You said you’re about equity, but are you really?

Upon my appointment as a school superintendent, more than three-years ago, my family and I relocated from Colorado. Last week, however, I marked my one-year anniversary as the Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Innovation. Although I am not serving in the position that marked my move to Illinois, my steadfast belief in serving and advocating for children and adults who continue to be marginalized is stronger than ever. Perhaps one day I will shed more insight into the decision to leave that post. Regardless of the reason for my professional career move, however, I am reminded constantly that growth is not linear. I hope those of you contemplating similar career moves hear me loud and clear…growth is not linear. #FocusForward

Consequently, I must admit that although I started this new position in the midst of a global pandemic, nothing moved at a snail’s pace. As a matter of fact, I had to hit the ground running not because there were glaring inequities for me to “fix”, but the learning curve was steep. From learning the nuances of a new district to ensuring my work was value added, I  tried to remain tempered in my approach as the newest member of the team. Peeling back the layers of any organization to reveal the under belly is never pleasant. 

Not sure what led folks to reach out to me, but since my time in this new role, I have been asked to participate on more panels focusing on equity than I can count; some offers I accepted and others I respectfully declined. Due to the number of newly appointed school and district level leaders, the purpose of today’s blog is to share my learnings around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Some of my learnings are a result of personal experiences and others from readings and connecting with other DEI folx in the field. Therefore, school and district leaders, it is my hope that you will consider reading my latest blog to gain insights as you begin or revisit the equity work in your school/district. 

Not listed in any order of importance, here are a few considerations:

Strongly EncouragedRationale
The appointment must be a cabinet level positionWhen confronting issues specific to race and equity, it is important that leaders get close to the work. Consequently, when the “equity appointed” person is situated off to the side in another department, leaders tend to forget the intent. It is imperative that your DEI person sit on Cabinet to remove the invisible layers that inadvertently surface between the Superintendent, other senior level leaders, and the work. The proximate level of work allows for increased dialogue, root cause analysis, and long-term problem solving.
Create a direct line to the SuperintendentWhen the appointed person reports directly to the Superintendent, it communicates that the appointment is not perfunctory and hopefully, the superintendent is committed to hearing and learning first-hand the strengths and opportunities to correct inequities first-hand. 
Avoid *Spray and Pray Equity Professional development sessions that are often provided once will never change deeply entrenched practices and mindsets. Instead, everyone in the organization must spend a considerable amount of time analyzing data, while centering student voice. Student voice will either confirm what the data is telling you or send you down another path that will require second-order change and possibly a change of venue for some adults. Be prepared for both.
Allocate a robust budgetWhether the work includes his/her/their professional learning or to provide resources and support for ongoing equity work, an appointed equity leader should never have to go elsewhere to request monies to do the work. Additionally, a robust budget is one of many ways a district leader can communicate the seriousness to the work. 
Refrain from *siloing equity“Siloing equity leads us to believe that equity is separate from instruction, which is separate from culture, which is separate from every other aspect of student experience and learning” (p.34). The equity officer will and should touch every facet of an organization, including curriculum and instruction, human resources, and special education just to name a few.
Refrain from *tokenizing equityRefrain from appointing a leader of Color and then leaving that person to be the lone ranger of doing the work. This is even more important in schools and districts that are predominately White. Rather, make sure everyone knows that the work of equity is on the shoulders of every single individual within the organization.

This aforementioned list is not all inclusive, but is a start. I would also suggest that every reader engage in introspection, reflect on your biases and privilege. How have you contributed to unjust practices, intentional or not? Now, what will you do to steer the ship toward justice? These questions are but two that require personal analysis, but might also serve as talking chips within your leadership team. As I shared several tweets ago-you talked about equity in your interview; you even indicated in some fashion that you were committed to equity. Now is the time to put those words to action. No more idleness, standing on the sidelines while Black and Brown folks take the brunt of criticism and endure racial battle fatigue. Hold onto the pole and if you do not know what that means…start here.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s book, Your Silence Will Not Protect You, with the hope that the possibility of fear lodged in your throat does not paralyze you to action.

