This article was first published on indy.education
There is not enough self-care in the world that can shield a person from a toxic work environment. I had a few jobs before I became a K-12 educator. I worked in my dorm’s cafeteria, at Villa Pizza in the student union at Purdue, and at a church daycare. The work environment was nice. People were supportive, kind, and courteous. When I accepted my first professional job, I was shocked to learn how toxic the workplace environment could be.
In schools, there are two components that make a workplace toxic, the leadership and the teachers. If you’ve read my viral piece, Teachers Quit Principals, Not Schools, you know I do not think administrators should be let off of the hook. However, it’s time to address those teachers that make the school environment a difficult place to work.
You would think that a person who enters the education profession would have a certain type of character, a personality that meshes well with others. Shouldn’t teachers have a servant attitude and assume the best of others? In some schools, this is not the case. It is war, and some teachers are out for blood.
I find it interesting that we preach that teachers should give students a fresh start each day, but then some teachers will not give a fresh start to their colleagues each day. They operate on assumptions and do not bother with seeking out the facts. I worked at a school where a cake would be purchased for your birthday. My birthday is in August. Once I realized this would happen, I requested to not have my birthday celebrated at work. The response was to gossip about me and spread rumors that I must be a Jehovah’s Witness. Here’s the kicker. They decided to buy a cake anyway and told me I did not need to get any since I did not want to celebrate my birthday. I was told my refusal to celebrate my birthday at work was denying them the opportunity to have cake which is why they got cake despite my request. Did anyone apologize for assuming I was a Jehovah’s Witness? Nope! This may seem like a small incident, but small incidents over time pile up.
At this same school, a teacher kept calling me by the name of another black teacher. This other black teacher was petite, had long hair, and wore glasses, but that is where the commonalities ended. She was a different shade of black, taught math when I taught English, and taught on a different floor. Finally, I had enough. I told the teacher to not speak to me. I said, “You are an elective teacher and have everyone in the building. You can remember hundreds of students’ names but for some reason, you can’t remember my name.” Her response was, “I don’t understand why you are being so aggressive and rude.” Oh, I’m rude. Oh, okay. I just had to walk away at that point. I said, in my head, Lord, not today.
How many times have teachers had to have an inner-dialogue, Lord, not today, just to make it through the day? This should not be a norm which made me think about a theme I heard last night at the Comunity Conversation: Retaining Teachers of Color. It was toxicity. Teachers, especially teachers of color, do not want to work in toxic environments where they are mistreated, overlooked, and not heard. Many of the panelists shared experiences that I also had experienced.
The words of Latina panelist Idalmi Acosta resonated with me. She shared how colleagues thought she would not be capable of teaching English, especially grammar. I’ve been there. “Shawnta, was using slang with students. I don’t think she should teach grammar if she’s going to talk like that. English teachers should use Standard English.” It’s called code-switching. I can move from African-American Vernacular English to check students and put them in their place in my black momma voice and then switch back to standard English to teach students how to write compound-complex sentences.
It is not only the comments and assumptions. Some teachers actively try to get you in trouble or undermine. They report everything you do, hoping you’ll get in trouble even if you are not doing anything. They will also veto every idea you have until they share it, and then it is okay. Dr. Dennisha Murff, a panelist last night, shared that she also faced a similar experience of white colleagues suggesting ideas after she had previously presented the same idea.
Who wants to go to work day in and day out and work with people who are against you and who don’t think you have the skills to do your job? At the end of the day, I have to circle back to school leadership. For some reason, toxic teachers seem to be survivors at schools. Their presence pushes other teachers out the door, and yet, school leaders do nothing. I don’t need an administrator to fight all my battles, but I need the administrator to have my back when it gets tough. I need an administrator willing to coach a teacher out of the building or fire a teacher, if that’s what it takes, so the school environment is not toxic.
The students know. The students notice how staff members interact with each other. It is not worth it to keep a toxic teacher especially since that typically always means that good teachers will be pushed out the door.
