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Educate to Liberate

How Black Genius is Misdiagnosed as Disability

Full disclosure: I am an educator who has long fought against the tendency for Black students to be disproportionately diagnosed w/ disabilities, especially considering the huge error of margin in rushing to judgment in an institutionally racist system which regards our children as an “other” and given the common thread of behaviors which intersect an ADHD diagnosis and that of giftedness/exceptionalism. As an avid believer in the oft-neglected, innate genius of Black children (in particular), and one in awe of the indomitable spirit of our people as a collective, I am convinced that Black genius has routinely been misdiagnosed as a disability in K-12 schools in America. I argue that it’s time for the entire pedagogical profession to shift our myopic views of what constitutes a developmental disability and consider how our bias too often informs the disproportionate labeling of Black youth as special needs. If scholarly research determines the validity of an existing pattern of prevalent pedagogical practice, findings would likely augment the veracity of modern testing protocols and inform the measurement of youth of all other ethnicities as well. Academic testing – How Academic Testing is Racist – in any form is racist, as such disproportionate disability diagnoses can scarcely be deemed viable, when rendered in a system which is firmly rooted upon antiquated systems of oppression and when performed at the hands of educators suffering from the scourge of the perpetual mis-education of Black students.

Honestly, has it ever occurred to a large percentage of the reigning resident experts, i.e. “holier-than-thou” educational policy makers that the students most prone to “acting out” during daily instruction and/or those least engaged with the didactic (and predictable asf) teaching style, are merely bored beyond belief and grossly underestimated in terms of their scholarship and ability? Surely, we must shift the blame from Black students’ and other students of color supposed inabilities, given the unrealistic expectation to conform to a flawed, Eurocentric model of education which neither places their experience nor their uniquely cultural (and multiple intelligences inclusive) learning styles at the forefront of the learning experience. For example, if indeed restlessness, inattention, impulsivity, high activity levels, and creativity infused day-dreaming are regarded as evidence of superior intellect in African centered or AP (advanced placement) classroom settings, then such behaviors are also representative of the trademark virtues commonly associated w/ being gifted. Yet, these behavioral indicators are often only afforded a positive connotation in specialized, small, private or otherwise affluent schools, overwhelmingly comprised of White students. Unbeknownst to many non-educators, in the average public/charter schools, the exact 👏🏾same 👏🏾descriptors 👏🏾are used to disenfranchise Black students and to otherwise limit, or completely obliterate a universal belief in the natural genius of our Black youth. This practice typically manifests as a large percentage of Black students in integrated school settings (and especially those in large, urban, underfunded school districts), as belonging to a special needs population, encumbered with academically underperforming tendencies or severely developmentally disabled labels and treatment.

There is widespread knowledge among pedagogical circles that the behavior profiles of gifted students closely mirrors that of troubled and/or non traditional students. Therefore, the only discernible difference in opportunity, resources, service delivery and corresponding student performance data is how a student has been officially labeled while on the K-12 trajectory. In affluent districts, student’s who are not traditionally served by general education classroom settings are almost immediately assumed to be gifted and prescribed to being set apart as bright, talented, creative, or as markedly gifted children who would benefit from advanced academic placement and smaller class sizes (among other interventions). The corresponding academic and social expectations are subsequently raised, the requisite resources and teacher quality soars and students officially begin the lifelong trajectory of designation as “gifted”. On the contrary, in urban schools across the nation, our most gifted population of Black students show traditional signs of non-conformity and are immediately regarded as academically, socially and behaviorally disadvantaged and after enduring the referral process, they languish in poorly staffed, scarcely resourced and sparsely funded Special Education departments. In this model SPED students are otherwise relegated to a bleak future wherein academic, social dysfunction is expected and deemed as the norm. Sure, they are placed in small class environments too – only these spaces are not labeled as advanced placement classes, but resource rooms. The bulk of these students almost exclusively mirror the self-fulfilling prophecies of lowered expectations, poor academic performance, social stigmatization and exclusion from the lifelong learning opportunities afforded to their equally gifted peers (born to a different culture and socioeconomic class). Ultimately, the inherent bias, labeling, and level of services offered by educational institutions is predicated upon the slightest nuance in special needs classifications and despite the apparent and often overwhelming intersections between giftedness and diagnosis as “an other”, there’s a literal world of difference between the two categories. Sigh . . .

Until now, little attention has been devoted to the similarities and differences between the two groups, particularly from the viable perspective of race and class inequalities as manifested in educational settings, thus raising the potential for misidentification in both areas — giftedness and disabled. Overwhelmingly, White students are referred to psychologists or pediatric physicians for their non-conformist, ADHD behaviors while Black students are routinely referred to behavior interventionists, deans and even external law enforcement facilities and detention centers at an equal (or accelerated), rate. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that Black students comprising the disabled ranks in segregated, underfunded inner city schools, possess levels of, as yet undiagnosed genius and have been failed by a system intent on their mis-education. Instead, Black students are increasingly diagnosed with ADHD, ASD and/or as distinguishable only in the form of academically, socially or behaviorally significant statistics.

