work. He said some his emails were copied to the superintendent, when other staff members didn't receive the same attention.

And he says his professionalism was questioned during a presentation he was scheduled to make.

Then the school board started addressing the complaint from the parents of a third grader who were upset that their son was forced to read a children’s book that deals with racism and police violence. The school board proposed a new policy that would have required teachers to contact parents when issues such as race are discussed in a classroom, and then allow parents to remove their kids from those lessons.

More from VPR: Poll Shows Vermonters Have Mixed Responses To Law Enforcement And Race

So Johnson decided that he needed to leave.

“The fact that the school board was going to consider now stopping those types of  conversations from happening, I thought was an injustice to both students, the community and teachers,” said Johnson. “Because I didn’t feel like I could honestly go into work every day, knowing that there’s going to be this stopping of learning. And especially around things that have really heightened in our community, and in this state and around our country at this time. It just seemed counterproductive to me for teachers not to be able to engage students in that kind of discussion and discourse. So I submitted my resignation.”

"We need to get the word out and talk more about this stuff, because I know it's uncomfortable for white people to talk about, but the more you talk about it, the easier it gets to talk about." — Makaila Dorcely, Springfield High School student

The Springfield School Board had to deal with Johnson’s resignation at the same meeting where they were debating the proposed controversial issue policy.

Superintendent Zach McLaughlin said the resignation was an opportunity for the district to take a good look at itself in the mirror. More than 70 people showed up for the virtual meeting, and every single person who spoke said the policy was wrong — the board unanimously voted to table it.

“It was so nice to get a win, finally,” said Springfield High School teacher Nicole Awaad. “It was really nice to watch the community come together.”

Awaad said the so-called controversial issue policy would have been the wrong direction for the Springfield schools, especially at a time when the state, and the nation, are confronting centuries of systemic racism.

More from Brave Little State: How To Support Vermonters Of Color: 'Listen To Us'

“All of these conversations are hard,” Awaad said. “Controversial issues are issues that are the ones ailing our communities. So we don’t want to take them off the table in the classroom. We want them to be on the table. We want to parcel through them. We want to see what they are, we want to analyze them, and teach children how to analyze them with each other, rather than alone, in isolation and feeling divided.”

Springfield High School senior Makaila Dorcely has been active in the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and she said Johnson’s resignation, and the board’s decision to pursue the new controversial issues policy, show that there’s still a lot of work to do.

“Stuff like this happens all the time,” Dorcely said. “But it was kind of just like, shocking to me that it was still at this level. Just because of all the work that we’ve put in, I feel like we got so far, and then it’s kind of like a setback, and we keep having to re-educate people on the same things that we’ve been over a hundred million times.”

Dorcely says racism isn’t going away, and students of all colors need to sit together, in the same classroom, and try to figure out a way for their own generation to chart a path forward.

“We need to get the word out and talk more about this stuff,” she said. “Because I know it’s uncomfortable for white people to talk about, but the more you talk about it, the easier it gets to talk about.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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