By Chris Cox
I did not expect to, but I feel sorry for Enka Middle School teacher Rex Roland, who made national news last week when WLOS aired a story that he had written the words, “-20 percent for being a Loser” — with the word “loser” underlined twice — on the paper of a sixth-grade girl. Her mother appeared on the newscast demanding that something should be done about this, claiming that he had done the same thing in the fall and had been warned then by school officials not to do it again.
According to reports, Roland — who has since been suspended — said that he had apologized and that it was part of his teaching style. Somehow, for him, writing the word “loser” on a student’s paper helps him to better “relate” to his students. As a parent, educator, and columnist, I could not get to my keyboard fast enough to pound out an editorial demanding that this insensitive clod be removed from teaching so that he could pursue a profession that better suits his “style.” Perhaps he would make an excellent clown in a dunking booth, shouting insults at his customers — just part of the show, you know — but a middle school teacher? No thanks.
Just as I was getting ready to sit down and write this column, WLOS aired yet another report, this time with the mother sharing examples of a hundred or more Facebook posts, text messages, and emails deriding her 11-year-old daughter. Many of the messages were hostile. Some were even threatening. The reporter said pages had been established on Facebook both in support of the teacher, as well as one seeking his removal.
I visited both pages, and was surprised to see that more than 300 people — including many students, former students, and parents who knew Roland — had joined the group, with literally dozens and dozens of testimonials of how kind and helpful he had been with them. The general tenor of the comments was that, yes, the teacher did use this type of language to “joke around” with his students. Many students said that he had called them “losers” as well, and they knew he was just kidding. One girl claimed he had thrown her shoes in the hall, as well as her school supplies. Like a lot of others on the board, she wondered how this incident could have been taken so seriously and blown so far out of proportion. Indeed, I saw a banner story on the incident — complete with video — on Yahoo on Saturday, as well as a news report in a paper in the UK. The story had not only become national news, but international.
Because Rex Roland has suddenly become the national poster boy for “worst practices,” embarrassing local school officials, I would be surprised if he escapes with his job, and that the suspension is merely a prelude to a much more permanent outcome, despite an impressive show of support, however misguided some of it may be. I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to come to this. Based on many of the anecdotes shared by his students and the parents of those students, Roland has some good qualities that you would want in a teacher. But whatever those qualities may be, under no circumstances can writing “loser” on a student’s paper — or calling any student a “loser,” even in jest — be rationalized or defended, not by the teacher, his students, parents, or the school system. If this is a part of his strategy to “connect” with middle school kids — to “get down to their level” — it is a strategy that should have been obvious to any administrator who is part of the school system. It should have been made clear to Roland long ago — he has been teaching at the school for 12 years — that calling students names may be “getting on their level,” but that one big part of being a teacher is getting students to a higher level by modeling good behavior and teaching respect for themselves and each other.
While some students may respond favorably to such “buddy buddy” tactics, other, less confident, students would likely be harmed by Roland’s tactics. I have read posts written by students and parents who insist that this girl should toughen up and “get a sense of humor.” Most of the students who have written these posts do not yet have enough sensitivity or life experience to know any better, but their parents ought to be deeply ashamed.
Making this 11-year-old girl out to be the villain in this story does their cause much more harm than good, and her mother only did what any decent parent would do, and that is protect her daughter. If Roland is the compassionate man that they claim he is, he ought to stand up now and call for an abrupt end to any more messages directed at this student or her family. If the school system has a “muzzle” on him, pending an investigation, they ought to meet with him now to craft some type of statement asking that supporters leave the girl and her mother alone. Threats have been made about what will happen when this girl returned to school this week. A very clear statement ought to be issued that nothing of this sort will be tolerated, and that anyone acting out against this student will be sent home.
So, what actually happened here? It may well be that school officials WERE aware of this behavior and did issue strict, clearly defined warnings to Roland to stop. He might have been — or certainly COULD have been — offered professional development opportunities that would help him better understand the fragile psyches of his student population. At the very least, he should have been given very clear directives for appropriate and inappropriate humor. But was he? Given the context of the comments, it seems that this was a day-to-day part of his teaching style, which would mean that if even if such warnings were issued, they were either not heeded or not taken very seriously by either Roland or the school officials who issued them in the first place.
If that is the case, the school system failed Roland every bit as much as he failed it, and now everyone loses.