This week I had the honor of chatting with two school leaders. Jasmine Bergeron of Elan Academy and Javonni Ramos of Foundation Preparatory School. Both highlighted their schools in pure joy when sharing the great work happening in their school communities. Grabbing our delicious treats of king cake and PJs Coffee specialties, I could tell that this interview would be full of energy so we began with brief introductions of the schools and their locations.
Elan Academy sits quietly on the westbank of New Orleans and grows every year in size. Currently serving pre-kindergarten 4 through 4th grade, next year, they will grow to grade 5. And one year at a time, Elan plans to increase by one grade until they reach grade 8.
Foundation Preparatory, currently serving kindergarten to 6th grade, is nestled in Gentilly at the long time home of what was Medard H. Nelson Elementary school. Since moving into the school site, Foundation Prep has grown to 250 students in size.
Both schools are apart of the #SchoolsThatCare campaign run by the organization Black Education of New Orleans (BeNOLA). This initiative is in hopes to shine a spotlight on smaller but promising schools working to develop children’s unique gifts, talents, and personal needs.
Teachers are Our Greatest Asset
We quickly moved towards a conversation about the teachers. As a former teacher of the New Orleans charter school movement and now serving as a professor to teach even more teachers, this is a question I wanted to dive right into. I was pleased to hear how much both schools love, respect, and support the craft of the educators in their buildings.
Both schools utilize a co-teaching model of two teachers in one room. Class sizes cap off at 25 students per room. The co-teaching model promotes a novice teacher or newer teacher to the profession to work with a more seasoned or veteran teacher who can model the skill of teaching and then allow the teacher to practice and hone skills for themselves. It also supports students receiving more personalized learning instruction by working in smaller groups.
Ms. Bergeron informed us of their efforts to concentrate on professional development stressing that this work begins early. Professional development happens for four weeks during summer and continues every Friday of the school year. Friday’s students take part in a shortened school day so that teachers can take part in their own teaching and learning. And once a month, teachers are able to leave at 2 p.m. in support of what they call a “Health Day.” During this time teachers are encouraged to take care of themselves by heading to the doctor or fulfilling any other needs in order to take care of themselves.
Mr. Ramos went on to explain that the teachers at Foundation Prep undergo professional development that helps them to support their students and their social-emotional lives. Students are not apart from their home lives or the traumatic experiences that may have occurred outside of school. Foundation Prep has partnered with the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (I-WES) to train and support teachers in their work with students and mental health education. This professional development helps their teachers to learn about 1) Impact of individual and community trauma, 2) Adverse Childhood Experiences, 3) Self-community- care and resilience, 4) Restorative Justice Practices. With the help of I-WES, Foundation Prep helps to build teachers who are equipped to support their students if social-emotional issues arise.
A Typical Day
When asked about what a day in the life of a student looked like, Ms. Bergeron explained that every day is a new beginning at Elan Academy. The morning starts with being greeted by a school leader, followed by breakfast and brain work to get their juices flowing. Then there is a morning meeting pow-wow and classroom morning chants and affirmations that set their intentions to have a great day of learning.
Students there also partake in learning Latin as a second language in efforts to build their capacities to learn even more words. And finally, at the end of the day, students are given a choice hour where they are able to make choices in fun activities with their peers or on their own.
Mr. Ramos jumped in and explained that students at Foundation Prep began the day somewhat the same though the younger students were supported by the 5th graders during the breakfast hour. Students at Foundation Prep were also heavily focused on Literacy. That includes all facets: reading, writing, speaking/listening, and language arts instruction. And apart from the normal school day, students there partake in yoga classes, an effort to move their bodies and breathe in order to center themselves and continue learning.
One of our final questions of the night was about parents and their involvement. Elan Academy has a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) but prides themselves on their open-door policy as well as keeping their parents close and asking them what they want and need from the school. This open communication helps the staff serve their students best to build a community fostered in connection and working with each other not just for one another.
Foundation Prep leans into their Parent Association by having it run by the school’s teachers. Parental involvement is so important to the work with student progress that the teachers have taken on that task with pride. Mr. Ramos also gave big kudos to Foundation Prep’s parent liaison who has been apart of the school since it opened. She set the foundation for the teachers to follow her lead in making phone calls to each and every parent and guardian to create the connections needed to continue the work inside of the school.