“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger…if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside” (p.3).

Reference

Safir, S. & Dugan, J. (2021). Street Data-A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin and Learning Forward.

Do You Really See Me?

The last time I visited a classroom, where instruction was occurring, was in March. I was overly excited at the prospect of “seeing” students again. So, about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit my first class, albeit virtually, in my new role. Once the teacher “admitted” me, I was instantly dismayed at seeing 20-plus dark squares. The teacher, who must have been slightly embarrassed, asked the students to turn on their video cameras; I shared that it was okay if the students opted not to turn them on. I was a stranger to them. They did not know me, and I did not know them. Fortunately, there were a few video cameras on, including the teacher’s webcam. Awkward? Yes, it was very awkward talking to dark squares and a few inquisitive looks, but I felt strongly that if I just talked about who I was, why I was here, and my enthusiasm for wanting to be with them in that moment, some would turn on their cameras. And, they did. One by one, albeit not all of them, students began to turn their video cameras on. As they turned their cameras on, I thanked them and commented on their smiles and how excited I was to see them. I mentioned nothing about their learning space; instead, I focused intently on just listening. I asked how remote learning was going and what, if anything, we could do as a district to improve their remote learning experience. Although zero students talked to me aloud, several used the chat feature to respond to me privately. Fortunately, the teacher allowed me to serve as a co-host, which enabled students to interact privately, if they chose, with me.

This experience propelled me to write down my thoughts. Do we really need video cameras on? Why? And, for whom? In that moment of visiting that particular teacher’s classroom, I wanted video cameras on. I still want cameras on, but as I reflect on that experience, I am convinced I wanted the video cameras on for selfish reasons. I wanted to see the faces of every single student because I missed seeing students. Period-no fancy excuse and no educational explanation. I have heard and read the arguments that video-cameras on allow teachers to monitor student engagement. How so? The word engagement is ubiquitous and ambiguous. Engagement to you, unless clearly defined, may look entirely different to me. When students were physically present in your classroom, how did you monitor engagement? I assume, although I could be wrong, some teachers monitored engagement through frequent checks for understanding such as: whiteboards, thumbs up, turn and talk, small groups, etc. I posit that these aforementioned checks for understanding are still viable options given the learning platform your district uses. However, by mandating that our students turn their video cameras on, to what extent are we invading their space? I think about the plethora of meetings via Zoom, Go To Meeting, Google Hangout, etc and the countless guests who have entered my home. More than half may have never received an invite had Covid-19 not made its debut because we do not know each other and quite frankly, I just do not invite anyone over to me and my family’s home. Thus, I am intentional about the space I allow folks to see. I can do that. If I want to use a green screen to prevent unwanted guests from entering, I can do that too. If I choose to, I can limit their view to one area that is less intrusive. I bet many of you do the same. Our students may not have the options we have.

Might I also suggest that video cameras on allow for increased surveillance? Consider three separate incidences out of Colorado, Louisiana, and New Jersey where a teacher observed what he/she/they thought was a gun sitting in a student’s learning space. In each case, the students were African American and two of the three students were suspended from school although the “guns” were confirmed to be toy guns (Elfrink, 2020). Without knowing what the teacher actually saw to prompt him/her/they to make the call, I can admit that I might have notified school officials as well; however, this begs the question, what are we paying attention to? A case study out of a North Carolina school system included students’ thoughts on school surveillance, which I apply to classroom surveillance. When students know you are possibly watching their every move and learning space, “it may have the effect of inducing passivity…they are less likely to develop into people who believe they can and do own and control their thoughts and actions” (as cited by Fedders, 2019, p. 1711).

