Educate to Liberate

How Black Schools Perpetuate the Mis-Education of Black Students

This post will be brief. No need to embellish in narrative content, what a picture has shown us in irrefutable and undeniable proof. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words and this particular one, speaks volumes. The only message that needs to resonate is that: Houston, Detroit, Brooklyn, Harlem, Queens, Dekalb, Newark, Jersey City. . . We have a problem.

Step #1 – observe the cover photo of this blog post. In case the photo is not at all clear, it depicts approved and disapproved or unacceptable hairstyles for Black male students. Sigh…

Step #2 – Go OFF on the countless, deep-seated problems inherent in such a photo on display in a school system overwhelmingly comprised of Black students and exclusively led by Black administrators.

Step #3 – Change and otherwise significantly transform the existence of this troubling paradigm, as a matter of utmost priority to our collective empowerment as a people.

My response when I saw the attached photo shared on Twitter? In less than the allotted 288 characters, my response appears below. However, all sarcasm aside. . . A wealth of scholarship from Black scholars (exploitive study on our internal enigmas from outside our culture be damned), is hereby warranted on the degree to which internalized oppression has sufficiently replaced racism as THE problem we are grappling with in countless institutions responsible for the scourge of the mis-education of Black students. In any case, a brief glance of the cover photo inspired this response from me:

🤔 Hmm. Exhibit A for a lesson or PD on Mis-Education 101? Criminalizing Blackness? Self-hatred personified?

I see it as a featured visual aid of “Learning while Black: How institutionalized racism is effortlessly perpetuated in non-white schools by admin in Blackface“. 🙄

That’s it. That’s the blog post. #EducateToLiberate. As always, your feedback is welcomed!

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Educate to Liberate

A Case Study of Mis-Education

Dr. Q was a twenty-year, veteran educator of Jewish descent who had worked the vast majority of her career in a suburban ‘gifted’ school environment. For reasons deemed only as ‘personal’, she (rather abruptly) separated from service from her previous school district and successfully interviewed for a first-grade teaching position in our inner city, Title I PK-8 institution entrenched in a highly impoverished metropolitan Detroit community. With the initial period of tense salary negotiations aside (needless to say – the limited constraints of what we could offer her paled in comparison to the kind of salary that her level of education and previous suburban employment status commanded); In any case, Dr. Q readily agreed to begin the school year with 22 eager six and seven year old ‘live wires’ and by all accounts, seemed equal to the task at hand.

It was not long into the initial, fall semester before it became apparent that in spite of her documented years of classroom instructional experience and extensive educational credentials, classroom management was an elusive component of her skill set and an otherwise very real concern and looming obstacle to the daily delivery of standards-based instruction in Dr. Q’s wildly untamed 1st grade classroom. It must be noted for the record that this loosely disciplined and unstructured environment was an anomaly at our school (with the exception of the 1-2 classrooms covered by novice teachers in their first 1-3 years of experience and/or those being covered temporarily by substitute teachers). Initially, this realization presented no major concern, as a teacher’s weakness in a required instructional skill set is merely an opportunity for a consummate leader to provide tangible, immediate support. I did/do consider myself an exemplary administrator who is first and foremost an instructional leader and curriculum coach, with whom the buck stops in terms of academic achievement. Thus, I was eager to offer immediate support and Dr. Q was afforded with levels of remediation ranging from my classroom presence as a co-teacher during the most crucial core curricular junctures; to peer mentorship from her grade-level partner, an exemplary first-grade teacher with many years of expertise and a willingness to document and then properly model her own observations for improvement; to a personalized professional development plan which included, among other things, tons of resources to strengthen her knowledge, resources and skillful use of universally high expectations, positive reinforcement, automated classroom procedures and protocols. There was every anticipation that these efforts would in turn strengthen her classroom management expertise (as it had done for so many teachers before) and serve to transform her classroom from a disorderly holding pen, into a safe, vibrant and intellectually engaged learning environment in which children could learn/grow and prosper. The greatest disappointment was that all attention was met with hostility, resentment and even an incredulous persona of “I’ve got this”, despite the fact that Dr. Q’s children would literally be swinging from the rafters under her exclusive watch, on a daily basis. Sigh . . .

