Educate to Liberate

Begin Again…

Life has as many endings as there are beginning’s. Each of us has been required to bid adieu to someone or something we held dear. We have all been prompted to start over in some significant way and we didn’t hesitate to invest ourselves to a new goal. At the start of a new year it’s important to acknowledge that it is in that small space time continuum of our commitment to major change and transitioning from one phase of life to another, that the strength of our character really shines through. We are each stronger than we give ourselves credit for, because we are all on personal journeys that have been sidetracked by multiple detours, yet we have found the strength to begin again.

The start of a new year offers a unique opportunity to collectively begin again because right now we all share the audacity of hope. Early January offers an opportunity for all of humanity to experience a universal crossroads whereby we naturally separate our old selves from all that we hope to be. At the dawn of the year 2019, I welcome yet another occasion to begin again, because I recognize renewal as a gift, divine blessing and season for opportune growth.

Let’s embark upon our divine, right pathways and embrace the dawn of an opportunity to begin again.

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Educate to Liberate

Teacher as Mentor

One of the most rewarding components of teaching is also one of the most challenging: mentorship. The teaching profession is unique from other vocations in that educators don’t have the luxury of Hollywood personalities to shy away from their influential labels as “role models”. Teaching is unlike many career professionals who must bear extreme stress at work and are able to conveniently compartmentalize their workplace drama by eschewing emotion and leaving some problems unsolved. For those of us in education, we cannot abdicate the assignment of tackling other people’s problems – and most often, we consider it a privilege. Educators wield a remarkable amount of influence over our students’ lives and the knowledge of our reach and impact makes us ever so consciously careful that our influence is positive. The capacity of the teacher mentor is often encouraged on a peer teaching platform, but is rarely referenced as an integral component of our job descriptions-particularly from the perspective of our lifelong impact upon some students. This is merely another example of the many ways in which teachers are taken for granted. But rest assured, it is a badge of honor that teaching is not limited by academic constraints. In fact, educators the world over are akin to vessels of God’s infinite love for humanity and one of the best ways to showcase this virtue, is via coveted role as teacher-mentors.

Ask any evolved adult to name their “impact educator”, and typically within less than a minute’s time people are eager to rattle off the name/subject/grade of at least one teacher who had a lasting imprint upon their growth and maturity. Often, the academic influence is secondary, if not altogether inconsequential to the strength of the personal relationship developed between teacher and student. This speaks volumes about how valuable educators are to the positive development of one’s psyche, and suggests that the teacher as mentor is a blessing for both teachers and student mentees. In my case, my impact educator was Lillian Williams at Snyder High School in Jersey City, NJ. She had a gift for inspiring her students and is/was perhaps my greatest motivation for being an educator. Though she is now an ancestor and I regret never sharing with her how invaluable her powerful impact was in my life, she is the quintessential educator-mentor, for whom I will always afford the credit she deserves.

As an active teacher-mentor, I have unofficially adopted more students (and unwittingly amassed more Godchildren), in my twenty-four years of teaching, than mere figures could even approximate. Because my career began as a high school substitute teacher, fresh out of college at age twenty-two, while working arduously until I could land a more permanent teaching contract…student mentoring was not an automatic, professional rite of passage. In fact to avoid the appearance of a lack of preparedness, I was careful to dress in full business or full African attire everyday and kept my classes extremely busy with rigorous lessons in each of the respective subjects I was assigned to cover. My initial year of teaching was marked by having been “baptized by fire” by the polar opposite joys and pains of teaching that one is faced with as a substitute teacher. At the outset it was easy to maintain a professional distance as an educator, which was to my credit given that there were only a few years separating my own youth and that of the high school senior students.  However, once I had been recruited by a founding principal to a premiere African-centered public school and  served in a long-term capacity as a middle school history/social studies teacher, I soon learned that relationships, not just rigorous academic instruction and mastery of classroom management, would be crucial to my success in the K-8 school environment.