Work and Progress
With so many choices and so little spotlight on smaller schools and their offerings, I was happy to have met these two school leaders. While we as parents work with the changes and may not have as much time as we would like to, to do school visits or are just inundated with the emphasis on letter grades, this interview was encouraging. There are schools in the city doing the work that matters that want to offer you and your child a place to grow together in education.
Though it seems that equitable education is out of reach for us and our children, that is not the truth. There are school sites that are continuously working and approaching school in a non-traditional fashion tailored to serve our non-traditional New Orleanian children. Let’s continue to do what we can do by asking the questions and viewing our options. You just may find the diamond in the rough you were hoping for.
This article was first posted on askmissherd.com
In celebration of the MLK holiday, and out of an effort to build power and cultivate change, the Second Annual “Black and Brown Get Down” took place last month. Sponsored and produced by Our Voice Nuestra Voz, the premise of the event was to “Break Bread and Build Community”; after all, most great things in our culture start at the dinner table. Established in 2019, out of a deep love for Black and Brown people, our shared struggle and our shared stories, this year’s event was held alongside the Muddy Mississippi at Crescent Park: Mandeville Warf, which was transformed into a beautiful and welcoming event space.
The night began with a ceremonial welcome from the Mardi Gras Indians and the Calpulli Tonaalehqueh, danzantes Azteca, You can read more about them on their site. It was a beautiful way to honor our ancestors and set the tone for the programming that took place.
The 200+ attendees were pre-assigned seating at tables bearing the names of notable ancestors- Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nipsey Hussle (to name a few). Participants indulged in a family-style dinner with guided conversations around our communities, the challenges that are faced and steps we can take to build power together. As explained on Nuestra Voz’s social media page, “Without conversations, community needs cannot be identified, opportunities for success cannot be created and the barriers that keep us from building coalitions with one another cannot be broken.”
The Black and Brown Get Down is the brainchild of Marydee Moran, co-founder and Executive Director of Our Voice/Nuestra Voz, a local non-profit advocacy group. This event was one that Moran has dreamed about since she was a child, growing up in California. Now committed to the New Orleans community, Mary has seen her dream take on a life of its own.
At the end of the dinner, she announced the launch of one of the many transformative actions that will come from this movement: The #BlackandBrownGetDown Community Defense Fund.
This fund has been created to invest in our ability to act and defend Black and Brown people, including a bail relief fund and scholarships for undocumented students (among other things). Moran says, “ The #BlackAndBrownGetDown Community Defense Fund takes us from conversation to action. It increases our ability to act as a collective voice as we defend our communities and build our power. A community that cannot defend itself will continue to be vulnerable in a country that has historically left us voiceless, marginalized, and oppressed.”
After dinner there was dancing, celebrating and fellowship. The Black and Brown Get Down is truly one of the most uplifting events of the year. To find out more information and to sign up for other events, visit www.omv.org.
You know the saying “train up a child?” Well, when I hear that I think of all the women in my mom’s old hair salon. When I was a kid and wanted to get my hair done, my mom would make me work for it. I used to wash hair, clean up, run errands, answer phones, you name it.
All the ladies in the salon would tell my mom how happy they were to see me working and earning. All I wanted was a blow out. Even though I didn’t understand what she was doing, other than abusing child labor laws, I understand now. She was instilling hard work in me and even showing me how helping others will make me a better person. She was showing me that to get what I want, I have to work for it.
I watched my mom motivate, inspire and uplift so many women in that salon. The beauty salon was so much more than a place where you went to get your hair washed. It was a place for women to exhale, laugh, eat, and cry. I’m so happy to have been a part of that.
Fast forward to 2020. I want to spotlight a young 8-years-old girl and her mother, motivating and inspiring just the way my mom did. Maybe not with a blow dryer in hand but in their own special way. Today, I want to introduce you to a mother-daughter duo that’s inspiring and uplifting young girls in New Orleans and hopefully, around the world.