As a general rule in academic practice, when White students’ even begin to exhibit behaviors in alignment with boredom, misbehavior or not working up to his/her apparent ability, they reap the corresponding benefits of attending well funded, resourced educational environments in which their parents’ favorable property values, all but guarantee that the best available social workers, psychologists, counselors and highly compensated administrators and staff will service their every need. In such idyllic environments, every educational and familial stakeholder is well versed in engaging an all-encompassing protocol replete with early intervention allowances to ensure the academic and social success of the individual student’s. When afforded a timely opportunity to be assessed on their academic strengths and weaknesses, the student is then, more often than not, determined to be “gifted and talented” in one, or more, distinct academic disciplines or social emotional capacities. As a veteran educator and scholar, I am not the least bit critical of this high expectation infused protocol of educational service delivery. On the contrary, I merely interrogate the absence of the same tried and true procedural precision in widespread application in the urban schools where I have taught/served as an administrator and in environments in which Black student scholars predominate.

Perhaps as evidence of the grave disparity in being diagnosed as gifted, in a recent Twitter thread, one middle-aged woman courageously, unwittingly exposed the frequency of White, affluent students being diagnosed as “twice-exceptional” in adulthood for harboring a virtually undetectable disability as adults, after having already been labeled as exceptional/gifted during their K-12 years. The thread quickly went viral and it rather innocently exposed the wealth of people who admitted to having benefited from being gifted early in life, while exhaustively detailing the corresponding frustration at struggling academically (or socially-emotionally), later in life when their learning disability was finally diagnosed. For many people, the academic and social differences only frustratingly emerged while enrolled in Ivy League Colleges or whilst working in corporate America, so clearly their White privilege anesthetized them from the special needs shame uniquely experienced by Black students. This only increasingly underscores the reality that the traits of giftedness and disability seamlessly intersect w/ race and class being the only discernible distinction in classification. Common admissions on the twice-exceptional thread included statements in line with this one: “Identified as gifted in grade school. I “never paid attention” in class, always turned in homework late, but did great on tests. I was only later diagnosed with ADHD at 19…”.

Educators must consider that if a student doesn’t finish his/her assignments, or hastily answers questions without showing their work; if their handwriting and spelling or organizational skills are poor; or if the student persistently fidgets in class, talks to others, refuses to keep a seat and often disrupts class by interrupting others they might well be aptly deemed as requiring intervention. The pivotal question is whether the student is gifted or developmentally disabled, and furthermore who is in the best possible position to render such a profound diagnosis? When students’ prematurely shout out the answers to teachers’ questions it’s admittedly annoying (despite the fact that they are usually right). Likewise, when a particularly bright light of a student daydreams during whole group instruction or seems far too easily distracted – these tendencies are typical precursors to being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, because of the inescapable reality of institutionalized racism, in similar case studies involving Black students we rarely if ever, pause to consider whether he/she is gifted, developmentally disabled or some semblance of both? More often than not, Black students are overwhelmingly diagnosed as falling within the confines of the latter Special Education population. While this should not constitute a prescription for academic disenfranchisement, it usually manifests as just that. Therein lies the dilemma of mis-education.

Since in current practice, educational professionals reach the consensus of an ADHD diagnosis by initially listening to parent or teacher referrals (detailing the child’s academic/behavioral profile), w/ only the insufficient contribution of a few brief classroom and social observations of the child, we must make allowances for human error and bias. Even in other cases, when brief screening questionnaires or assessments are used, these measures typically supplement the parents’ or teachers’ subjective descriptions of the original behaviors. Admittedly, only students who are fortunate enough to have thorough physical evaluations, which include screening for allergies and other metabolic disorders, and those afforded extensive psychological evaluations – including assessments of intelligence, achievement, and emotional status – have an equal footing at being accurately diagnosed as either gifted or disabled. It is clear that any student, Black or White, affluent or impoverished, may well be gifted and/or have ADHD or ASD. The truth is that without a thorough professional evaluation, exclusive of the assumptions common in a codified system of oppression, it is difficult to tell. Determining whether a child has ADHD can be particularly difficult when that child is also gifted. The use of many instruments, including intelligence tests administered by qualified professionals, achievement and personality tests, as well as parent/teacher rating scales, can substantively contribute to discerning the the subtle differences between ADHD and giftedness. All evaluations must also be followed by appropriate curricular and instructional modifications that account for cultural competencies and nuances, advanced knowledge, diverse learning styles, and various types of intelligence.

In the end, thoughtful consideration and appropriate professional evaluation is warranted before concluding that bright, creative, intensely gifted and talented Black students have developmental disabilities – or not. We must collectively consider all of the characteristics of the gifted/talented child’s culture, class and background (as well as that of the resident experts) before rushing to judgment. Parents: Do not hesitate to raise the possibility of giftedness with any professional who is evaluating your child for ADHD or ASD, as it is your right to interrogate this possibility. It is vitally important for all educators to make the correct diagnosis, and for parents and teachers to be similarly obliged to educate ourselves, since giftedness is often neglected in our collective professional development training. Together, in mindful consideration of the prevalence of mis-education, we can curb the incidence of Black genius being misdiagnosed as a disability. Otherwise we are all guilty of a grave disservice to all of humanity.

#EducateToLiberate

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Smoking Mad…By My Neighbor’s Incessant Smoking

Disclaimer – My apologies at the outset for the passion and length of this post, as many within my faithful blog audience are aware I’m an educator and a writer, so it’s admittedly difficult to limit my thoughts (especially on a subject so close to home)…anyway, here goes –

Background/Introduction: I am a middle-aged Black woman (and native Detroiter), who has never, and doesn’t plan to ever, smoke. As such, I should not suffer the current level of injury, insult and harm I am experiencing DAILY at the hands of my neighbors who incessantly smoke marijuana all day/every day. Within the past several years, I have been blessed to morph from being a lifelong educator/school administrator to a small business owner. This is relevant because I now live and work from home 24-7. This is sadly both a blessing and a curse, because my life has now been reduced to a state of inescapable exposure to second-hand marijuana use from both sides, but one neighbor in particular, with their smoking resulting in my: daily headaches, mood swings, burning eyes/throat and countless sleepless nights.

