A Wahpeton, N.D., teacher was placed on administrative leave after conducting what school officials there are calling a “teachable moment” in the wake of the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis.
Barb Michelson, a fifth-grade teacher, conducted a first-person lesson of the events surrounding the 2020 death of George Floyd. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, last month was found guilty of murdering Floyd after blocking his air supply for some nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying on the street.
The trouble arose as Michelson’s class was discussing the trial. Students had questions, apparently surrounding the “how” and “why” of Floyd’s death. In answering those questions, some students eventually ended up lying on the floor with their hands behind their backs; they then tested their pulse to see how it affected their breathing.
Perhaps it was a bit much. Meanwhile, we offer this advice: Avoid passing quick judgment on Michelson and chalk it up to a teacher trying to do her job — to teach. In short, take it easy on her.
According to Wahpeton Superintendent Rick Jacobson, Michelson is a highly respected teacher. Besides, Jacobson said, “kids ask questions; they’re inquisitive.”
He said he understands how an impromptu activity can arise in a classroom. Also, he stressed, Michelson was showing the students how that kind of treatment — the kind Chauvin administered to Floyd — is wrong.
Jacobson told the Wahpeton Daily News that “when people hear ‘re-enactment of the George Floyd situation,’ I’m sure they think about him pinned down, on the ground, knee on the neck, all this stuff, for how many minutes — we want to clarify that was not the case (at Wahpeton Elementary School).”
Of course, the community is talking, and that prompted an investigation and Michelson being placed on administrative leave.
Meanwhile, schools should decide how teachers are expected to react when lessons veer from the ordinary and into politics and current events. At Wahpeton, staff are analyzing various factors that come into play, including professional development, behavioral discipline, teaching and learning. Importantly, Jacobson said the district is seeking a path that does not inhibit discussion of current events and other important topics.
He said that in the future, the district needs a plan on how to address students’ questions, without making teachers fear that their jobs are in jeopardy.
“I really hate that teachers are going to be scared to have a discussion,” Jacobson said. “And I fear they might.”
Again, was Michelson’s impromptu lesson inappropriate? Judging from the accounts that have been published, the lesson probably went too far considering the age of the students. It’s obvious the lesson caused some discomfort in the community.
However, a teacher trying to educate youngsters via an honest approach shouldn’t be ostracized or permanently scarred for trying.
All districts should address this now rather than later. Doing so will help chart a path that teachers can follow in the future — one that allows them to do the job they’ve been hired to do.
As Wahpeton administrators are saying, this has been a “teachable moment.”
Indeed it has, for the students, the teacher and all districts.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Grand Forks Herald.