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Experience is the Best Teacher

I wish that I could pass along all of the most important and meaningful things I’ve learned in life to others. But the truth is that most of the pivotal things have been gleaned from life experience. And we all know that experience (just like one’s influence), is not transferable.

Things like distinguishing the light in the fog after heartbreak leaves you vulnerable to pain; listening intently to our gut instincts and realizing that it’s never once, steered you wrong; valuing the centeredness and clarity which only comes from the deafening silence of honoring our inner voice, amidst a sea of other people’s opinions. These are the virtues and deep, meaningful lessons that my current self would have shared with my much younger iteration. My only wonder is, whether I would have listened to this 50-year old version of me? Or would I have laughed and soldiered on, undaunted? Hmm . . .

But since experience is truly the best teacher – and wisdom only comes with age, I am admittedly fortunate to have made it to an age, rank and lot in life that the younger version of me would scarcely recognize. And ohh how grateful I am to have made it to my own middle aged status. I’m not yet an elder, who’s able (or even wanting), to retire and enjoy the fruits of an entire lifetime of labor and experiences. But Lord knows that I don’t want to be someone in my 80s, still working everyday, trying to retrofit myself to times long ago passed and still yet increasingly unwilling to bow out gracefully.

Having lived this long, I’ve certainly witnessed the unpleasantness of senior executives and/or elected officials who would sooner die in office and tarnish their own sterling life legacies, than to properly mentor and anoint their successors and elect to willingly retire from service, while maintaining an honorable emeritus capacity. I have also sorrowfully witnessed the harmful implications of their own narcissism manifesting in a general disdain for their years of faithful service and at least in one case, an elected official was forced into retirement under the suspicion of scandal and his position (once revered as an esteemed, legendary and coveted space), is now being held by a charlatan with deep enough pockets to have purchased his capacity of unearned privilege, power and political influence. So, clearly the alternative to learning from experience and allowing wisdom to reign supreme is disastrous.

And while I’m far from my time as a young person, when an opinionated outlook and impatient, fiercely fiery personality was my general go to persona; I am still cognizant of my coveted position of leadership and experience and keenly conscious of my obligation to increasingly pay it forward, through targeted, meaningful mentorship’s (I actually hate this word and all of its negative white supremacist context and implications), so I will elect to embrace its African-Centered, wholistic reference of being blessed to be a Godmother to many. As this is something I was blessed to learn from and am fortunately still seeing it being modeled by my own dear Mother. Mostly, I have mellowed and matured to the extent that I opt to quietly observe, listen, and watch (almost) as much as I speak 😂. And as my outspoken personality sort of naturally takes a backseat as I age and acquire wisdom – I can certainly attest to having learned so much more!

Likewise, as educators many of us are guilty of having this sort of myopic, tunnel vision where our subject area expertise and/or personal knowledge base and belief systems intersect with our instruction. As a school administrator, I have seen this in practice and intervened more times than I can count. I have even blogged about the seemingly well meaning, highly educated and yet thoroughly racist, elementary teacher (who had formerly taught in a gifted school), but who regarded her role as an inner city, Title I school teacher as no more than a babysitting job, with which she could defy the norms of preparation and high expectations and merely spend her days reading to her students on the carpeted floor area, she had affectionately termed as “the beach”! Tuhh, if you don’t get your ass up and teach, there’s gonna be trouble. And trouble there was, until she elected to remove her biased, terminated ass from our midst rather than to pursue her baseless wrongful termination case. In any event, I’ve come to realize that there’s so much more value in learning and growing in continuous fashion and in maintaining healthy levels of humility as it regards all of the things we do not yet know.

I can only hope that as I continue to approach teaching, learning and life in this my 28th year as an educator, that I do so with a new set of experienced eyes, not fully jaded by life’s disappointments, but still much more knowing than I was even 20 years ago . . . I would love to morph into the kind of mother, teacher, partner, sister and friend who is as gracious a person as I imagine myself to be. I want to exude love, light and the delicious wisdom from experience in every professional development training experience, college course or interaction with our high school Scholar Ambassador’s. I want to take my wins and innumerable blessings as a testament to God’s ability to somehow use me as a vessel and not as a reflection of my own brilliance and hard work, though certainly I’m blessed with benefits of both and a tireless work ethic to match. But truly, to God be the Glory for all the things that go right and may I be grounded and careful enough to learn from my mistakes, losses and disappointments.