How might we help teachers with the realization that students just might not want to turn on their video cameras yet? We might claim we need cameras on because we do not know if our students are “present” or engaged. Well, newsflash, some of our students were right in front of us before March and were not “engaged.” Let’s consider how “engaged” our students were pre-Covid-19. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), the average national reading score for 8th graders as measured by the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was 262. For the students of Illinois, the scale broke out as follows: White students-274, Black students-246, Latinx students-255, Asian students-290, and for students who identified as having two or more races-263. Notice the disparity? I recognize this is only one measurement, but this disparity shows up in other areas as well. Just four years ago, the number of schools, in Illinois, reported as having extreme, high, or significant chronic student absenteeism stood at more than 2,000 schools (Chang, Bauer, & Byrnes, 2018). Taken further, during the 2018-2019 school year, 31% and 24% of African American and Indigenous students respectfully were chronically absent compared to 13% of White students (ISBE, 2019). Other disparities, when disaggregated further, show up in grade point averages, access to more rigorous and challenging course work, and the like. The point I would illustrate is that let us not tout that cameras on will change the current landscape. Rather, let’s admit we miss our students and we want to see them. I believe this confession may fare better than any mandate requiring students to turn on their video cameras.

A recent post in Edutopia explored the value of a camera-option policy, which was similarly titled (Venet, 2020). Thus, school districts might consider a camera option policy as a viable solution. Without clear expectations, teachers may arbitrarily develop and enforce rules that only harm students. As an example, my high schooler has six teachers and of the six, three teachers deduct points if students do not have their video cameras on. When discussing video cameras during distance learning, one student stated, “My room is my private space. I don’t like having my camera on and people being able to look at it and judge my posters or how messy or clean it is” (Johnson, 2020). Full disclosure, because I believe my children’s teachers and peers might videoscope, we are deliberate about the space they use and what is visible to the “guests”. At one point, I had my oldest daughter sit in front of a row of books where one might infer the types of conversations occurring in our home. These books ranged from, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein to The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Again, we have options and we elect to have our children turn their video-cameras on. I’ll say it again, we have options and therefore, we choose to have our children turn on their video-cameras. If your students turn on their cameras, will you really see them? Will you see them for who they are and the potential they possess? Will the learning and relationship outcomes change for the better?

In closing, how might we, then, reimage teaching and learning in an environment that does not resemble what we’ve grown unaccustomed to? This is the million-dollar question and one that I, like many others, are grappling with. To assist me and perhaps you, I would bring your attention to the Learning Policy Institute. Here, Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues provide 10-priorities to guide us as we think about reinventing schools during the time of Covid-19. All 10 are critical, but because I was fortunate to have just led a professional development session on culturally responsive teaching, I encourage teachers and school officials to begin with priorities four and six. These two priorities emphasize providing supports for social and emotional wellness and emphasizing authentic and culturally responsive teaching (Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. K. (with Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson, P. W., Jr., Griffith, M., Klevan, S., Maier, A., Martinez, M., Melnick, H., Truong, N., Wojcikiewicz, S.), 2020.

I get it. I want to see students as much as the next person, but I also get that this level of intrusiveness does not, in and of itself, revert to positive student outcomes without first creating trusting and inclusive learning environments. Thus, the abdication of a student’s private space is something I believe we should avoid. The loss of freedom and self-expression is something our Black and Brown children know all too well, already.

References

Chang, B. (2018, Septmber). Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success. Retrieved from Attendance Works: http://www.attendanceworks.org

Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. K. (with Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson, P. W., Jr., Griffith, M., Klevan, S., Maier, A., Martinez, M., Melnick, H., Truong, N., Wojcikiewicz, S.). (2020). Restarting and reinventing school: Learning in the time of COVID and beyond. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Elfrink, T. (2020, September 25). A teacher saw a BB gun in a 9-year-old’s room during online class. He faced expulsion. Retrieved from The Washington Post on: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/09/25/louisiana-student-bbgun-expulsion/

Fedders, B. (2019, September). The Constant and Expanding Classsroom: Surveillance in K-12 Public Schools. North Carolina Law Review, 97(6), 1673+

Johnson, S. (2020, August, 26). On or off? California schools weigh webcam concerns during distance learning. Retrieved from EdSource: https://edsource.org/2020/on-or-off-california-schools-weigh-webcam-concerns-during-distance-learning/638984

Illinois State Department of Education. (2019). Chronic Absenteeism. Retrieved from Illinois Rport Card 2018-2019: http://www.illinoisreportcard.com

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2019 Reading Assessment.