Needless to say I am livid, am seriously considering moving and have essentially lost my quality of life as a Detroit resident. Although I have consulted my family at length on this issue, they have advised me not to engage in an all-out war with my seemingly “addicted neighbor(s)” for fear of the possible negative consequences. However, in the vein of my own right to a therapeutic release and perhaps as a last-ditch effort for support – I have drafted a letter I would ideally like to share with my elder White, male neighbor (on one side), and young Black couple neighbors (on the other side) whose daily indulgences have literally rendered me a victim in my home, with no discernible form of recourse.

Dear Neighbor,

As marijuana use becomes increasingly normalized, it’s important for people to exercise common decency and etiquette when indulging, if even for prescribed medicinal purposes. I am truly suffering and feel compelled to communicate the degree to which my optimal health and quality of life have been deleteriously affected by your constant (morning, afternoon and evening) marijuana smoking habits.

Of course, we have been neighbors in good standing for years . . . our daily greetings, exchange of pleasantries and your warmth and positive spirit towards my daughter and I even prompted me to invite you (and your mate), to her high school Open House. We could not have been more thrilled than when you joined us on the Riverfront, for our formal celebration and gifted her with a card, cash and your well-wishes as she headed off to college! Our history, in my opinion, has always been one of equal admiration and that of extended family, or at the very least community camaraderie. This positive history however, does not make this hard truth any easier to deliver, as I fear it stands to potentially threaten our ability to continue to co-exist harmoniously in such an affable manner. I pray that this is not the case, and that we are able to devise of a feasible schedule (?), by which you duly exercise your daily indulgences and I make it a priority to be outside of the comforts of my own home. But honestly, something has got to give!

In my frustration with enduring excessive headaches and existing in a smoke-filled haze within the past several weeks that I have worked arduously on a pending client contract, I sought out several peer-reviewed and published studies to support (or refute) my contention that my health was being negatively impacted. What I discovered may surprise you. Studies indicate that exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke can have health and safety risks for the general public, especially due to its similar composition to secondhand tobacco smoke. They cite, among other things that “Regardless of the debate of possible benefits of marijuana products, there is simply no need to use them inside shared air spaces (such as workplaces, public places, and multi-unit housing) where others are then subject to the hazardous secondhand smoke or secondhand aerosol from electronic smoking devices. Just like traditional cigarettes, marijuana should be used in ways that don’t impact the health of others”. This finding is pivotal given that our neighborhood is replete with multi-unit housing complexes.

It is an inarguable fact that “Nobody should have to breathe secondhand marijuana smoke at work or where they live, learn, shop, or play. Smoke is smoke and marijuana smoke is a form of indoor air pollution. Therefore, it is important to strengthen all smokefree laws – both existing and new – to include marijuana in the definitions of smoking and vaping”.

In case, you might be inclined to seek remedies outside of merely ceasing and desisting with the current behavior of incessant smoking (for the sake of others), it is also important to consider that ventilation is NOT a feasible remedy. Because these same studies advise that “As has been proven time and time again, ventilation does not eliminate all the poisonous toxins and chemical components of secondhand smoke. The science is clear. Ventilation systems or air cleaning technologies may reduce odor, but they do not address the serious health risks caused by secondhand smoke exposure”. Ultimately, there is clear evidence that your incessant marijuana smoking habits, are inextricably tied to the quality of the very air that I and my family breathe…this is problematic and unacceptable, especially considering that your smoking begins as early as 7:00 am EVERYDAY and continues throughout the day with a documented cessation at or around midnight.

Research shows that “negative health impacts, especially to the cardiovascular system, occur quickly even at extremely low levels of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke. The only way to eliminate the health hazards of secondhand smoke is by having a 100% smoke-free environment”. As local community residents, we are blessed to live in such close proximity to large, open air spaces/parks – that I beg of you to engage in your indulgences off-site as a considerate means to avoid compromising the health of your neighbors (and other loved ones).

As a longtime city resident and neighbor, I am entitled to and faithfully intend to exercise my right to enjoy a 100% smoke-free home environment. I welcome your immediate support, thoughtful recommendations and potential solutions to that end.

Sincerely,

Your disgusted and second-hand smoke repelled neighbor

References:

Protecting Nonsmokers from Secondhand Marijuana Smoke – American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2019, from https://no-smoke.org/protecting-nonsmokers-secondhand-marijuana-smoke/

Ortega-Welch, M. (2018, March 19). Are There Risks From Secondhand Marijuana Smoke? Early Science Says Yes [Video blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/03/19/592873218/are-there-risks-from-secondhand-marijuana-smoke-early-science-says-yes

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Educate to Liberate

The Power of The Black Narrative

Education reform is a myth and is virtually nonexistent primarily because it excludes the Black narrative voice. Outside of the Black community, the education discussion is about a failing reform model and the conversation is overwhelmingly centered on the deficit lens. The tendency to focus the many problems facing the entire system upon the performance of Black students ignores the elephant in the room of institutionalized racism and instead thrives upon a fractured discourse pretending to improve the outlook of Black students (and other communities of color), without actually engaging Black people in the discussion. This of course, is merely one way that the abject disregard or outright trivializing of the Black narrative has had disastrous implications. Outside the realm of education, in political circles and popular culture alike, the perpetuation of a false narrative is rightfully under indictment. Thanks to Ava DuVernay’s brilliant, four-part treatise on the evils and corruption inherent in America’s so-called justice system which criminalizes Black men; all those outside of the Black community – who manipulatively use ignorance to mask their privilege laden cluelessness – have now been afforded a unique glimpse into the Black narrative via the miniseries “When They See Us”.