Mentoring is loosely interpreted as the inevitable process of building relationships with your students as a means to coax their innate genius and engender high academic achievement as you, the teacher, effortlessly model the virtues of love, patience, compassion and authenticity. In successfully engaging the teacher mentorship model, your students in turn begin to trust your genuine investment in their success and they morph into the absolute best versions of themselves. The teacher as mentor is a multifaceted role, as you are part instructional leader, part parent, part social worker and part all-knowing and trusted guide who must intuitively diagnose all existing areas of academic weakness and then skillfully mitigate the void using your academic expertise. Not unlike other educators, I have taught students who were more than 3-4 years behind their grade-level reading proficiency benchmarks, who required extensive one-on-one reading instruction to even begin to attempt standard assignments. Likewise, I have taught an overabundance of gifted students who have performed well below their personal best because of pre-conceived, lowered expectations and having been repeatedly assigned a universal, albeit wholly unacceptable form of remedial “busy work”, which offers a vivid portrait of America’s vast mis-education. Adding insult to injury, among the large population of perpetually low-performing and untapped high-performing students – there’s a significant number of youth who are: hungry, angry, stressed, abused and disinterested in all things academic. Such challenging students must have their basic tissue needs met, in order to even entertain or attempt to successfully navigate the structured learning environment of schools. Thus, the only way for many successful educators to personalize instruction and ensure widespread success for every student, is to learn that it is incumbent upon us to authentically connect, as much as humanly possible, with each individual student while attempting to meet their corresponding needs. In doing so, educators assume the “larger than life” status of teacher-mentors; accessible to our students far beyond a mere year of classroom instruction. As a proud teacher and mentor to hundreds of students, across the U.S. (who I taught as either middle or high school students in Detroit, MI and Brooklyn, NY respectively) – I have the distinct blessing of having  hundreds of “children” who even in their adult years, still refer to me as their Mama Nefertari and afford me their love and respect as a positive or influential force. For this enormous gift . . . I am eternally grateful.

It would be disingenuous to say that it has always been easy to operate outside the imagined barriers which segregate instructing other people’s children with an equal level of fervor as nurturing them. Indeed, being a teacher-mentor has come at a great personal and incalculable financial sacrifice for those of us who have accepted these anointed titles and positions. At times, at the expense of my own family, and to their chagrin – I have contributed countless hours/days of free one-on-one academic instruction, accompanied families’ to a litany of hospital emergency rooms, devoted countless years of charitable giving by offering advice, meals, new clothing, sponsorship of family lodging and even materially supporting entire families’ during periods of significant challenge and stepped in as the parent, as deemed necessary to provide nurturing, in my coveted role as a teacher-mentor. Although it is scarcely known outside of the teaching profession, it is commonplace in this capacity to feed, clothe, nurture, house and to acknowledge very few limits in meeting the multifaceted needs of our students. On a daily basis, countless teachers have performed these acts of kindness and compassion as an integral component of who we are as God’s select agents of transformation. I harbor little to no regrets for having been a blessing, except in the rare cases of mentees who have grown up to be selfish, arrogant and/or professionally, financially successful “elitists” who fail to pay it forward, as was once so readily done on their behalf. Save an occasional ungrateful wretch . . . the overwhelming majority of former students who were the beneficiaries of teacher mentoring have morphed into the best versions of themselves and as evidenced by their heartfelt testimonials, are deeply appreciative and similarly loving in their ability to positively impact the world around us. Teaching is its own reward… and mentorship is like the icing on a decadent, rich and fulfilling cake.

I Teach, Therefore I Am. And rest assured, the world is a better place because of those wonderful educators who have successfully taught and mentored students. Asé!

Educate to Liberate

Unbought and Unbossed: Black Women

Proud Black woman.

Mother of civilization.

Queen of the universe.

Leader of the nation.

As Black women continue to emerge as dominant forces to be reckoned with in every conceivable industry from: government, academia, business, socio-economics and sports to entertainment – we are persistently underestimated by those outside of our elite ranks. Painfully viewed as sexual objects and second-class citizens by popular culture, it becomes increasingly incumbent upon us to dispel the grave misconceptions of the mass media, at every turn. Even more importantly, as an empowered demographic – Black women must successfully engage the reins of our vast power to ensure that our value is no longer neglected, denied or taken for granted by others. It is an inarguable fact that Black women unfailingly offer the world a unique, all-inclusive brand of unbought and unbossed leadership and a virtually unlimited scope of influence. However it is long overdue that we stop giving our power away and instead we must choose to invest in ourselves.

By race and gender calculations, we comprise the most educated ranks in America, and as such Black women continue to defy the odds in overcoming the unconquerable twin beasts of systemic racism and the age-old scourge of mis-education to occupy our hard earned seats of power and influence. Yet, despite our legendary climb to the top-there remains a ridiculously large gap in our salaries and corresponding opportunities in comparison to all other demographics. Black women are voting at higher rates than any other segment of the population and we are starting more small businesses, thus creating job opportunities and economic growth and development for communities around the country. Despite this affirming reality it often seems that the only unwavering, loyal companion and base of support for us has been our own Black man. For the enduring love, protection and support of our beloved Black men, we are admittedly and eternally grateful. However, as is our right to unapologetically declare: As Black women it is time to raise the bar of aesthetic symbolism to lay claim to the accompanying power which is our eternal birthright.