Mostly, I honestly do appreciate and long for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. As I prepare to embrace my coveted role as the elder sister who traditionally hosts our immediate family for holiday get togethers, may this Labor Day and official start of yet another school year bring smiles, memorable moments and time for thoughtful reflection and optimistic hope for the year to come. Amen-Ra, Asé and so it is.

Thank you for reading!

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White Female Teachers + Black Students = Mis-Education

An entire qualitative study is warranted on the inescapable, yet subtle ways that mis-education is propagated at the hands of seemingly benevolent White, female teachers whose disdain for Black students is glaringly apparent in microaggressions. Black students, the world over, have long been subjected to pedagogical racism in the various forms of: lowered expectations, assignment as pet projects/mascots, target practice for linguistic “speak standard English only” oppressive zones, poster children for the disproportionately tested, used as behavior referral and prison pipeline guinea pigs and as unethical study subjects in Tuskegee experiment styled, Common Core curriculum infused trials. Black students bemoan the recurrent disservice of being forced to act as ‘unofficial’ spokespersons #ForTheCulture and being shamelessly misused as fodder for slavery re-enactment displays (reeking of racism, yet poorly disguised as hands-on “history” lessons). For Black students, the K-12 years are akin to a torturous  journey of re-enslavement in which abject tokenism, tyranny and exploitation informs nearly every interaction with the vast majority of their White, female teachers. Too strong a statement? No. An over exaggerated assessment of Black students’ reality? I think not. But of course, this ideology is entirely dependent upon one’s perspective.  Consider that it is White Women who overwhelmingly elected Trump and that this is the same demographic who aggressively persists in reporting an incredulous litany of  non-crimes of law-abiding Black people to police on an almost weekly basis across the country. Clearly this troubling behavior exposes a pattern of behavior which does not lie dormant during the course of a typical school year. Informed analysis reveals that the same racism, classism and oppressive power dynamics which are manifest in society have disastrous implications upon all students of color and particularly on the psyche of Black students. Essentially, Black students are merely surviving the K-12 trajectory, but are not thriving and this is merely a testament to our well-honed survival skills in preparation for suffering a dreaded lifetime of institutionalized oppression. Acknowledge that any post secondary pursuit of academic excellence beyond the initial baptism by fire of the first 12 years of school, comprises the sum total of Black people’s remarkable ability to withstand hostility filled classroom environments, in which White women wield the only degree of power this patriarchal society allows them to exercise.

In terms of recognizing the telltale signs of modern-day mis-education in the covert form of microaggressions, the insidious hatred takes on many forms. From the common scenario in which a Black student (insert any student of color), innocently requests to go to the restroom with the question “Can I go to the bathroom, please?”, to which the White, female teacher (insert any holier than thou, privileged person in authority) snarkily replies “I don’t know? Can you go to the restroom?!”, in an apparent reference to the improper use of grammar. For the mortified student, they have just been publicly maligned and sarcastically corrected by a respected person of authority who casually assumes the role of the grammar police, thereby rendering the classroom as not a place of learning where everyone is welcome – and grammar lessons are delivered at appropriate times – but as a protected, White space in which no student of color dare exercise agency or free expression. Of course, the indignant power dynamic of centering whiteness as the norm is not new, on the contrary, racists publicly correct the language use of all people of color and regard all spaces as their personal domain to police as they deem fit – please reference pertinent examples.  Clearly, for the unsuspecting student in the aforementioned scenario, there are no valued lessons learned. They will retain only the harmful memory of having been embarrassed for innocently expressing a legitimate need, and become adept at internalizing oppression and ceasing to be themselves in a hostile environment. Whereas, the clueless teacher (even if confronted by a parent), fails to see the harm in utilizing what they deem to be a #TeachableMoment and ponders, in vain, as to how to better infuse music, slang and/or any host of other manipulative stereotypes as a means to effectively reach their Black students who don’t seem receptive to their loving, standards-based and welcoming classroom. Ha! Therein lies the rub, indeed a problem for the ages. The disproportionate diversity demographics of 80% predominantly White, female teachers to an almost equal number of students of color is an indictment upon an American educational system which has its historic foundation upon institutionalized racism and separate, unequal practices which essentially informs the ever-widening achievement gap. How will authentic education ever be accomplished in the midst of such divergent perspectives? It is my contention that no real learning can take place at all given this oppressive model (sigh), only gross mis-education.