Venet, A. S. (2020, September 24). The Value of a Camera-Optional Policy. Retrieved from Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/article/value-camera-optional-policy

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It’s Now or Never

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My heart aches. My heart has ached for quite some time now. Perhaps the ache is a combination of my personal trials as a Black woman who identifies with the LGBTQ community coupled with the continued senseless killings of Black people at the hands of police. Take the latest headline as an example; the latest headline depicts the most heinous killing, in broad daylight, of Mr. George Floyd by one callous police officer. This despicable murder is not numbing as others may have been; instead, the murder of Mr. George Floyd has sparked a nation-wide rage that is long overdue.

I have witnessed and experienced enough of my own trauma and devastation to last a lifetime. From a virus (Covid-19), that knows no boundaries to the lasting consequences of slavery from over 400-years ago. Yet, today my heart aches more.

Across the country, I see inequities play out in school systems that often leave our children feeling hopeless. Manifested in that hopelessness are often actions some would label as thuggish as several protests have left businesses burned down, workers once again unemployed and incessant violence throughout some of our most segregated communities. I do not promote violence and will not excuse many of the images that I, like you, have observed on television. I also know we, as a Black people, are not the only ones to blame for the damages left behind, but this conversation is for another day.  How easy it is to name what you see on television, displayed on the front pages of newspapers, or circulating on social media as thuggish? It is easy to use derogatory names, such as thugs, when blaming one group of people when you cannot relate to the immense pain of a people.  Consider the words of the great civil rights’ leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Riots are the voices of the unheard.” Again, I am not purporting that hurt people should hurt people. Yet, how many sat in silence as the inequities piled high?

So, where did this rage come from? I contend this is not a rage from one incident- in particular the killing of Mr. George Floyd. Rather, this rage is a culmination of injustices in every area of a Black person’s life. Consider food insecurities; consider lack to proper health care; consider health disparities, housing disparities, job disparities, transportation disparities, wealth disparities, and education disparities. Consider all of it. When you consider the enormous amount of disparities playing out in every area of one’s life that prevented the opportunity to build and maintain quality of life, perhaps you begin to realize the unheard refused to be unheard any longer.

Where, in actuality, does equality exist aside from words on a paper? Keep pondering. I have not found it yet. Sure, you might say well look at you, Teresa. And, yes, I may have risen to the ranks of a school superintendent and earned three additional initials behind my name, but I can attest none of this mattered when I was asked, in its most subtle and sometimes not subtle form asked, to turn a blind eye to injustice. I could continue to write on this issue alone, but I will save this for another story.

I am happy, albeit tempered, at the outpouring of statements coming from Superintendents and school boards across the country denouncing racism. Those statements alone, however, do not spark action. I am concerned that normality will set in again. The storm will pass and all will revert to normal.

Nevertheless, I am pleading with each of you who may feel so inclined to act. Fight the urge to crawl back into your safe space. Now is the time to fight like hell knowing you will put everything on the line, including yourself. What does this look like in practice? For starters, let me preface by saying I am not an expert on this work. Therefore, I will speak from my readings, prior and current experiences, and downright common sense.