Perhaps adding insult to injury, this particular classroom had been historically manned by a young, novice and extremely successful African-American teacher with a slight build and who barely spoke above a whisper yet managed to maintain full, continuous command of her first-grade classroom from day one. This teacher was explicit in her instructions, rewarded positive behaviors frequently, implemented seamless procedures and protocols and essentially ensured that her classroom of eager learners, ran like a well-oiled machine. From an academic perspective, Mrs. T had always used the district provided curriculum, but personalized instruction and embraced a much more hands-on approach to meet the multifaceted needs of each of her vibrant, yet academically diverse students. So unquestionably, the easily remarkable rapport which had been established by the previous first-grade teacher was not even comparable to the wild, untamed environment developing at the hands of Dr. Q. And of all stakeholders, the parents were not the least bit amused by the new teacher seemingly harboring such unorthodox “freedom of expression” classroom views and discipline (or lack thereof), in instructing an entire class of spirited first-graders. Admittedly, the only reason we even needed to interview for the teacher vacancy in the first place was the painful realization that sadly, we had lost our ‘gem’ of an awesome teacher to illness, due to a debilitating, physical illness she had long suffered – ultimately forcing her into frequent absences and life-saving hospitalizations – spanning roughly 35% of the prior school year. In any case, this teacher was quite easily the hardest act to follow as an incoming staff member due to the fact that in spite of her unplanned bouts of illness, extended absences and her weakening physical state – Mrs. T’s students still garnered the highest achievement scores of any elementary teacher on staff. This petite, soft-spoken woman could literally manage a classroom full of spirited seven-year olds with the ease of a twenty-year veteran teacher, while still nurturing the academic strengths and weaknesses of each child’s varying in needs. Certainly, filling a gap of this magnitude was much easier said than done.

Alas, I digress and must attempt to set the stage for what became of Dr. Q’s intentionally creative and loose, yet highly unorthodox classroom environment and her ultimate demise. Early on, and in spite of instructional feedback to offer tangible levels of classroom management support from her colleagues in the PLC structure to an up close one-on-one approach with the lead administrator, it became clear that the discipline issue would seemingly be only one component of the disastrous impact of this case study. A glaring absence of academic rigor and refusal to teach the curriculum as outlined in the strategically designed pacing guide proved to be the ultimate undoing for all the vast, apparent knowledge base of one (whose qualifications might have otherwise equipped her to offer a wealth of high expectations or preferably a dose of her previous gifted curricular resources), to her students. Sadly, the greatest obstacle to Dr. Q’s classroom success, having newly transitioned from the nearly all-white, affluent school district to our all-Black, impoverished district, was her own admittedly lowered expectations regarding the ability of her Black students.

In a manner of exercising White privilege and scarcely affording full consideration to the rigorous standards and curriculum meticulously provided by her competent Black administrators, Dr. Q was convinced that she knew what was best for her classroom and that she could “handle” the little Black children under her watch, so she proceeded to spend the bulk of her days reading toddler level, sight word books on a beautiful, plush carpet she deemed “the beach” and to routinely speak in condescending, harsh tones to children as a result of their predictable, unruly behavior. The students were literally bored beyond belief and any educator can imagine the impact of all of the idle time. Meanwhile Dr. Q chalked up the children’s behavior to a lack of discipline as taught at home or an overwhelming majority of children harboring special needs, without ever considering to interrogate her own abject bias and ineptitude.

As further documentation of her cluelessness, any/all offers for assistance were abruptly declined and heavily frowned upon as nuisances and/or unnecessary gestures of kindness – largely because they emanated from her bevy of all-Black instructional and administrative peers – who she deemed well-intentioned (at least at first), but ultimately concluded were beneath her. Because of her staunch refusals and rebukes for any/all help and a worsening classroom environment and academic achievement forecast, an administratively coordinated joint meeting with the teacher and teacher’s aide was convened to address the concerns about lowered academic expectations and a laissez-faire classroom management style with a directive to implement the following, immediate interventions: a small group instructional strategy to divide the students into heterogeneous, small and flexible groupings for core subject instruction – to be strategically split between the two of them; implementation of a mandated peer observation schedule (especially given that in the past her co-teacher put in the bulk of all of the effort into Dr. Q’s own improvement plan); and finally, Dr. Q was formally made aware that she was subject to a firm progressive disciplinary plan to closely monitor her compliance with the administrative directive to begin to skillfully utilize daily common preparation periods and weekly PLC meetings to forge universal protocols for classroom management w/ her K-2 peer group in collaboration with her agreement to submit to and demonstrate documented evidence of having fulfilled her personalized professional development plan goals, uniquely geared to addressing her multiple areas of professional weakness.