The all-inclusive applicability of the value of our narrative voice is admittedly most apparent from within the context of our own families. My unique family historical tradition boasts of a universal reverence for our unique oral history. On my maternal side, we are all well versed in a story of courage and survival (dating back nearly a hundred years) as our family escaped the horrors of the post-enslavement, sharecropping south. On my paternal side, I am conscious of those who labored on the railroads, sacrificed educational pursuits to contribute to the family income and can trace the intersection between our African and Indigenous ancestry, dating back several generations. It is my keen knowledge of my ancestors’ Civil War veteran status, admirable success in small business ownership, awareness of our richly diverse spiritual beliefs and practices and an uncompromising, revolutionary spirit throughout my bloodline which makes me so proud of who I am. The knowledge of our family’s evolution is arguably the most significant element shaping my present-day Pan-African Nationalist, activist and scholarly persona.

In my family we have always been wholly aligned with an age-old (yet extremely relevant), African tradition of vivid engagement in and profound appreciation for our oral history. At nearly every single family gathering we have ever had in my lifetime, from early infancy to as recently as my great-Aunt’s Homegoing celebration just two weeks ago, we engage the ritual of telling our story. In consideration of the sheer volume of occurrences, this is significant because it ultimately translates to literally hundreds of gatherings (birthdays, holidays, cookouts, births, deaths, marriages, baptisms, funerals and hosts of Sunday dinners), where oral literacy takes a powerful ‘center stage’. In proud, outspoken and revolutionary fashion – my entire family, as led by my amazing mother (the spiritual, cultural and intellectually gifted griot of the family) – employs the use of any/every platform to promote the historical narrative of our glorious, yet oppressive past and of the beauty which is our Blackness. To be honest, within every meaningful family gathering, there has been a memorable component in which the ‘elders’ are either specifically prompted and/or spiritually moved to render an oral litany of our family history. We all sit riveted in rapt attention as the impressive history of our innate strength and ancestral traditions is retold (for seemingly the millionth time) and is otherwise seared into our collective consciousness. How blessed and fortunate we are to have been consciously imbued with the exemplary model of learning to: speak for ourselves, tell the truth of our own narrative and to ensure that #WhenTheySeeUs it’s through our own empowering lens. I can therefore testify from my own, up-close and personal experience, that an authentic, unadulterated narrative is vitally important for our collective sustainability as a Black people. This insight into my own family’s priority re: the power of the Black narrative offers merely a glimpse of a universally undervalued and yet treasured history of promoting oral history and a genuine embrace of literacy within each individual family, as a starting point for expanding upon the virtue to each person’s lifelong regard and commitment for speaking for oneself as opposed to being spoken for and ultimately misrepresented.

As a Black scholar, I join countless colleagues and academic peers in fighting for the right to ensure that our research, study, instruction and policy – essentially our life’s work – is inextricably tied to who we are authentically, rather than being forced to conform to a demeaning, compromising and diametrically opposed White, cis gendered male ideal. For those conscious, Black academics we come from a proud tradition of generations of scholars who effectively navigated themselves and our people out of the evils of White supremacist oppression by exclusively employing the use of telling our own narrative. There’s a general consensus in academia, that Black scholars must be second guessed and challenged at every turn for engaging in the self-serving practice of “me” search as a poor substitution to research. Well, my consciousness infused, sincere and heartfelt retort is a defiant “why not? Who TF are we supposed to be immersed in studying, other cultures and people? I think not”. Our historic oppressor is very much a predominant force throughout society and this is a painful reality we are forced to know all too well. In my honest opinion, the dominant culture should never be considered as a basis for the intellectual study of marginalized people – with the exception of expanding upon the work of historic predecessors who thoughtfully challenge and interrogate the oppressive institution as a means for dismantling its stronghold. As a veteran African-centered, anti-racist educator from Detroit, my research focus and lifelong work has always been (and will always be) about contributing to the revolutionary, righteous and urgent agenda to #EducateToLiberate to counter the oppression inherent in the codified system of mis-education. Despite the Black academic always being perceived to be preoccupied with race, what we actually exert is an empowered voice, agency and universal acknowledgement of our distinct narrative, as unencumbered by the gaze and pre-approval of White supremacy. On the contrary, it is in fact the threat of genetic erasure and a preoccupation with falsified claims of Black inferiority which warrants diabolical Nobel Prize winners and legendary racist eugenicists like James Watson to be stripped of his unearned label of scholar. It is an inarguable fact that Watson’s Nobel prize should be duly revoked along w/ the undeserved honors bestowed upon countless legendary racists, sexists and thieves, given that all their genetic inferiority claims are falsified and born of the unscientific phenomena of fearing the Black planet. It is past time to address the inherent bias of IQ tests and to diagnose the institutionalized racism in academia and pedagogy as driven by forces outside of a false deficit narrative of Black people, but rather as born of a genetic annihilation infused, White supremacist narrative.