First, if you have issued a statement on behalf of yourself and/or school district, good! That is a good start. Now, go back and re-read your statement. Is it soft around the edges? If it does not actually embed words such as racism, Black, privilege, next steps, then write another statement.  Next, continue these series of non-exhaustive steps:

  • Read books by Black authors. I get that White Fragility is the craze right now, so go ahead and read that too. However, I want you to read books that will challenge your thinking and build your capacity to engage in this work at a much deeper level. Here are a just a few authors and recommended texts to consider:
    • James Baldwin- The Fire Next Time
    • Prudence L.  Carter- Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools
    • Lisa Delpit-Other People’s Children
    • John Diamond & Amanda Lewis (White)-Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools
    • Geneva Gay- Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice
    • Ibram X. Kendi-How to Be an Antiracist
    • Gloria Ladson-Billings- The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children
    • Audre Lorde-Your Silence Will Not Protect You
    • H. Richard Milner IV- Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms
    • Dr. Beverly Tatum-Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
  • Immerse yourself in spaces where you can talk honestly and openly about your learnings with others who are on the journey with you. Include ‘us’ to challenge, affirm, and encourage you on your learning journey.
  • Share your learnings, including authors and books, with others in your realm of influence.
  • Review every single district policy for areas of weakness that intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate inequities. Then, challenge your Board to revise them all.
  • Align fragmented policies and practices that lean adult-centered rather than student-centered.
  • Make sure ‘we’ are at the table in your decision making process.
  • Review every curriculum document, including texts. Look for when and how people of Color show up in these places. How often? When? For how long?
  • Review your hiring practices. If your district is staffed primarily with White folk, regardless of student demographics, ask-how do I actively recruit to diversify staff? Where do I go (ex. HBCUs)? How will I support staff of Color?
  • Review disciplinary infraction data. Who is referred to the office? Who is suspended? By who? How often? For what? Put a name, better yet, put your name next to every student suspended. Rings differently.
  • Do your disciplinary policies inadvertently target Black students? (ex. durags vs. leggings)
  • Examine evaluations and classroom observation data. Is everyone rated proficient yet Black and Brown students are still failing at disproportionate rates?
  • Examine student tasks. Are they culturally and cognitively challenging for everyone?
  • Examine your guidance department. Do we appear in pictures around the offices? Are HBCU pennants displayed?

Again, the aforementioned list of actionable steps are not intended to be all-inclusive, but I hope they give you some concrete places to start.

Finally, I am a Black woman, mother, wife, daughter, sister, niece, cousin and friend. These tags mean I am someone and someone’s someone. These past two years of sitting in the superintendent seat have awakened a fire in my spirit that lay dormant for far too long; I imagine an inner unrest. This unrest has stirred in me a desire to do more. From the oppressive behaviors of White people, policies, and practices, the lasting consequences are evident. It is time for everyone to heed the call, move to action, and from where you are, recognize as my pastor so eloquently articulated, receive that your calling is birthed out of crisis. Let’s go!

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Maybe the Beginning

The year is 1994. I started my first year of teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools. If you know much about Baltimore City aka Charm City, you know teaching in Baltimore City is not for the faint at heart.  Consider Nina Simone’s song, “Baltimore” , where the lyrics read, “Oh, Baltimore, Ain’t it just hard to live?” or Prince’s 2015 collaboration with Eryn Allen Kane and their song also titled, “Baltimore”. In verse one, Prince sings, “We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’.” Neither artist depicted a pretty picture of Charm City. But, I also knew another side of the city. This is a city where my career in education began and thus, I owe much of my strength. Still. there is another side of Baltimore that is not often shared. One in which diversity is its’ strength and a resilient people grow.

Back to my beginning. You see, because I was born in New York, many folks assume I had the thick skin to weather the initial challenges I encountered in the classroom. They were wrong. Sure, I was born and raised in New York, but not Brooklyn or Queens or Harlem where some of the toughest folks I knew were raised. Instead, I was born in Mount Vernon, a small city near the Bronx and a little shy of 35-minutes from Manhattan. I attended parochial schools from kindergarten through high school. And, my mother, albeit a divorcee, sheltered me as much as she could from the ails of our city.