As could have been easily predicted, as the year progressed countless formal and informal teacher observations yielded generally unfavorable results, citing strong knowledge of content area lesson planning (in written form) but reflective of unacceptable form in execution – as all instruction was offensively dumbed down to an infuriatingly slow or basic level instructional pace. Overall, poor instructional practice(s) and a less than tame, unpredictable classroom environment proved unequal to favorable student academic performance and increasing parental feedback. Within short order, the class size abruptly decreased from just 22 to 18 students as the parents of the most bright, high-spirited and otherwise gifted children demonstrated their most vocal form of silent protest to the existing class dynamics; by simply exercising their right to school choice (three children left the district within the first 3 months, while one transferred to the alternate, very high performing first-grade classroom of now 27 students). From an equally revealing and individually accountable data standpoint, while many students typically perform poorly at the start of a school year – there is always an expectation and precedent that slowly, but surely, even the lowest performing, below grade-level proficient students amongst the class would incrementally increase their social and academic performance levels over time. And although first-graders are not yet subject to state-mandated, high stakes assessments – the district administered universal formative assessments to assess proficiency and evaluate areas in need of remediation. In terms of high academic expectations, the same is anticipated for our K-2 students as is the universal expectation for those in grades 3 and above. In any case, all district assessment data reflecting the performance for this particular class demonstrated the reverse of the typical data snapshot of their first-grade peers. Those who languished in Dr. Q’s poorly managed and increasingly low-performing first-grade classroom (I.E. a large percentage of children who originally performed in the 70th and above percentile in the fall had regressed to the 50th percentile by spring testing, rather than increasing as was the common tradition and expectation). In terms of the logic to explain their performance? Dr. Q began lamenting in weekly PLC meetings and public staff meetings of the lack of preparedness which could be attributed to the prior grade level teachers, who had clearly inflated students’ readiness for her grade and/or failed to prepare them for the promotion to the next level. Really?! In the final analysis, the bulk of her previously high-performing, well adjusted primary students soon morphed into insecure, behaviorally challenged and bored scholar students whose proficiency improved less than a year’s growth should typically yield and who otherwise demonstrated alarming evidence of having failed to meet grade-level promotional benchmarks or even regressed altogether. Needless to say, this was an unacceptable and damnable indictment against this sole teacher’s unprofessional and unethical teaching practice. Within months, her job security was at risk and an unsatisfactory teacher evaluation rating loomed as testament to the failure of all efforts to date.

What happened to Dr. Q you might wonder? Well, despite the time, collaborative effort and proven, research-based protocols implemented to strengthen her professional practice, all such investments were for naught in the face of countering a lifetime of implicit bias and racist tropes driving her unconscionable lowered expectations, micro aggressions towards her students and rejection of all professional training improvement efforts. Over time, Dr. Q became even more defiant, and morphed into her authentic self: an angry, arrogant, overeducated and under qualified racist who used each day as another opportunity to model her disdain for her Black students and the inner city environment in which she taught. She was a literal nightmare to deal with, as she demonstrated half-hearted compliance, an overall nasty attitude, sulking and self-righteous indignation – while she secretly plotted, and quietly pursued (an anticipatory) wrongful termination lawsuit against the administrators and Board of Directors of the small, family oriented and all Black school district. Her intentions were rather transparent as she began to obsessively document and/or audiotape everything and became vehemently outspoken that all aforementioned exemplars of support were being regarded as punitive measures of discrimination.

Clearly, in a society which fosters so much implicit and explicit bias, abject racism and general disdain for Blacks (and to a lesser extent, other people of color), one would probably expect a base level of unpreparedness for the exemplary educational standards encountered in our all Black, Title I institution – particularly from one outside the culture who somehow expects to find stereotypical, low-performing staff and students who merely languished in a struggling school environment or perhaps pretended at educating our children against insurmountable odds. On the contrary, save the absence of a modern, state of the art facility and tangible resources which accompany the school funding allotment for suburban schools, there’s no less commitment or talent among the educators, students in the inner city zip codes. And for the record, I guess all assumptions be damned, because we too had hoped that a highly educated professional (with a history of having been brutally and unlawfully persecuted by the scourge of institutionalized racism), would be equally averse to allowing themselves to propagate mis-education among Black students to this extreme. It turns out that we were both wrong. In the real life scenario, certain to rival any Hollywood inspired, Dangerous Minds script, there was a level of rebellious resistance and a degree of abject racism which emerged over time to reveal the true, insidious nature of Dr. Q.