Meet Mother and daughter Windy & Peyton. They started their own brand, Peyticakes, with a mission of inspiring and empowering girls all over the world. I had a chance to sit down with them and learn more about what drives them and their goals with this amazing mother-daughter venture.
How did Peyticakes come about and why did you start the business?
I have always wanted to transition into entrepreneurship but was never quite sure what direction I would take because I had so many ideas. After having my daughter all of that changed because she instantly became a source of inspiration. As she got older, I realized that we shared a lot of the same passions, so it was inevitable that she’d be my business partner. The name has been around for a while as it was a nickname given to her by my family.
I decided when my daughter Peyton was around a year old that one day we’d have a business called Peyticakes, but didn’t realize how involved and influential she would be on the brand. One night we decided to create vision boards. Peyton included that she wanted to be a Fashion Designer and own a business, amongst a few other things. After our vision board party, we started to play a game called “I Am.” I asked Peyton to say words of affirmation to describe how she saw herself. I started with I Am Beautiful! and she followed with I Am Strong. We continued to play this until I think we both ran out of words lol. Then Peyton looks at me and says, “Mommy let’s put that on a shirt.”
As a proud mom, I lit up like fire and told her this could be the start of her fashion design career and running her own business. I told her not only will she become a young entrepreneur, but she would also inspire other girls just like her to know how to speak words of affirmations about themselves too. I made her understand that this will guide those girls to remind them that they are worthy and valuable. We both agreed on 5 statements that could be the launch of her I AMCollection.
I will say, since we’ve been working on this, she has not been shy to share with the world that she knows that she is enough! She has become a mini advocate, so we also decided to turn the collection into a movement. The “ I Am” movement encourages and teaches girls the fundamentals of knowing what their value means! We love using influence to inspire.
Why is the Message so Important?
When I was my daughter’s age, I didn’t know what value meant or that I was ok just the way I was created. I didn’t know that being enough at the moment could be real. Generations have definitely changed over time and it’s quite different from my childhood. She’ll be faced with situations that weren’t as prominent while I was growing up. Therefore, I want her to be secure in who she is during every season of her life.
I want her to know that she will change and evolve, and her value will increase during each stage of that evolution. I can’t say this enough: It is easier to build strong kids than to repair broken adults. The message is important to me because it’s part of my way of breaking generational cycles. It’s important for her because she will be the new generation that will lead and learn in a different way and I want her to continue to share that legacy.
Why is education so important to you?
Education is the foundation in building, grooming and preparing our children. I firmly believe that child development starts in the home, but the academic structure given to them teaches them what they need to learn in order to progress in life on levels that will only get by being in school.
I instill in both of my children that education is the blueprint of their future and how they navigate through life. It’s the building block that stimulates their brains and prepares them for whatever is thrown their way. I explain to them that education is power and no one can strip you of what you know. No one! I want them to continue feeding their minds about any and everything. It’s their birthright and I want them to know how privileged they are to learn freely. I do not take that lightly. I want them to know that they are our ancestors’ wildest dreams and never take learning for granted.
What message do you and Peyton want to share with young girls?
The message that we both want to share is for every girl to stand tall, stand strong, and to always believe in themselves. I take pride in showing Peyton how to push through when she may feel like giving up or if things aren’t so good at school one day. Because she knows that I’m here to encourage her, she wants to do the same for other girls too. My daughter is pretty confident and I love that about her.
I want her to share her confidence with other girls to inspire them so they’ll know that they are beautiful, smart, loved, enough, worthy, awesome… The list can go on and on lol! The mission behind the Peyticakes brand is to create products, projects, and movements that will help girls embrace their beauty, talent, worth and strength and to be ok with who they are!
This article was first published at Citizen SHE United, and advocacy group in Louisiana that is building an aligned base of Black Women who inform, advocate for and enact a collective policy agenda to address the needs of Black Women across the state.
In Citizen SHE United’s first Letter To Black Women of 2020, Danielle Wright, Division Director of Navigate NOLA, pens a poignant love letter, honoring all the ways in which Black Women, bravely and mostly without acknowledgment, lead and serve the masses toward our collective liberation.
