One of the first lessons one learns in English class is that context is everything. The same holds true in Spanish.
Take the case of Petrona Smith. She says in a lawsuit that she was fired from teaching at Bronx PS 211 in March 2012 after a seventh-grader reported that she'd used the "N" word, according to The New York Post.
Smith doesn't deny using the word. But she argues that everyone uses it, when speaking Spanish. She was teaching the Spanish words for different colors, and the color "black" in Spanish is "negro." She also taught the junior high school students, in this bilingual school, that the Spanish term for black people is "moreno." And by the way, Smith, who is from the West Indies, is black.
Context is everything.
Smith's lawsuit brings to mind a case in Ohio earlier this year.
The Akron Public Schools Board of Education voted in January to pursue the firing of Melissa Cairns. She was a math teacher at Buchtel Community Learning Center.
The school district said that Ms. Cairns posted a photo on her personal Facebook page which showed 8 or 9 out of her 16 students with duct tape across their mouths. The caption read: "Finally found a way to get them to be quiet!!!" The district says a colleague of Cairns' notified a supervisor of the photo.
On the face of it, this sounds outrageous. But what's the context?
Cairn, a teacher for 10 years, says she gave a girl a roll of duct tape to fix her binder, but the student cut a piece of tape, placed it over her mouth and laughed.
"The other kids in the class thought it was funny also, and they proceeded to pass the tape and scissors around the class. The students, the majority of the class, ended up putting a piece of duct tape across their mouth," Cairns explained.
"I would never in a million years do anything to harm students," Cairns said.
He went on to explain it wasn't the use of the duct tape, but the posting of the photo of children on Facebook that showed poor judgement.
The punishment, as many Akron readers noted, seemed excessive in light of the mistake.
"This is wrong," wrote Lynn Webster. "The Board should take into account what really happened and she was having FUN with her students. Oh...teachers aren't allowed to do that anymore. She should have received a reprimand at most and move on. Shame on the snitch that reported her. Couldn't this have been handled privately instead of running to a supervisor? Now I hope she sues them to get her job back."