As shared in my own qualitative, narrative dissertation of the prevalent (yet oft-ignored), phenomena of mis-education, the study concluded that the narrative voice of Black educators must be afforded a prominent platform as a pertinent means for ‘resident experts’ to willingly share of their own degree of mis-education and to similarly propose the best, evidence-based practices to successfully counter the debilitating effects of suffering a daily onslaught of microaggressions within the classroom setting. Among the all too common themes which frequently emerge in the empirical data of Black students suffering mis-education, there are incidents of being told that “You speak/read/learn/ compute very well” as if African genius is an anomaly or that “You are a credit to your race” as a supposed compliment by an authority figure who actually believes that they have their innate bias in check. Despite record levels of creative innovation and educational advancements, Black people are still being acknowledged as “the firsts” in so many diverse arenas and in the presence of equally (or even lesser) educated peers. We are generally regarded as “the help” or as having earned a position through affirmative action, while being unfairly compensated for performing the same professional capacities. In fact, among the academic community and in society in general, White women and men so often leverage their Whiteness to game the system, that it limits  their capacity to ascribe natural genius to Black people at all. There’s such a wealth of insidious, persistent stereotypes governing  educational policy in the key areas of curriculum, instruction, assessment and scholarly research that it is fairly common to still be the only person of color to be published in elite journals, sought as featured presenters, or to occupy the seats on policy boards which empower us to wield significant power in schools to effect the change needed to turn the tide of mis-education. Until Black scholars (and all people of conscience who support our revolutionary efforts to decolonize education) collaborate in exposing these issues throughout districts and via targeted government appointments – students of color will continue to comprise the ranks of the oppressed. Far too many Black, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous students have been undervalued for their (or their family’s) immigrant status and asked to clarify where they are born, or to say words in their native language on command. In terms of the microaggression of color blindness – in what alternate reality has it ever been appropriate to foolishly proclaim that you “Don’t even see color” or that “I have Black friends”?  Please be crystal clear in recognizing that all claims of color-blindness are as offensive as the day is long, yet such statements are repeatedly uttered by folks who would rather pretend that they don’t acknowledge another’s ethnicity as preferable to being mindfully conscious of and ultimately working everyday not to weaponize their normative whiteness and privilege through self-education and concerted effort. 

It is clear that for White, female teachers and Black students . . . nearly all interactions are problematic, particularly given the power dynamics of an outdated, yet all-too-common classroom construct, whereby the teacher is the sole authority figure and students’ are regarded as merely empty vessels waiting to be filled. For White, privileged education policy makers, there is no apparent urgency to increase the diversity of America’s teaching force or to level the playing field of potential success for Black students because the intentional design of the system holds that some students will inevitably fail.  There is no authentic crisis in the myopic view of policy makers, as long as the student failures reside squarely within the demographic of Black students, and other students of color.  An analysis of multiple studies devoted to the Black-White student achievement gap conclude that systemic discrimination and generational poverty are at fault for the massive disparity in student achievement and this is indeed a sound conclusion, supported by data. However, little attention is paid to the direct correlation between the overwhelmingly White teaching force and the increasingly diverse student populace, as a primary contributing factor to the ever-present achievement gap. From a purely statistical perspective, it is absolutely unacceptable for there to be such a dearth of quality, educators of color (in general) and Black educators (in particular), to teach our increasingly Black and Brown student majority.  Honestly, how can you teach me, if you don’t know me, respect my worldview (often antithetical to your own), or love me? It’s arguably impossible to learn, think critically or prosper when subjected to the same level of purse clutching fear and abject hostility in play elsewhere. Although studies have shown that there is no effect upon White students when they have Black teachers, the exact opposite is true for Black students who are irreparably damaged and otherwise mis-educated from a lifetime of exposure to the White, female homogeneity of the schools. Still, there’s been little to no national recruitment efforts sponsored by educational policy makers to significantly and permanently increase teacher diversity, at a rate which honors, values and is commensurate with the overwhelming ranks of students of color. Even the New York Times cited diversity and bias training as only a temporary remedy to addressing an age-old problem. Yet, many schools fail to even undertake this preventative measure, thus ushering in an entire era of tone deaf, misguided, out of touch White teachers who could care less that their repeated, failed attempts to “teach” students of color, only reinforces their innate bias, privilege and normalizing the tendency to project a superiority complex over our children. Sigh . . . and so a vicious cycle proliferates.