All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave
– But Some of Us are Brave (1982)
My love letter to black women seeks to elevate and celebrate the unique bravery endemic to African-American women carrying out abolitionist work daily. This work often goes unacknowledged by society at large and even goes unacknowledged by us, the black women doing the transformational work of disrupting systemic racism. This work often goes unacknowledged because intersectional erasures leave us without a lens to understand the depth of our contributions not just to black women and to black people, but to society at large.
Black women are standing on the shoulders of ancestral giants who have paved the way and also hard wired our DNA (epigenetics) to create a legacy of bravery through paradigm-shifting acts of social justice. What is particularly unique about the bravery that black women have exhibited across time has been this theme of forward-thinking or foresightedness as the impetus behind performing acts of bravery.
In her famous 1850 speech, “Aint I A Woman, “ Sojourner Truth challenged white women suffragists around the politics of respectability of that era and suggested that such privileges associated within these politics of respectability, shaped by the Victorian Era, should be extended to women of color. She also challenged a movement that excluded enslaved black women from the fight for equality of all women. She had the vision for what academic scholars refer to as black feminist theory and intersectionality. It was because of her foresight, she began laying the groundwork for educator and feminist scholar Anna Julia Cooper’s scholarship in her 1892 book entitled, “A Voice from the South,” in which she so eloquently articulated the challenges that existed for women of color at the intersection of race, class, and gender during that time. As we reflect on the contemporary challenges that exist for women of color today, Anna Julia Cooper’s work is still very relevant. Her work has inspired many of our contemporary feminist scholars such as Kimberle Crenshaw, Melissa Harris-Perry, Patricia Hill Collins, Beverly Guy Sheftall, and Monique Morris.
The colored woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country. In a period of itself transitional and unsettled, her status seems one of the least ascertainable and definitive of all the forces which make for our civilization. She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem and is as yet an unknown or unacknowledged factor in both…May she see her opportunity and vindicate her high prerogative
–Anna Julia Cooper, 1892
There are countless examples of black women recognizing their opportunity and vindicating their high prerogative throughout history. In the 1800s a black woman named Lily Ann Granderson established a “midnight” school for slaves in Natchez, Mississippi. The school operated from 11 pm to 2 am. She operated during this time because Mississippi law prohibited the literacy of slaves and they were at risk of facing severe punishment. Granderson educated hundreds of slaves at her school. Today, black women continue to disrupt inequities in public education as teachers, school social workers, advocates, educational administrators and professionals working in educational policy.
In the 1964 Democratic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer testified before the Credentials Committee about her efforts to exercise her right to the benefits of full citizenship through voting, and the many challenges that she faced doing so in the deep south area of Mississippi. Today, black women have emerged as a collective powerhouse in the U.S. electorate.
In 1991, Anita Hill testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment that she experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, she paved the way for today’s Me Too Movement. She was the original voice of the voiceless as it relates to the seriousness of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence against women.
Black women continue to instinctively create space for their own healing while simultaneously breaking down barriers to create space for themselves and other marginalized groups. We participate in such acts and observe other black women performing these acts and acknowledge them as ordinary because we have normalized such extraordinary bravery. We do this by showing up each day to corporate workplaces where we are the most underrepresented group, educating students of color in an inequitable public education system, addressing the exacerbated vulnerability of people of color as mental health professionals, serving as elected officials despite the fact that we remain underrepresented in state and local politics and bringing children into the world knowing that we are three to four times more likely to die than our white counterparts during childbirth. We continue to face a wage gap even larger than women overall. Despite all of this, we are leading the nation in labor force participation, burgeoning entrepreneurship, and voter participation. All of what we contribute to the world is revolutionary and an act of abolitionism, whether we are referring to the African enslaved women who built the original levee system in New Orleans or the black women who are consumed with the day to day struggles of meeting their basic needs and the needs of their families, it is all incredibly revolutionary.