I recall interviewing for my first teaching job while still in my Masters’ program. Because I majored in physical education (PE) and had not yet completed my Masters in Health Education, I was eager to teach PE. When I arrived in Baltimore to tour the school and explore the gymnasium where I would hold court, I was shocked when the principal took me into a real classroom. Honestly, I’m questioning, quietly to myself, what am I suppose to do in here? The principal, with her big smile, said, I am going to have you teach health. So it begins. I started my first year teaching health education to eighth graders. I was clueless. I was prepared to set up the gym; I was comfortable demonstrating techniques for most sports, but terms like differentiation, depth of knowledge, and deficit-thinking were not broad terms used 25-years ago, so I was left figuring this teaching thing out on my own. It did not help that I was also the youngest member on staff, small in stature, and had the word “scared” scrolled across my forehead. It didn’t take long for me to resort to putting students out of my classroom when behavior issues surfaced. I honestly did not know what else to do.

There were so many shocks that first year. the shock of not knowing how to teach Black boys who were taller than me; the shock of teaching Black girls who eyed you with deep suspicion; and then there was the shock of how to respond when your students fight…in front of you. Yes, this was the beginning of the end. So I thought. My classroom was next door to a staff restroom. So, when I was confronted with the first physical altercation between two of my students, I was completely caught of guard. Now, I am no pushover and my mom would attest to the number of altercations I had growing up, but I was a teacher. I am suppose to save the world and my students are fighting. Now what? Once students, not staff, broke up the fight, I quickly went into that staff restroom and cried like a baby. Why was I crying so hard? The altercation and the fact my idealist views of everyone will get along and I will save them from themselves was halted and quite suddenly. So, I did what I knew best at the time. I called my mom and told her I wanted to come home. No, she didn’t tell me to stick it out. Instead, in her sweet and nurturing voice, my mom told me to come on home. I still smile at this thought. I did not go home though. Rather, there were a team of veteran teachers who must have observed my inhibitions and external struggles; they took me under their wing. Their guidance and support were invaluable to me then and to this day, I hold true to the values of team. So, the journey to press through year one of teaching in the heart of East Baltimore City continues.

Beyond the Impasse

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, two days after honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we will inaugurate our 46th President of the United States, Mr. Joseph R. Biden. President-Elect Biden’s inauguration continues a long-standing tradition dating back to 1789 with the first President, George Washington, taking office. The inauguration ceremony is met with a great deal of grandeur and celebration. There are, of course, intense security precautions to protect those in attendance, but more importantly, to protect the incoming president.  This year, however, the security measures are even greater due to the weeks leading up to this momentous occasion that touted lies of election fraud and culminated with an insurrection that occurred on January 6, 2021. The Insurrection. Who’s culpable in this insurrection? I think and pull up The Impasse of Race Relations, a speech given to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who when referencing the “ghetto outbreaks”, quoted poet and author, Victor Hugo. Hugo said, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.” Again, I pose the question, who is culpable? The White Supremacists or the ones who enabled their actions?

Before I proceed, let me preface this by saying that I will make every effort to craft a message that sets aside my personal political affiliations and instead, share why tomorrow is a crucial turning point for America and more importantly share resources you may turn to as you help ease potential fears and anxiety gripping our nation. For  school district leaders wrestling with what to write to members of your community and/or staff members, I imagine you are not alone. Politics are most always aligned to one’s beliefs and values. Therefore, tempering your words as not to alienate and offend the losing party is probably a delicate balance. Yet, there is an opportunity to address your community and staff with a written statement, followed by explicit actions, that align to your personal convictions. Convictions that I strongly hope indicate your immense desire to undo a legacy of long-standing ill practices that have stood to harm communities of Color and Black girls and women, more specifically. 