Undoubtedly, there are countless exceptions to the rule, in the form of admirable, White women educators who are staunch professionals, conscious of their White privilege and who are instrumental in sounding the alarm re: the need for change. However for others, the sincere message is this – listen up clueless colonizers: no más, no more, no ma’am! Keep your ‘Angelina Jolie wanting to adopt us’ energy; coupled with your ‘Sandra Bullock I’m only married to racists and star in Hollywood savior films for fun’ energy; and especially your ‘Alyssa Milano #FakeWoke, wannabe anti-racist, Twitter fingers-activist screaming “I see you, I feel you, I AM YOU” toxic, empath energy back to the ‘unsolicited, denounce Min. Farrakhan or else soapbox, which you hastily handcrafted to showcase your poorly disguised allegiance, while inadvertently outing your own unchecked superiority complex’. By all means, keep your ‘detached suburban living, my own children attend private school and my conservative political preferences are private’ energy waaayyy over there. Because trust me, Black students/parents and the community in general are already accustomed to carrying the heaviest load in terms of our own freedom from oppression, so you are either helping or harming the cause – there is no middle ground. It helps tremendously to be mindful of never engaging in widespread posturing, placating or complete ignorance to the power imbalance that the average classroom environment cultivates and governing yourselves accordingly.  As a viable starting point towards a solution for what ails the system of mis-education engendered by White, female teachers and Black students is to engage:

  • Nationwide Recruitment/Retention of Black Teachers – It is pivotal to honor and attune the entire education community to the empowered voices and opinions of Black educators who are as commonly tokenized and disrespected as valued professionals as are Black students in the classroom. Black educators have long been vocal about the need for increased support in both entering and sustaining a viable future in the education profession. Thus, nationwide recruitment and retention strategies are key.
  • Diversity & Inclusion Training – Racism, elitism and White privilege are so firmly rooted in education as to render diversity training one of many mandated curriculum strands required for the well-rounded, rigorous and relevant professional development offerings of all educators and pedagogical leaders. Every school needs rigorous, relevant and competent diversity training, ideally at the hands of an experienced Black scholar educator well-versed in institutionalized oppression in schools, in order for each institution to attempt to rid itself of its own unique form of the universal scourge of racism.
  • Scholarly Research (both Qualitative and Quantitative) – Without question, the demographic impact of the prominent number of White women in leadership of diverse classrooms and schools must be thoroughly researched and analyzed in terms of their reinforcement of the ‘survival of the fittest’ culture, which supports the status quo and sustains institutionalized oppression. Any and all attempts to contribute to the virtually non-existent, 21st Century knowledge base of mis-education in the field of educational policy are welcomed.
  • Policy Change & Legislative Action – It’s not enough to support ongoing mass opposition to DeVos’ racist policies, targeted commercialization and the widespread privatization of schools. Teachers nationwide engaged in protesting and fighting for better pay and legislative change while opposing future cuts to education must similarly advocate for increased federal/state investment in anti-racist teacher education and all other complementary efforts to decolonize pedagogy through anti-racist curriculum, instructional and disciplinary protocols rooted in equity and justice. Educators have a collective obligation to actively work towards leveling the playing field in the areas of: recruitment, hiring and teacher retention strategies while simultaneously tackling the increasing incidents of racism and xenophobia in all of our K-12 schools and college campuses across the country. 