In the administrative followup session (which she dramatically audio-recorded), Dr. Q was presented with extensive documentation of her unfavorable classroom observations, a compilation of incident reports (reflecting injuries and referrals emanating from her small classroom), parental complaints, and most importantly evidence of each of her student’s dramatic academic decline in the course of the academic year. Though she reluctantly acknowledged the presence of several parental complaints as valid and even came around to agree with widespread, existing concerns regarding her increasingly ‘chaotic’ classroom atmosphere – by her own admission, she was never permitted to implement her own ‘best practice’ certain to prove the way in which she could best teach “these Black children” and she hastily retorted that she felt she lacked both disciplinary support from administration and the Dean, psychological support from the school’s social worker and the proper administrative confidence and support from the principal. Really?! Insert any gif of a Black woman’s eye-rolling face when she is less than impressed here. Nevertheless, Dr. Q countered by insisting that her struggles could only be attributed to ‘cultural/ethnic differences’ between her all-Black classroom and she, a middle aged Jewish woman; and that over time, if given the time, opportunity, space and support to administer her program of teaching (which had always worked well for her in the past), a common ground would eventually emerge whereupon academic progress and behavioral compliance would miraculously manifest. In other words, she foolishly believed her professional failings were nonexistent or would somehow work themselves out, or perhaps even that her abject disdain for Black people would have no impactful bearing upon her teacher/student interactions and their resulting performance (for the record, this is a common misconception which must be permanently laid to rest). It is worth noting that roughly 25% of our district’s instructional staff were White and had no such cultural/ethnic obstructions to account for their rousing success as classroom teachers.

Undoubtedly, the general consensus from a purely data based lens, is that this teacher’s inability to regard her students as equal to the curricular challenge as those she encountered at the gifted school – severely debilitated her ability to appropriately engage, teach them. Likewise the inordinate amount of time and energy spent on the re-direction of children’s (predictable) bad behavior severely detracted from an ideal teaching and learning atmosphere in Dr. Q’s classroom. The joint racist fueled/classroom management issue became increasing points of contention as the year progressed and as data (from Scantron, Star Reading/Math and Early Literacy tests and Learning.com assessments) evidence mounted. Thus, under increasing administrative and exemplary peer performance pressure to raise student achievement and to resolve worsening classroom management issues all at once – Dr. Q resorted to vocally and quite frequently whining incessantly (in both PLC and during weekly faculty meetings), of the general unreliable nature and adverse affects the frequent testing requirements, particularly district-mandated assessments, were having upon “real teaching”. Her contention was to conclude that such tests were grossly unfit for either academic or teacher evaluation purposes and should be regarded as a necessary evil in upper elementary and middle grades, but generally frowned upon or given less weight and credence in the early primary grades. These impromptu ‘speeches’ were met with varying degrees of: agreement, apathy and a general acceptance of the inevitable nuisance of such mandated measurements by the majority of our instructional staff. It is rather commonplace that educators nationwide are universally and increasingly held accountable for similar or even more extensive evidence of academic achievement of their own students. The argument is certainly well intended, but in the case of an educator with a less than stellar performance record, then in many ways the point is moot and the premise for poor performance deemed an exercise in futility.

Alas, the final ‘line in the sand’ was drawn with respect to Dr. Q’s strongly held and increasingly contentious opinion on this issue when she rejected the validity of her year-end teaching evaluation status (a composite score based upon all previous classroom observations & assessment data). Upon receiving a formal copy of her unsatisfactory rating, she contested the validity of her students’ scores on year-end assessments, citing among other things, adverse testing conditions including: time constraints (a common concern on modern computer-adaptive tests), computer literacy (or lack thereof) of the mandated, technology based tests and when/how frequently (once every 6-8 weeks), the tests were administered by the district. She went on to counter that she had devised of her very own, teacher-created measurements of academic achievement, based upon the district-approved Common Core standards and similar to the format of the questions being assessed by the district’s formative assessment earlier in the year and noted that her children had performed much more favorably on this alternative, written and classroom administered test. Alas, when this assessment and the corresponding results were considered but then rejected by administration as an unscientific, unapproved, ‘subjective’ model lacking rigor and insufficient to meet the universal standards of the data driven results of all other K-2 students, Dr. Q abruptly ended her formal ‘exit interview’ with a profanity laced, shouting match to rival other speeches delivered in eloquent fashion and within the hour had tendered a formal letter of resignation.

In the final analysis, the environment for mis-education flourishes in the absence of a shared experience and an equal investment in the innately endowed capabilities and worth of Black students. As a longtime teacher and administrator, I have witnessed forms of disservice from mild areas of weakness, that one chooses to ignore and remain underdeveloped; to more severe cases of arrogance (I’ve got mine, you get yours), apathy (assigns busywork or uninspired, antiquated curriculum content), to outright ineptitude (varying degrees of unpreparedness, substance abuse, verbal/mental abuse or hostility) and each has resulted in the gradual erosion of our inherent right to be educated or liberated, as an African people. Rarely has an authentic case study of a real teacher, school district and administrator’s experience, been more of a cautionary tale of what not to do in future pedagogical practice. Please feel free to share your critical analysis on this case study and be mindful in your responses that the classroom is no place to experiment with one’s own interpretation of beliefs and best practices.

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.