Back to a crucial turning point. This presidential election revealed the deep political and racial divide in America from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia to the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.  When staff and students return to school, they will undoubtedly have mixed emotions. Those who voted for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris and those who did not will have very different emotions. What’s important is how those feelings show up in front of students. Therefore, I suggest we use the outcome of the 2020 election as a moment to explicitly acknowledge the racial divide in our country and how race and gender intersected before, during, and even after this election outcome. 

My children know the work I engage in is specific to addressing inequities, so I think about two questions when I talk to them about the election and its subsequent outcome:  What policies and/or practices are Mr. Biden committing to employing to eradicate racial injustices? What prejudices and obstacles did Ms. Kamala Harris have to overcome to stand as the first woman of Color to serve as the Vice-President? I am intentional with engaging my children in these conversations about race and racism because I want them to have an awareness when they see it and the tools to counter it when the effects run counter to how they are being raised. Our district and school leaders’ as well as teachers’ approach might look different from the conversations around race in our home, but the goal should still be the same. Be honest; be kind; and leave space for reflection and dialogue. 

There are a few organizations that provide suggestions for how we might engage in these conversations in the classroom. I particularly appreciate how lessons on the website, Facing History and Ourselves asks teachers to provide space for students to reflect on questions that are three-pronged; each question should have responses that poke at the head, heart, and conscience. We would do ourselves a favor if we engage in the same practice. Consider the questions below when thinking about the events leading up to Wednesday’s inauguration before walking into the district office, school, or classroom: 

  1. Head: What led to the election of President-Elect, Joe Biden and Vice-President Elect, Kamala Harris? What additional facts or information would you like to have?
  2. Heart: How do you feel about their inauguration?  Are there specific events or images that resonate strongly for you?
  3. Conscience: What do you believe was at stake if the presidential election had a different outcome? Would the students you teach agree with your assertion? 

Below are just a few of the sites staff might consider when thinking about how to create and embed race conscious lessons in the classroom include: 

If you are still struggling with what to say, think of the message you send when you say nothing. As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” Lorde, in speaking of revolution, also said, “…it is not a one time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change…” Considering both of these quotes, I contend that if you are learning to become an anti-racist and you genuinely want to see America change for the better, then start by using your existing platform to create spaces for students and staff to reflect on experiences from the head, heart, and conscious. 

Lead boldly; we are all watching. 

Driving without a seat belt

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Two years in and there is already a changing of the guard. My colleagues and I just learned that a new principal would take over at the helm. It was a bittersweet moment. For one, I knew I was going to miss my former principal and would always appreciate how she took a chance on me; she offered me my first teaching job, fresh out of college. She even assigned me to various committees during my first two-years, which afforded me some voice (so I thought) into school decisions. From this experience and many others to follow, I now know we should avoid forming and naming a committee thereby creating a façade that people’s advice and opinions are wanted. Okay, back to the story.

Unfortunately, I also saw a side of my former principal’s leadership that I thought, even as one of the newest staff members, was counterproductive. For example, I observed on many occasions self-reliance at play. Self-reliance, according to Merriam-Webster, means relying on one’s own efforts and abilities. And, yes we all have a set of strengths, but unless we are willing to engage in shared leadership, good organizations will falter. The most effective organizations, as posited by Jim Collins in Good to Great, have disciplined people. Disciplined people who exemplify a combination of personal humility coupled with intense professional will and determination help to propel an organization forward and sustain great results. Consequently, when I thought my former principal should have solicited feedback or assistance in moving the work forward, she did not. She was driving without a seatbelt. She arrived early, stayed late, and missed excellent opportunities to distribute leadership. That seatbelt may have consisted of moments of reflection, becoming a listener, engaging in inquiry alongside her staff, or any other behavior that communicated I am driving, but I still want and need your help. On the other side, however, I have observed teachers disavow leading and/or co-leading the work. This behavior I will never understand. I found it counter-productive and consequently had lasting implications on the organization and stalled positive student outcomes.