Collectively, these brave and revolutionary acts are performed because we have the vision and foresight to understand what these acts mean for future generations to come. Sending all the love that the universe has to offer to black women. May our strength flow on forever…
About Danielle Wright
Danielle Wright currently serves as the Division Director of Navigate Nola and is responsible for the oversight of the development and implementation of the 7 social-emotional and community wellness programs that fall under the Navigate Nola Division.
Danielle Wright is a social worker and public health practitioner. She is a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.
Danielle has a Doctorate Degree in Social Work from Tulane University. She also holds master’s degrees in both Social Work and Public Health from Tulane University. She is certified both in Infant Mental Health (IMH) and Disaster Mental Health (DMH). She gained IMH certification through a one-year-long Infant Mental Health fellowship with the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) Department of Child Psychiatry Harris Infant Mental Health Center. She has served as an adjunct clinical field faculty member at Tulane University’s School of Social Work.
Danielle has worked across various clinical mental health and public health settings such as LSU’s Behavioral Sciences Center, The City of New Orleans Health Department, Jefferson Parish Human Service Authority and The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies and Communities In Schools.
Danielle is committed to making a difference in her community and enriching the lives of the New Orleans citizenry. She is a member of several volunteer service organizations such as the Links Inc., Crescent City Chapter and African-American Women of Purpose and Power.
“Letter to Black Women” is brought to you weekly by Citizen SHE United. For more information visit www.citizensheunited.com.
Last year a was introduced to the man behind Exhibit Be. Over the past few years, New Orleans has become flooded with beautiful murals around town. From photos of local NOLA Icons to photos of Activists. Brandan “bmike” Odums is the man behind a few of them.
In 2014 bmike created Exhibit Be. His canvas was an abandoned five-story apartment complex located in Algiers. Brandan, as well as dozens of New Orleans street artist, filled the abandoned halls with paintings of black heroes.
“Exhibit Be” (sometimes spelled “ExhibitBE”) drew an army of viewers and became a local icon of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as New Orleans’ most exciting 21st-century artwork to date. Simultaneously, the blue and violet portraits in Odums’ murals became iconic.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to see Exhibit Be but I’ve visited his studio in the Bywater called Studio Be. And this Saturday I’ll be checking out his first museum titled “NOT Supposed 2-Be here” located on Tulane University campus.
Odums said that “NOT Supposed 2-Be here” includes several simultaneous themes that touch on ecology, racial identity and autobiography.
To learn more about Not Supposed 2-Be here, Click here
It’s 2020 and State Superintendent of Education John White is ready for a change. Yesterday he announced his resignation and every local and national publication was buzzing with the news.
White, who survived pitched political battles with two governors, made the announcement in a letter sent by email to members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who will be in charge of finding White’s successor.
Read more here
This article was first published at www.blkteachergriot.com
The 2015-2016 school year was easily the most traumatic work year of my adult life. I was a teacher at an alternative high school in New Orleans, a job very similar to one I left in Philadelphia. Alternative schools are intended to address the push-out crisis by creating spaces for students who have not found success in traditional schooling environments. Some of these students may not thrive in large environments; some may have been pushed out of the charters that claim to be educating “all” of our kids. Some are in the criminal justice system, or young parents caring for children of their own. The possibilities are endless, and serving these youth comes with a unique set of struggles and challenges. Having worked in the field for a few years, it’s a population that I am very comfortable with. It is also one that I care deeply about.
Despite my passion for, and comfort with, alternative education, that year led me to question the very foundation that I had built my career on. I cried a lot, vented on Facebook, journaled during professional development meetings and frequented happy hours with other educator-friends while we soaked it all away over margaritas with chips & salsa (yes, we’ll need another pitcher). I worked out for self-care, got a therapist to maintain balance and dug into my yoga practice to begin meditating regularly. I did the usual things one does when they’ve got a stressful job.
What I realized halfway through this school year was that my desire to center Blackness in the classroom, to help my students unlearn most of the things that the media told them about themselves, still had to be done within a deeply racist system.