As such, we must embody the change and the so-called progressive agenda of this country, because far too often we are left on the sidelines of the critical discussions and impactful policymaking that disparately impacts us and the communities we support. Historically, our unique agenda as Black women has been co-opted by others who seek to leach off of our suffering and/or to benefit from the #Winning components of our wide-ranging, all-inclusive agenda. As a case in point, though the #MeToo branding and #MeTooMovement was launched by an empowered Black woman, Tarana Burke, in order to highlight the history of sexual assault and harassment of women, in particular Black women, dating back to the period of enslavement; this historic movement has been overtly highjacked by White women like Alyssa Milano, who comprise Hollywood’s elite and lack respect for and resonance within the community of Black women. Essentially, while the #MeTooMovement has notably made clear the insidious nature and prevalence of widespread sexual harassment and assault, it has also been exclusively centered on the objectifying experiences of White, affluent, and educated women – while rendering invisible the Black woman population for whom its very creation was inspired. We emphatically scream: no more . . .

We reserve the right to exercise the innate strength of our powerful voting bloc as much more than a grossly undervalued and expected ‘gift’ to the Democratic Party. No doubt, the national electorate blatantly takes for granted our commitment and loyalty (as a viable force to be reckoned with), and consistently fails to advocate on our unique behalf. We observe in absolute horror as the most recent, presumably democratic, midterm election is brazenly stolen from the grasp of Stacy Abrams in Georgia as the party (and entire country), sits idle and allows voter suppression tactics to prevail despite countless reports of immorality and illegal practices.

It is painfully apparent that Black women must resolve to use our unique body of adversity to inspire our Kujichagulia/self-determination in order to hone our storehouse of talent, skills and build our resilience as the most supremely qualified leaders of the nation. Further, we must use our platform to increase our collective visibility, share of our vast experience in overcoming adversity in order to inspire the next generation of Black women to resist an ascendancy to the mediocrity of Instagram fame. Instead we must vow to take up the challenges of advanced educational pursuits and leadership, because the toxicity of the current, White male centered society and poorly run government demands an antithetical and substantive approach to alter the present course of destruction. As the gap closes between Black women and the countless positions of leadership we continue to occupy, we must continue to be unbought and unbossed in our fierce display of power.

Despite the pervasive nature of institutionalized oppression and sexism and their accompanying double edged sword effects upon us, we must restore balance to the world around us, in only the way that the Black woman can accomplish. We acknowledge that we are the first, the literal mother of civilization and Queen of the universe. In this vein, we have an obligation to do more than merely seek parity with the men who overwhelmingly occupy America’s positions of leadership and power. On the contrary, we are obligated to exercise our influence to overcome our meager, underpaid positions of influence and power, while continually supporting and empowering our historic oppressors. Ultimately, we must increasingly wield the mass of power which has always been at our disposal as a demographic, but has just recently begun to be realized in our own behalf and on our own uncompromising terms. We readily acknowledge that for Black women it’s never been a glass ceiling but rather a concrete enclosure designed by man, to hold us back in every conceivable direction. I would like to reiterate the profound words of newly elected, Congressional powerhouse (D-MA) Ayanna Pressley who emphatically stated “you know what breaks through concrete? Seismic shifts”. True, indeed my sister.

Let us as Black women continue to shift the atmosphere, bless and nurture the people around us and shake the nation by shining our innate light upon ourselves at this pivotal juncture in history. Let us implement our unbought and unbossed brand of powerful leadership without restraint. Alas, WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Asé.

Educate to Liberate

One Cannot Pour from an Empty Cup: Spiritual Self-Care

You cannot pour from an empty cup: take care of yourself first.

I write for myself as much as I do for any audience and though the mantra to prioritize oneself seems like second nature or even common knowledge – this is the one lesson in truth that bears repeating, (time and time again), for me. Why is it that for those who operate from a nurturing, other-centered and service driven lifestyle, it is admittedly hardest for us to embrace ourselves with the same level of vigilance in compassion as we do all others in our midst? There is a saying that doctors make the worst patients . . . well if this idiom rings true, then it stands to reason that teachers make the worst students. Some life lessons are too meaningful and central to our survival as caregivers to be forsaken. As a case in point, the need for spiritual self-care is a non-negotiable and powerful tool, which is useful for pouring into ourselves that which is necessary to continue to serve our divine purpose and to fulfill the greater good.