Universal reliance upon an unfiltered Black narrative is crucial to our continued resistance to oppression, as we collectively embrace the power of our own history, voice and perspective – we are each actively contributing to the arduous labor of freedom fighting. Black people must of necessity celebrate ourselves, amplify our empowered beliefs and knowledge, exercise agency despite preposterous claims that in doing so, we are guilty of something. The reality is that America’s contemptible need to fetishize #Racism and its agents have Mueller and Trump cast as key components of relevance and speaks to an underlying refusal to focus upon anything but White men. It is the whitewashing of narratives, history and media which is precisely why mis-education persists. In my dissertation study, I am proud to have preserved the sanctity of our distinctive narrative voice, as I engaged in a qualitative narrative study to amplify the lens and invaluable insights of Black educators on the pervasive phenomena of the gross mis-education of Black students. Undoubtedly, mis-education will persist so long as solutions and remedies are sought from outside ourselves in the realm of pedagogical policy. Instead, the common models of our natural pedagogical genius and existing, culturally sustaining research and methods must serve as exemplars to be widely taught and replicated by all, if ever Black students stand to prosper in the K-12 arena. We must be increasingly conscious of our obligation to #CiteBlackWomen as a means to give credit when and where due, and we must also see ourselves through our own affirming light as this gives power to the ideal of combatting self-hatred and countering the very real effects of our widespread forms of internalized oppression.

On a national platform, Ava DuVernay has captured the attention of an entire nation by appropriately framing the narrative of the inherent evils of the American system of injustice within which Black men are synonymous with guilt, through our own empowered Black lens. It is particularly imperative that Black and Indigenous women continue to center our unique perspectives, especially given the fact that even though we have ALWAYS told our own narratives, we have endured the frontal assault of having been robbed of our intellectual property by White women and men under the guise of professional development or educational scholarship. There’s no substitute for the power of our oral history and storytelling traditions, as passed down through generations. Our unique voice is infinitely valid, but only to the extent that the narrative remains unbesmirched and unfiltered by self-serving, white interpretation. If for nothing else but for the fact that our confessions can be coerced through targeted torture and interrogation tactics, we must speak our narratives. Because our intellectual property rights can and have long been co-opted by those who seek to profit from our pain – we must unapologetically tell our truths and publish it ourselves as a means for our work to live in perpetuity. As a proud Black people, with a rich oral history, a unique tapestry of family lineage, a valiant inheritance of revolutionary struggle and an internal obligation to our ancestors . . . we must do what Maya Angelou, among others, implored us to collectively do: speak the truth. Let us resolve to embrace and promote the power of the Black narrative, in all things and at all times. Indeed, there is infinite power in the divine narrative of our Blackness – the stories are ours to tell and the time is now. Asé.

Educate to Liberate

Educators’ Year-end Reflections

Teaching is such an all-consuming and thankless career, that what I sincerely wish for all educators (in addition to a universal wage increase, which virtually doubles everyone’s salary), is a much needed break – if only temporarily. I wish for all educators, the space to nurture their woefully neglected spirit-soul selves. My wish for us all is to sleep in, reconnect with family and friends and to enjoy a reprieve from the daily demands of literally giving it all away – insomuch as an entire system is built upon the intellectual property, wholehearted investment and life blood of its least valued component – its teachers. My wish for us all is a fiercely protected ritual of self-care and relaxation. I wish, hopefully not in vain, for a summer of reading for enjoyment, domestic and international travels and for indulgence in adventures galore. Surprisingly, I have one final and oft-neglected wish . . . I wish for every educator to engage in mindful, year-end reflections as a means to celebrate ourselves and acknowledge the small wins and words of appreciation from those who were the greatest beneficiaries of our hard labor: our students.

As a long-standing educator, I am conscious that this time of year was always noteworthy for the traditional school closing, year end rituals and beginning of summer excitement that all teachers (and students), so readily welcome. Once the arduous task of our formal, high stakes testing season had concluded, I and my colleagues would simultaneously breathe a collective sigh of relief for the coveted opportunity to rid ourselves from the stress inducing rigor – and uniquely low morale – which typically accompanies the year end assessment period.

As it regards my own, unscientific descriptor of the school closing climate? As a general rule teachers are uncharacteristically worn out, existing on fumes and engaged in either an obvious or an unintentional, subconscious countdown of the final days of school. Tailored dresses and suits are all but replaced by graphic tees and yoga pants, and an eerily similar casual shift is also apparent in submission of lesson plans and attitudes towards any/all mundane paperwork obligations. Administrators seem irritatingly perky and virtually oblivious to the reality that we had all barely survived the school year, as they become thoroughly immersed in their obligatory, year end evaluation and summer school recruitment modes. While the most notable shift is apparent in the form of students; who became more antsy and seemingly acutely aware that the school year will soon come to its glorious end. As such in true, childhood rebellious form, they merely throw all remaining caution to the wind and simultaneously activate their year end “act a fool, I ain’t got nothing to lose” behavioral mode. It bears mentioning that despite adding insult to injury, parents who are clearly otherwise oblivious to the school’s overarching malaise, foolishly and desperately appeal for an increase to their children’s as yet unearned (but firmly set in stone and non-negotiable), final grades. Overall, these school closing conditions emerge like clockwork and are as predictable as the day is long, but are no less comical in their various forms.

