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!

Standing in the Gap

Why blog? Simple question with a not so simple answer. I will attempt, however, to answer this question that unfortunately, may leave the reader with more questions than answers. But, I do hope it leaves you wanting to know more about how I ended up writing and thus, you will follow along as I share my journey.

I will take you along with me from my first year of teaching, through my first appointment as a campus administrator, and ultimately as a school superintendent. Each experience ripe with lessons learned, increased support systems, tears, laughter, loneliness, anger, sadness, but ultimately a quest to do right by every single student I was charged to serve.

For now, back to the question, why blog? Prior to Thanksgiving of last year-yes, just a couple of months ago, I was confronted with a new truth, which rattled me to the core. I cannot tell you yet because you will not stay for the journey, but just know it left me asking myself, where do I belong? Brené Brown addresses belonging in many of her books. For instance, Ms. Brown states in her book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, “Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.”

Belonging and acceptance were now front and center for me and when faced with the unknown you begin to question everything. In my case, I did question everything. What I realized, however, is where I am today is not by accident. From my humble beginnings as a baby-faced, scared teacher in Baltimore City to my time in Houston, Texas; Decatur, Illinois; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and now, in Lansing, Illinois; each location provided and provides a golden nugget. I now have this innate desire to share my story on a platform that I control in my voice and my truth. And, because I am learning to live authentically and imperfectly, it begins…My story, My way.

My goal is to share a little bit of my journey every other week, so hit the follow button to stay up to date and if you are a praying person, I will gladly take those prayers.


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.