With teachers, all of the above are done with student stories sprinkled in between. Exasperating, funny, touching and annoying moments with kids that make the job everything that it is. But that school year, kids weren’t the main topic of conversation with my peers and I. We talked about them, sure, but much more of our dialogue was spent on how racism played out in our daily grind. We vented about administrators whose savior complexes were evident in the very way they spoke to and about students. We talked about how meager the expectations were of our low-income, predominantly Black kids. We talked about the inability of our white coworkers to even acknowledge the differences between themselves and their students, so great was their desire to be colorblind. And more than anything, we talked about how these behaviors indicated the same age-old (and, well… racist) idea that these Black students should not be expected to excel.
What I realized halfway through this school year was that my desire to center Blackness in the classroom, to help my students unlearn most of the things that the media told them about themselves, still had to be done within a deeply racist system. Perhaps this isn’t shocking to folks of color who are teachers, but after 9 years in the profession, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks.
So what exactly did this toxicity look like on a day-to-day basis?
Extreme White Saviorism
Many of the white teachers and administrators reveled in the idea that they were essentially “saving” kids from themselves and their communities. This drove most of them to prioritize befriending kids rather than encouraging any academic or personal development. One particularly infuriating example — let’s call him Mr. Frank — taught special education students who struggled behaviorally and academically. In this setting, it meant that his class was full of the Black boys who could not sit still. Students dubbed it the place you go to “listen to music and eat snacks.”
In meetings, Mr. Frank spoke openly and often about all the academic tasks he felt like students were incapable of even trying. He nodded along when other white coworkers claimed that it was a great thing if students ended up working at local grocery stores after graduating, because at least they weren’t “in the streets shooting each other up.”
These ideas help to explain some of the trash that passed for rigor in his classroom. He let students print Wikipedia pages and paste them to tri-folds for final project work. He excused them from completing assignments and rarely failed kids regardless of what their effort or attendance looked like. He used his classroom time to take kids to the store, buy them food, and hand out money.
Let’s pause here, because many of these things sound incredibly sweet when done by a family member or friend. And yes, relationships are super important when teaching. But building them isn’t the only part of teaching. As educators, we focus on building relationships with kids in order to better teach them. To do this, we have to actually believe in their intellectual capabilities enough to push for their academic growth. Mr. Frank didn’t see the second part of the equation as important. He thought so little of the kids’ intelligence that there was no urgency in actually educating them. He was there to be nice to them. To call them his “boys.” To make friends.
He greeted Black kids as the n-word and jokingly called a young woman a “ratchet ass bitch” in front of a group of males in order to get a laugh from them.
Over the course of my year there, it wasn’t difficult to see how Mr. Frank’s desire to “save” these allegedly broken Black kids prompted him to treat his class as a fun holding cell… it was simply somewhere to put kids that everyone else deemed too incorrigible to learn. Because of this, Mr. Frank could do whatever he pleased. He greeted Black kids as the n-word and jokingly called a young woman a “ratchet ass bitch” in front of a group of males in order to get a laugh from them. His behaviors prompted three Black women (myself included) to push back with administration but we were constantly drowned out. “He means well,” white administrators told us. Which leads me to other ways that white supremacy creates toxicity in educational spaces….
The Privileging of White Voices and Opinions.
Outside of Mr. Frank’s outrageous everyday actions, another obvious indicator of racism in our workplace was the constant approval of white opinions and the subsequent shutting down of voices of color. A white teacher told students that their definition of racism, one that recognizes that all whites receive benefits and privileges from systems of white supremacy, was wrong because it made white people uncomfortable. He justified his assertion by coolly stating that he could speak to the issue because his partner was mixed race.
Over the course of the year, several teachers of color had complained about Mr. Frank’s behavior, specifically about their discomfort with him using the n-word and how his decision to do so made the workplace feel unsafe. They were told several times, “He has his methods.” Early in the year, a young Black woman was hired as his co-teacher but didn’t last in his classroom a month before needing to be placed with another educator. She expressed to me that he often seemed unprepared to teach and when she asked for lesson plans or outlines, she was scolded. He told her, “You don’t ask questions. I’ve been doing this for years. I’m the surgeon, you’re the assistant.” When she went to the principal with complaints of being treated condescendingly, she was reprimanded for causing trouble and made to sign a contract stating that she would never discuss Mr. Frank with other teachers while on the school premises.