Personally, from a partial enjoyment and another part survival perspective, my own year end instruction mirrored a more creative, free-spirited and intentional product in terms of devising of meaningful ways to still teach standards while maintaining high student engagement (because school affiliated idle time is the devil). My challenge was always to incorporate minimal grading and effortless instructional effort during the final weeks/days of school as a means to maintain mutual levels of sanity for both myself and the students. Although I am not a fan of classroom “free time”; three hours of playground recess or launching full-out, child-friendly film festivals (mind you this is a thing for some teachers/classrooms); I would indulge fun, creative cross-curricular lessons and an occasional culturally appropriate film (with an accompanying discussion/lesson). On other occasions, I would opt to intentionally increase my students’ use of academically sound technologies to hold their attention and still ensure learning. Ultimately, these end of the school year periods were treasured for an opportunity to solidify a lifelong bond with students I would, in some cases, never encounter again. So, in the midst of: closing data reports, conferring grades and certificates to denote progress, classroom/locker cleanup routines, and final record keeping obligations (tied to student portfolios, attendance and closing parties to bid adieu) – for many years I was guilty of neglecting my own valuable, practitioner feedback. In retrospect, one vital yet missed opportunity in all of the aforementioned rituals was an opportunity to invest in a deep reflection upon practice.

It wasn’t until my last 5-6 years in the classroom prior to advancing to the realm of administrative leadership, that I finally realized (and proactively employed), the mindful use of classroom reflections in order to gauge my students’ honest, and preferably anonymous, opinions on my teaching style and overall instructional impact. Admittedly, there is absolutely no viable substitute for gleaning our students’ valuable feedback on both the significant drawbacks and perceived limitations OR (even better), the overwhelmingly positive benefits of our instructional influence from the past academic year. While I don’t have any specific proposals for the best tools to substantively survey one’s students . . . For the sake of preserving anonymity, I have always been creative about the various ways in which to cull the data my students have provided re: my instruction. I can proudly attest that without a doubt – I have found their feedback to be honest, humbling and thoughtful, to say the least. The value of reflective feedback has been so profound that I knew I should have incorporated the practice earlier into my teaching career. But even in its limited use as a teacher (and indelible, extensive use as an administrator and college professor), I can readily admit that research, data and the value of anonymous, reflective feedback has had a powerful impact on my current professional practice.

For example years ago, through my brutally honest middle school students in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn I learned that my tendency to speak so loudly often deterred students from asking questions (for fear of public embarrassment). This revelation forced me to be much more intentional in using my natural, teacher booming voice only when engaged in whole group instruction and to otherwise protect students’ privacy by reverting to an inside voice when responding to in-class queries. This also translated to my increased, standards based use of one-on-one conferencing time with all students as a more personalized, frequent form of informal evaluation. On the positive end, I have learned that my accessibility as a nurturer (constantly giving of my personal resources, feeding children, building personal relationships and otherwise naturally operating as a stern maternal figure away from home); served to increase my students’ inherent trust of my investment in their success and made them strive to live up to my always high expectations, for fear of “letting me down”. This knowledge of course, gave me all the feels and made me multiply universal access to my nurturing/authority figure role, to even my more introverted, hard-hearted and resistant to forming teacher-student relationships type of teenagers. For me, it was affirming to know that even those who often instinctively bristled at my uniquely Queen of the universe-BW cultural approach, eventually grew to appreciate, then welcome and ultimately return love and respect as a matter of universal principle. Prior to the copious use of reflective surveys, I would tailor my instructional approach to individual student’s behavioral profile and shower nurturing upon the bulk, while consciously withholding my charms from those few who rejected my style and projected an unlovable persona (despite this causing me to revert to a more impersonal, yet wholly inauthentic version of myself as a secondary ELA teacher). Post-reflection, I was my authentic self with all students and despite not connecting on every level with each person, I am proud that we cultivated an environment of mutual respect.

As an administrator, staff reflections and brief evaluations are already part and parcel of the year end protocols. But, rarely do principal’s depart from their capacity as instructional leaders/evaluators of record, in order to inquire as to how to improve our practice from a professional management and informed leadership perspective. However, I found that in-depth curriculum/leadership year end surveys, have too been an invaluable resource capable of intuitively gauging poor staff morale (based upon external factors like far too many obligations upon personal time and/or negative feedback to seemingly mindless trainings), upon which we as leaders, would have otherwise been oblivious. Whilst practicing the art of reflecting upon professional practice as an administrator, c/o the seamless data-compatible vehicle of Google doc forms, administrators stand to learn a great deal about teachers unfiltered insight into which programs and policies need to be modified or wholly abolished (in real time), as a means to ensure greater teacher buy-in and support. In this vein, I have learned to place less professional development attention and financing to virtually ineffective or obsolete curriculum resources and that teachers preferred a year-end or holiday bonus as opposed to occasional, teacher appreciation inspired meals, gift cards and trinkets. In depth staff reflections also empowers increased individual autonomy over the district’s master calendar, future curriculum investments and the crucial timing of formal evaluations, among other things. Though many pedagogical decisions are set in stone and seemingly fixed, the year end staff evaluation still provides an invaluable opportunity to tweak systems where feasible, to improve upon one’s leadership practice while ensuring a higher rate of staff satisfaction, long-term retention of a high quality educator force and an increase in the cultivation of an exemplary school culture. It stands to reason that parent, community and vendor surveys also provides equally important insight into a school district’s strengths and weaknesses.

