This past school year was one that could only be described as a whirlwind. It was a year of firsts: new grade, new team members, new students, and a new building.
In August, I was energetic and eager to begin the 2019-2020 year. By January, I felt worn down and was very unsure of what the future held for the field that once brought me so much joy. I found myself putting on a mask of sorts. The demands of the job, state and district testing, new standards, and student behaviors, led me to fight an internal battle between doing what I felt was right and what was required of me.
Browsing the internet, I came across article after article written by teachers expressing similar struggles. It seemed like the universe was trying to show me that I wasn't alone with the feelings and thoughts I was having. In that moment, the heavy cloud I felt around me began to dissipate. I felt rejuvenated to finish out the remaining of the school year, which was unfortunately cut short due to the pandemic we are still experiencing.
Fast forward to today. An article entitled: The Experiences of Teachers of Color by Leah Shafer, came across my inbox. Shafer sought to shed light on how districts could do a better job at retaining Black and Latino teachers and showing that they have value.
As a black teacher, there were numerous points within the article that I felt summarized much of my 8 year experience in education. I want to share a few highlights and my thoughts. Feel free to read the article in its entirety and take what you will from it.
-Black and Latino teachers believed they could better connect with same-race students. They could empathize with their experiences, build relationships because of perceived cultural similarities, and motivate those students differently than white colleagues.
I always heard students don't learn from teachers they don't like, but I also learned through experience that sometimes students learn better from teachers that look like them. A simple connection of just looking like a mom, cousin, sister, or adult in their life can make a big difference too. I had a past 5th grader tell me I didn't feel like his teacher, I felt like the big sister he never had and it made learning from me easier because he knew I wanted him to succeed.
-Black teachers often had a distinct ability to manage “difficult” students, and colleagues often asked them to supervise and help these students during planning periods or after school. But because of this work, black teachers felt they were often seen as enforcers rather than educators — that they were overlooked in opportunities to advance professionally.
I can't even count the number of times that I received a black student who was "difficult" or a "behavior problem" in Mrs. So and So's class, but in my class there were limited to no problems from the student. Of course some will say its simply behavior management strategies ( which I feel pretty awesome at implementing), but if you ask other black teachers, many of us will say that's not the case. This "skill" is a double-edged sword of sorts. We want to help, but the negative connotation of always getting the "problem students" isn't always a good teaching environment, but these are usually the kids that need the connection with us the most.
-Don’t place a teacher of color in a school where she’s the only non-white educator; such a position can be isolating and debilitating.
Two years ago, I came to a new school and was the 2nd black teacher in the building full time. It was different because where I was previously, this wasn't the case. While my coworkers were welcoming and easy to work with, I missed being able to pass another teacher that looked like me in the halls on a regular basis. If it made a difference to me as an adult, it has to make a difference to a black child.
-Be willing and ready to talk about race with your staff. A multiracial group of teachers need to be able to discuss discrimination, equity, and differences in experience. In staff meetings and professional development, practice having these conversations. Establish norms and develop strategies and protocols. This work can have far-reaching effects — educators who can have these difficult conversations with adults will be better equipped to show their students how to have them, too.
This point right here takes the cake. We are currently dealing with political unrest and racial tension in our society. These issues spill into work environments and schools are not excluded from the topic of race. We are a melting pot of different races, nationalities,and cultures. For me, the conversations and professional development we have about minority issues have always felt very surface level to keep things comfortable. The main issue for me is that we need to get uncomfortable and get REAL. Stepping in a circle, raising your hand if you relate to statements, or reading a book isn't going to really get to the "nitty gritty" of what is and isn't happening in your building. It takes open, honest, and often difficult conversations to truly understand what black teachers and students feel and experience.
As we prepare to return to school, I have promised myself to stay encouraged and speak out when I have issues. I know black educators have value and it's time for us to let our voices be heard for ourselves and students who look like us. We deserve it.