In my case, this lesson is so much easier said than done (sigh). This past week, I was hurled headlong into the full range of human emotions and am still praying for clarity on all of the lessons gleaned while experiencing the residual effects of my own neglect of self-care. My week was comprised of a heart wrenching operation for my 6 year old niece who had fractured her arm during school recess and required pins to reset the bones. As I stood firm at the ready to be a support base for my brother and his wife (and their other two children), I crisscrossed the city from early morning to early evening to be by the family’s side at the hospital, and later to pickup my nephews from school. It was the least I could do to extend a mere fraction of the love, time and support that my family has so readily extended to me. While in the surgical waiting room, God sent us angels in the forms of caring, attentive and capable nurses, physicians and staff who wrapped the entire family, especially my courageous niece, with the kindness and warm embrace that one can only hope to receive during a medical crisis. All morning and afternoon, our family’s heartache and fear was replaced by relief and gratitude, as we raved on about the warmth, professionalism and collective peace of mind that the hospital’s five-star service afforded us all. Even in retrospect, I am still awed by the wide ranging breadth of the entire experience and this thoroughly traumatic occasion will forever be remembered as an opportunity to witness firsthand the endless capacity for human strength, compassion and empathy that caregivers are blessed to offer the world.

At the other extreme on the emotional spectrum, my week culminated with witnessing my daughter as an honored recipient of an unexpected, privately funded college scholarship. Talk about being overwhelmed by gratitude! This generous blessing was awarded in such an esteemed and celebratory manner that there is no doubt that God was completely in the midst. A well respected former colleague – a teacher with such extensive credentials and high moral standards that she effortlessly mentors novice teachers in her midst; but perhaps most notably an administrative leader either sinks or swims after having been measured by her discerning yardstick – saw fit to nominate my state college enrolled offspring with the highly prestigious, arts and community service based collegiate scholarship. After single-handedly spearheading all efforts to determine my daughter’s eligibility, my thoughtful colleague then connected our family to a distinguished committee of her philanthropic peers, in just the nick of time to earn the coveted acknowledgement. So essentially, a God-fearing and kind soul, in the form of a veteran teacher with a pure heart of gold, became my selfless, heartfelt and loving reminder that God is indeed good, and his grace is always sufficient. I mean how else could she know that I had secretly struggled to pay tuition for the past two years since transitioning from a building administrator to a self-employed CEO? Surely, she was unaware that I harbored guilt that my beloved offspring was unfairly forced to go without because our family income and tax bracket had undergone such drastic change. Honestly, how could she even predict that in the two years since we last saw one another (in the physical, non-Facebook sense of reality), I had endured my own series of medical complications and I am still admittedly slowly, (but surely), recovering from not one but two orthopedic reconstructive surgeries in my severely damaged yet dominant right leg? Well the truth of the matter is that she couldn’t and did not know my private situation and/or innermost fears, and yet still God saw fit to use her to bless my family in a way which signals His infinite love, grace and mercy. And for that I am immensely thankful and deeply humbled.

Only God knows the full extent of my lengthy, four year saga of: a workplace slip and fall on black ice, resulting in dual fractures of the right arm/leg, and requiring a reconstructive surgery of the tibia, followed by a long stint in a rehabilitation center to strengthen the leg with the surgical implant and to learn how to walk again. This challenging chapter of my life was not yet over, because almost 2 years to the date after the original fall/surgery – the bone just above the implanted “hardware” was fractured after I pivoted the wrong way during a workout session (unsuspectingly causing my right knee to buckle), and resulting in a second fall on my already injured right side. The second round of reconstructive surgery (this time of the femur bone) has in turn, proved much more difficult to recover from. And try as I might to will the completion of this final stage of healing and learning to walk without a cane, on what is now an entire leg of titanium surgical implants, I can only hope that this is indeed the final chapter of this ironic “not easily broken” segment of my life, from which I am still working diligently to fully recover from and piece myself back together (mentally and physically). So even as I attempt to make sense of the countless lessons of my own life . . . far too often, I subconsciously offer a fabricated mask of strength and poise to the outside world. Therefore, I am humbled beyond measure, that my life is now a poignant reminder that one cannot ever successfully mask our reality, and since life happens . . . it behooves us all to deliberately engage in spiritual self-care.

Despite whatever crises, tests, situations and environments we find ourselves in, we must be our authentic selves and navigate our unique paths, without displaying harm towards others. The only way I have managed to present my genuine self to the world and to continue to exude the capacity to teach and love (despite the wide array of emotions and obstacles in my own life), is to consistently and mindfully engage in spiritual self-care on an intentional and regular basis. In this vein, I exert the power of the word “NO” more often than not and I avoid calls, visits, people and situations which compromise my evolved sensibilities and needs. As an educator, I need to love and respect you in order to effectively teach you. That’s why spiritual self-care is paramount. As a Revolutionary activist, I am justifiably angered to the core by injustice in every form, but I am unable to significantly effect change and will only self-destruct if I allow the evils of this world to permeate who I am as a person, and as a self-avowed warrior for justice. So despite either internal or external hurts and disappointments, we must appropriately grieve our individual losses and mindfully practice spiritual self-care, so as not to pour out from an empty cup.

Let us each resolve to pledge, at all times, to take care of ourselves first – because nobody can take better care of you, than you. #Periodt