In closing, to the extent that reflection surveys are brief yet revelatory, frequent, universally accessible and non-punitive measures of authentic professional practice and feedback for growth – they will undoubtedly be well received and valued by both stakeholder respondents and the professional who is subject to the honest, informal evaluation. To the flawed extent that reflection surveys are disseminated as a documented means to mete out consequences for discontent (sadly, this does happen-I once worked with a pedagogical supervisor who literally mandated vocal, administrative feedback of non-essential information (gossip) about staff and attempted to discern the tone/source of unfavorable reviews…sigh), then all efforts be damned for adherence to the realm of the ultra P-E-T-T-Y. However, provided that these evaluations are intended to contribute to specific, universally applicable and visible actions to improve the classroom or school’s climate and recommendations designed to improve practice are duly implemented – then the unvarnished truth has the capacity to set us all free from the mediocrity associated with mis-education.

Educate to Liberate

A Teachers Appreciation Salute To Those Who Paved The Way

As a third generation teacher and a lifelong educator, I owe such an enormous debt to so many powerful educators before me, that it would take a lifetime of service to even begin to show my gratitude. I start by formally honoring my beloved Bigmama/maternal grandmother, our family’s first educator, for setting such a high bar for being an exemplary educator. In many respects my pedagogical knowledge base and experience, the unquenchable internal fire to #EducateToLiberate, even the breadth of my entire career as an educator and writer is indebted to those who came before me and paved the way for the fulfilling life I am blessed to now enjoy. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of the empowered movement to counter mis-education in American schools, theorized that Black students would be increasingly alienated in an educational system unfit to meet their needs. Woodson perhaps unwittingly predicted the inescapable, detrimental effects of the current state of mis-education on Black students in American schools, by arguing that a disregard for the unique Black experience would ultimately render true education unattainable in the U.S. school system. Among the multiple challenges Woodson cited as factors underlying the presence of mis-education were the inculcation of an inferiority complex and a deep-seated self-hatred among the oppressed, Black student; an indictment of the entire educational system as a tool of oppression due to the staunch preservation of outside control; and a harsh criticism of the abandonment of the suffering, impoverished Black masses as the apparent ultimate goal of the Black intelligentsia. Woodson’s targeted indictment of educators and of the Black middle-class in particular, as dismissive of the problems in education, begs the question of how those of us in pedagogy can meaningfully contribute to an enhanced understanding of the interminable problem of mis-education. Certainly, each of the challenges Woodson cited represents themes that are still observable in today’s educational landscape.

I am eternally grateful to the interminable generations of strong men and women and to my Bigmama, who married the love of her life, my beloved Bigdaddy, as a teenager. Over time, she bore ten “stairstep” children (the eldest of whom is my Mother), and somehow, miraculously went back to school – somewhere in between child #5 and #8 – to earn her coveted Bachelors degree and to go on to teach in one of the city’s most respected high school’s. Bigmama’s academic accomplishment was no easy feat for a woman born and reared in the early 1930s. It is apparent how much Bigmama courageously defied the odds when one considers that racism and the insatiable diet of America’s hatred against Blacks, was just one generation removed from the inhumanities of enslavement and sharecropping. At the time, the threat to Black lives was all-encompassing and even more palpable than it is today. Moreover, in the 1930s the role of women was reduced to being only docile and impenetrably cheerful mothers and housewives. When women did dare to explore employment outside of the home, it was at 30-50% of the pay of that of men and this discriminatory employment gap was even more pronounced for those of African descent. To the collective credit of our family and with Bigdaddy’s loving support, Bigmama courageously shattered the common work expectation of Black women to merely occupy a role as ‘the help’, i.e. domestic workers. She blazed a Revolutionary trail of academic excellence by earning a degree and teaching on the secondary level. In later years, she similarly challenged the confines of the gender-biased religious institution by earning a Masters degree and divinity license at Cambridge, after which she miraculously founded her own AME (African-Methodist Episcopal) church. It should come as no surprise, that my Bigmama (displayed above in her regal graduation regalia), is my real-life, in the flesh inspiration and heroine. Ask any Black woman (like myself), who is blessed to enjoy a degree of personal success and career accomplishment in life-to identify our inspiration(s)-and we often don’t have to look much further than our very own mother and grandmother’s. #Blessed

In my case, I was blessed to encounter exemplary educators throughout my lifetime trajectory, so becoming an educator was merely the predestined fulfillment of both my family’s tradition and our ancestors’ collective dreams. At the ripe age of 15, I was admittedly out of my element, when my mother summoned the indomitable will to move across the country as a newly divorced parent of four children. Having secured a well-paying yet demanding national civil rights position, Mama uprooted us from our middle America, middle-class utopia environment replete with enrollment in private/public schools of choice and the lifestyle of a sprawling brick home with a lush garden and backyard in which to roam freely; to take up residence in neighborhood public schools of NJ/NY, often denoted by only a number, to living in cramped quarters, in a literal concrete jungle with scarcely enough space to think or move. Well ultimately, the decision to move proved to be beneficial and life-changing for us all. My elder brother and I went on to attend a nurturing and exemplary HBCU conveniently located in the east coast region, while my younger siblings had their horizons forever broadened by having experienced a rich, bi-coastal upbringing. Most importantly, I was fortunate to meet an exemplary educator who left an indelible impact upon my life and one who substantively influenced my decision to discover my pre-destined career path as an educator. At the time, it seemed doubtful that my life would ever escape the newfound, harsh reality of inner city life in America.