As I began to advance in my career, I would find myself making similar mistakes to my former principal. The mistakes were sometimes costly. For example, after teaching 8th grade students my first three years, I felt confident in what I was doing. My students, however, would probably feel differently today L; I certainly do. Worksheets were not engaging, yet I perceived their compliance for engagement. So, when I was asked to pick up another grade, namely sixth-graders, I relied on what I did with my upper grades. I flopped, early and often. I would so often let my pride get in the way and failed to ask for guidance on how to connect to this younger, much more rambunctious, group of inquisitive youngsters. The result was exhaustion and defeatism, which eventually led to me losing the desire to teach.

Ah, but I knew a safe-place to turn. For the sake of this blog, I will call my dear friend, who carried me through that tumultuous time, Tola (pronounced Thee-o-la). She was the homeroom teacher for my sixth grade students, so she had them more than any other classroom teacher did. Tola had a presence about her that carried both strength yet warmth. Before throwing in the towel, again, I reached out to her. Right or wrong, she would come to my classroom and give my/our students a stern lecture about their behavior. I came to rely on her for this, but then it dawned on me that I should come visit her classroom and observe how she interacted with her students. This was one of a few turning points for me, as I would eventually transition to an administrator. I have since learned to solicit not only the input of my colleagues and direct reports, but to value their input as much. I knew that to grow, I had to observe others; I had to be comfortable enough to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. In short, I had to be a learner. What I learned early on in observing leaders and in leading is that one person cannot and should not do it all. Knowing you cannot do the work single-handedly requires humility. I would learn to wear my seat belt.

Working on E (Empty)

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If you were like me growing up, you had all the grandiose plans for how things would turn out when you got older. For me, I conjured up a big house, three kids, at least two luxury cars, and everything in between that I did not have growing up. No one stopped me from dreaming nor did they ask me how I was going to afford all of these things, so I kept dreaming.

Fast forward. I just accepted my first teaching position. The excitement is intense. I am eager to get started, meet my students, and earn my first paycheck. My starting salary was somewhere around $22,000; I was making big bucks…I thought. I still had little concept as to what that would get me and how far. All I knew was that the big house, three kids, and a luxury car or two were soon to follow. Well, unbeknownst to me that $22,000 annual salary in the 1990s was not going to get me far. Unfortunately, I found myself calling home, not once, but several times during my first year of teaching. I just needed a little extra money to hold me over until payday, was my excuse. Luxury car? Well, I proudly drove a 1997 Honda Prelude with no air conditioner for a very long time. House? I willingly and proudly accepted living in a one-bedroom apartment. Kids? Well, that can wait; I am still young.

The notion of overworked and underpaid never occurred to me until later on in my career. Unfortunately, we still encounter countless underpaid teachers. I believe folks think that because you arrive at a certain level or have a different title, you have no appreciation for what living on less is like. I have to chuckle at this notion.  

In order to make ends meet, I worked a second job my entire teaching career. My after-hours’ job stints included working at Circuit City; I could recall the latest music and categorize any movie in a matter of minutes. I also worked at The Boys and Girls Club. My time at the Boys and Girls Club was by far one of the most rewarding second jobs I was able to obtain. Moreover, if Uber or Lyft were available in the 1990s, I would have driven for them too. I worked every summer not because I wanted to spend an additional month or two with middle schoolers (sorry kids), but I honestly could NOT afford to NOT generate income over these summer months. The intensity of lesson planning, grading assignments, parent-teacher conferences, and the daily grind to give your best wears on a person; it wore on me. I would have given anything to have a summer off or rest after work. That was not my reality and I recognize that it is not a reality for countless teachers today.

This recognition that many teachers are underpaid does not, however, negate that we have to give our student scholars our very best. They are depending on us. I knew this in my early 20s and I know it today. So, if I had to call home for a few extra dollars until the next payday that was not going to stop me from pouring my heart and soul into my students. I just knew I was working on E!