By Sabrina Holcomb
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UPDATE: Shortly after this article was posted, Omar Currie resigned. Although a vocal few raised a storm of protest, most parents and his colleagues have shown support for Currie’s efforts to stop bullying by increasing understanding. He is currently seeking a new teaching position and remains committed to addressing the needs of students in rural communities like Efland.
North Carolina teacher Omar Currie proved firsthand the studies are right: One caring adult can make a difference in the life of a bullied child. Yet when Currie intervened to stop behavior clearly defined as bullying under his state’s anti-bullying laws, Currie came under fire for his proactive solution.
The second-year teacher recently found two of his students in tears after one was bullied for “acting gay.” Currie, considered a phenomenal educator by some of his peers and parents, decided to make the incident a teachable moment by reading his class King and King, a story about two princes who fall in love and marry, as part of a lesson on fairytales and fables.
Currie’s remedy worked: his third graders learned compassion and the bullying stopped. But the objections of a parent—who didn’t have a student in Currie’s classroom—sparked a controversy and conversation that has gone beyond the hallways of the rural school. The NEA member spoke to EdVotes about his experience and what it means to be a champion for his students.
What inspired you to take action?
A boy in my class was routinely made fun of, called derogatory names, and called girl or woman, as in “Hey girl, come here.” I told my principal back in the fall and nothing really came of it. She said the kids weren’t teasing their classmate out of malice. When I found the boy and a girl who had defended him both crying after gym class, I decided to read King and King during our lesson on fables.
Why didn’t you choose a book that directly addresses bullying?
It made sense to me to read a book that addressed the issue at the heart of the bullying. My philosophy of behavior management is using teachable moments rather than punishment so kids can learn and grow from their mistakes. King and King had been read at our school several years previously without any complaints, and I got approval beforehand from the assistant principal. [Six of the school’s former teachers have gone on record as profoundly troubled by the extent to which Currie, who is gay, has been scrutinized.]
How did your kids react?
Most of them were excited. A few said they were uncomfortable. I told them that when we’re presented with new things it’s natural to feel uncomfortable. We talked about their feelings then returned to lessons learned. The moral we settled on as a class was to treat everyone with respect. The student who had been bullied shared the book with our reading specialist and confided that this was the first time he had felt comfortable at school. I remind myself when things get tough that was why I read the book in the first place.
How tough has it gotten?
Some of my parents expressed concern. I sat down and talked with every one of them, and they said they didn’t mind that I had read the book; they just wanted to know beforehand. But the family of a student who’s not in my classroom escalated the issue, protesting outside of the school, going on TV, and filing a grievance against me. As a result, I lost the support of my administrator, and the school has created new policies that make it difficult for educators to make autonomous decisions that that enrich learning. Every book brought into school must now be submitted for an approval process.
Does your district or school have an anti-bullying policy, and does staff get training?
We do have a policy, but we haven’t received any training. The only preparation I got was in my undergrad program where we were taught to be proactive rather than reactive.
How can the union help teachers stand up for their students?
I was told that the students’ behavior fell under the definition of bullying on the state’s bullying policy but not the district’s policy. I was also told this wasn’t a bullying incident because it wasn’t a pattern. Anti-bullying training from my union would have helped me argue the issue more effectively. Unions also need to put pressure on school districts and schools not to limit the definition of bullying and to follow through on addressing bullying behavior.
After this experience, what message do you have for your fellow educators about being activists for their students?
If we all stand together, we can face the negative reactions we get from people when we try to fulfill the needs of all our children. In this case it’s about reading literature that describes diverse families and validates diverse students and supporting colleagues who have the courage to do it.
If you could go back in time, would you do everything the same way?
Exactly. When I made the decision to read the book it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about the parents. It wasn’t about the administrator. It was about the child, and if the child now has a safe place to be himself, it was the right thing to do.
Be a champion for your students by taking NEA’s Bullyfree Pledge. NEA’s Bullyfree Campaign identifies caring adults in our schools and communities who have pledged to stand up for bullied students.