Though I was accustomed to the advanced, college preparatory and admittedly engaging performing arts enriched curriculum of Cass Technical High School in Detroit, MI – I soon struggled with the unchartered territory of gross mis-education in the depressing forms of: the soft bigotry of low expectations encountered on the east coast. My school was accessible to all and very well attended but appeared to only be equipped with: non-challenging, general education classes; bathroom stalls without doors and the newfound need to vaseline my face AND remove my earrings every day (as a safeguard against the threat of potential physical violence), prior to school dismissal and the long walk home. My new reality as a student at Snyder High School in Jersey City, NJ proved to require a major cultural and mental shift, in which it quickly became apparent that I would require less attention to academic rigor, college preparedness and much more energy upon tacit, street smarts in order to survive. The first several weeks of enrollment in my new, neighborhood high school environment I did just that . . . survived. I learned to survive the promise of daily beat-downs from a popular, upperclass female student, Octavia, who swore up and down that I had purposely enticed her man Junebug (I did not). In my defense, I fought all attempts to avoid Junebug’s wandering eyes although I was not successful, (and for the record, yes this is his actual nickname). With every passing day, I attempted to postpone Octavia’s summoning wrath, to no avail. My valiant efforts had increasingly proven futile because Junebug made it clear that he was especially intrigued by at least exploring the pursuit of the new girl, who met the physical description of being “thicker than a snicker”, despite appreciating the beautiful young woman he already had the privilege of claiming. Alas, despite all attempts at being purposefully withdrawn in hallways, at lunch and in all public spaces outside of the doldrums, which had become my daily classroom routine, this only increased his enjoyment of the sport of the chase. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Octavia made it abundantly clear that for simply existing in her world, my ass was in imminent danger.

And so it went, a vicious cycle of banal classes and escaping unwarranted bloodshed, for weeks on end – until one day after uncharacteristically speaking to a classmate (I had learned to temper my gregarious personality and loud, booming alto voice in week 1 because I was incessantly teased for sounding so ‘country’ and not having perfected the NY/NJ accent), I was overheard speaking too loudly in the school’s auditorium, the one room which amplified my already loud voice. It was then that Mrs. Williams, the English Department Head who had been assigned to supervise an overcrowded group of students relegated to the auditorium (due to the lack of substitute teachers to cover classes), stopped speaking abruptly and demanded “wait, who said that?” “who was just speaking?” “you…there, what is your name and where are you from?” she demanded. Having realized I was busted for socializing and that there was no escape from the inevitable, I rather hesitantly raised my hand and stated my full name, grade and then dutifully admitted that I had just moved to the area from Detroit, MI. I had foolishly believed that the addition of the extra information, that I had just moved to town, would somehow absolve me from further judgment and embarrassment since the once loud auditorium was suddenly rendered eerily quiet. Apparently, my rookie mistake was in thinking that I was in trouble because before I could scarcely finish the part about being from Detroit, Mrs. Williams had already swooped upon me to proclaim that she knew I wasn’t from there because of my accent and she then proceeded to shower praise upon my diction and elocution while she asked a series of questions. As it turned out, Mrs. Lillian Williams was the resident powerhouse of a high school English teacher, spirited leader and mentor (almost all schools have at least one dynamic personality), who blessed the lives of so many generations of students in her lengthy tenure as an educator. From that day on, Mrs. Williams became my bonafide guardian angel, who promptly assessed my academic abilities; introduced herself to my Mom; enrolled me in advanced placement humanities courses and an offsite performing arts program, appointed me as the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper (exhaustively mentoring me all along the way), and lit a flame of fire into my counselor’s non-existent efforts to engage the college enrollment protocol at once, in order to ensure an academic scholarship to the university of my choice, upon high school graduation.

The impact of positive exemplars in my lifetime is not limited to educators – however there is no negating the pivotal roles that each one of the aforementioned ‘gems’ has had in my self-image, goal-setting and career. Without Bigmama’s deft ability to successfully juggle the full-time obligations of: wife, mother, teacher and preacher – I would never possess the tireless drive needed to bounce back from life’s misfortunes and to emerge virtually unscathed. Without Mrs. Lillian Williams and her determined, passion-driven zeal to ensure the success of her students; her infectious belief in my own abilities when I had intentionally extinguished my own light; her effortless phenomenal woman persona and constant reminder not to shrink in order to attempt to fit in with my peers; and her loving, selfless insertion into my impressionable teenaged life there is no doubt that I would not be the woman who I am today. Furthermore, without the persistent admonition to pursue lifelong learning from Dr. Clifford Watson, yet another impactful educator mentor and the founding principal of Malcolm X Academy in Detroit, MI I would never have explored the NYC teaching fellowship, to earn my masters and later my doctorate degree(s) in education. Lastly, without Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s impressive and trailblazing record of scholarship; his uncompromising insistence on the inclusion of African history into the educational experience of Black students and his literal lifetime commitment to countering the mis-education of Black students in America, there would be no impeccable blueprint with which to #EducateToLiberate.

Indeed I am, because we are . . . and during this meaningful and annual observance of #TeacherAppreciation, I humbly salute those who paved the way for my educational career and for the opportunity to craft a life of my dreams. Asé.