If you wanted to address issues of microaggressions that made the workplace toxic, you didn’t discuss it at work in hopes of bringing about change. You went to happy hour with people you trusted and cried.
Later in the year, when I tried to organize a meeting with a few teachers of color to talk about how best to deal with his language and brainstorm coping strategies for the growing list of racial microaggressions at work, I was called into the principal’s office for a meeting with her and the dean. I was asked to apologize for my unprofessional behavior, despite the fact that I had previously addressed the principal with my concerns and was dismissed without any promise of further action.
All these instances taught an easy lesson: if you had issues with how white teachers treated you, you kept your mouth shut. If you questioned how certain practices and behaviors were impacting students of color, you kept your mouth shut. And if you wanted to address issues of microaggressions that made the workplace toxic, you didn’t discuss it at work in hopes of bringing about change. You went to happy hour with people you trusted and cried.
Valuing Intention over Impact
Intention is often the moral compass that guides problematic white teachers in the spaces. It was at this school that I learned how heavily white people leaned on their good intentions. Because these teachers and administrators, Mr. Frank included, meant well… because everyone could couch their behaviors in the altruistic deed of educating Black kids with academic gaps… they could not possibly consider their actions problematic. When I realized this about my boss and coworkers, I began to see how strongly whiteness seeks to protect itself in schools. Everything from Mr. Frank’s “methods,” to teachers doing work for students they didn’t deem capable, to colorblind sentiments that white teachers used to make connections between themselves and the kids, were excused and never questioned because the people who did or said them “meant well.” It didn’t matter what impact this had on the kids and it sure as hell didn’t matter how it made staff members of color in the school feel.
Because everyone could couch their behaviors in the altruistic deed of educating Black kids with academic gaps… they could not possibly consider their actions problematic.
Issues like this that exist in education aren’t often addressed as system-wide problems indicative of attitudes and biases towards people of color. Instead we discuss the few bad apples, which in the education field means the teachers who don’t care at all, the teachers with ill intent.
The problem with this approach is that most all white folks, teachers and otherwise, never see themselves as the bad apples. They know that they mean well so they assume that they couldn’t possibly be a part of the problem. At this alternative school, the white folks who caused a great deal of the microaggressions could barely hear us decrying their actions and language. Our complaints were drowned out by the sound of them patting themselves on the back for their hard work.
Halfway through that year I reflected on nearly a decade in the education field and the experiences it took to get there. I specifically recalled going to grad school with people who made sweeping generalizations about Black and Brown communities. I remember coping with these microaggressions in the same ways I did years later as a teacher: I hung out after classes with fellow students of color. We laughed through our sadness, lamenting the fact that some of the people in our Ivy League program were already in positions of power in schools full of Black children. We scoffed at how proud they were for taking on the work of “fixing“ kids and schools, despite the lack of desire to fix their own racist viewpoints, language, approaches, etc.
I did not consider that fighting for my kids essentially meant fighting against these people, while simultaneously being expected to work with them.
Even back then, I brushed it all off over happy hours. And despite everything, I was still hopeful. I thought that I could teach Black and Brown youth in a way that centered them, their stories, their beauty, and their lives. But I did not see the battles that lay ahead. I did not consider that those grad school classmates who thought so little of us were already running the system and starting the charter schools. I did not consider that fighting for my kids essentially meant fighting against these people, while simultaneously being expected to work with them. It was a hardship I was unprepared for when I first started teaching in 2007 and now, I have enough experience to know that it is a battle I expect to fight for the rest of my career. I’m almost embarrassed by my ever-present optimism, but what drives me to keep going is the hope that one day I’ll be doing this work within an institution void of these issues. This would save me from a career of holding my tongue until I get to half-priced drinks with other teachers of color who have learned that silence is the only way to stay in the ring.