Educational institutions and teachers which continue to operate in a vacuum, business as usual, despite the presence of the significant injustices buoyed by the overwhelming number of White, female teachers and Black students will only serve to exacerbate the problem of  mis-education. 

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Teacher Backlash: A Symptom of Systemic Decline

Teacher: For today’s lesson we will learn about electrical currents and solar energy…

Student: Why? Is this how we will restore power to Puerto Rico?!

Lesson: Unless knowledge has practical applicability to real-world dilemmas – it is useless information. #TeachableMoment #EducateToLiberate

As a general rule, educators are charged with ensuring that our students are engaged in an authentic acquisition of knowledge which derives from inquiry, research, explicit instruction, spirited discussions and hands-on experiences gained in an environment conducive to learning. However, all too often our classrooms reflect common standards, and ultimately daily lessons – which have no practical applicability beyond the latest (and ever-present), high-stakes standardized test. This eliminates virtually all opportunities for relevance and creativity in classroom instruction and otherwise renders our current educational climate as one preoccupied with ‘busy work’ rather than real knowledge acquisition. This is merely one common teacher grievance and component of an increasingly dysfunctional educational system. Surely, the most significant measure of the systemic decline of American education is represented in the diminishing and utterly dissatisfied teaching workforce.

Many educators would likely agree that through no fault of their own, the joy of teaching has been systemically replaced with a sort of robotic and mechanical uniformity that leaves much to be desired from teachers, students and parents alike. It is no secret that the for-profit standardized testing industry is now indistinguishable from the agenda of high-ranking education officials and these combined forces have collectively dictated federal K-12 education curriculum and even policy; a dilemma which has increasingly disillusioned teachers. As the political and profit-margin obsessed entities place increasing faith on the value and frequency of high-stakes assessments – the myopic focus on ranking the worsening performance of both students’ and teachers’ is a universal sign of the decline of authentic education. This fact seems lost on those engaged in education reform measures, but is glaringly apparent to scores of teachers across the nation – who are revolting en masse for a wide variety of justifiable reasons. A common thread observable in the states where teachers have recently launched formidable walkout movements (W. Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky); is that these are Republican-dominated districts suffering the debilitating loss of school funding, collective bargaining rights and pay freezes of an already meager living wage.

Adding insult to injury, the teaching profession suffers the pronounced loss of future talent from college graduates admittedly unwilling to enter a field so synonymous with disrespect, low pay and even lower levels of job satisfaction.
In the end, teachers have been disallowed an opportunity to actually do what they love and have devoted their lives to: teach. Around the country, the discontentment of our teachers is showing and those who suffer the most pronounced loss? Our students, whose academic performance thrives when their education is primed for authentic knowledge acquisition rather than the ‘busy work’ that marks our present dysfunctional educational system.

No other world-class nation imposes as many testing mandates on its students, while inflicting even greater performance edicts on its teachers, than does America. The systemic methodology which unrealistically judges the aptitude of learners and the quality of its teachers on a single, non-transparent, and high-stakes assessment is fundamentally flawed. Educators should be regarded as both supremely qualified, and considered the front line of defense for a thriving educational system. Yet in 2009, educators had no discernible input in designing the national standards now being universally taught; nor are they allowed to revise the glaring imperfections of the Common Core curriculum and its accompanying testing mandates (at least until after 2021). In this nation’s current, dysfunctional educational system affluence has sadly become the ultimate arbiter in the wide disparity of the academic fate of students, the corresponding evaluation rating of teachers and ranking of all public (or DeVos inspired, for-profit charter) schools. Ultimately, despite popular, unfounded claims that the current wave of teacher walkouts and backlash is driven by greed-driven salary demands, or unrealistic demands for increased school funding – the crisis in America’s public schools is not exaggerated. It is real, worsening and headed for a yet unseen, dramatic climax.

Teachers in this nation are unsatisfied, grossly undervalued and represent merely a symptom of an eroding educational system on the brink of demise…from within.