In my process of learning from younger black educators, I’m discovering that they are creative and have a lot of the information at their fingertips. They have a lot of things that veteran teachers didn’t have… but one thing I know we can bring to the table is our experience and how we had to navigate our reality as black teachers in the school system, but also just teachers in general and being able to navigate how to be a leader at whatever level you are.
One of the things my mentor says is to use what you have, and the thing that I have is experience. I have resources, connections, and I know a lot of people who are in these positions from mentoring and coaching that can add some value to the conversation!
I just want to find my place in supporting these young educators. I want to share my perspective because there’s value in the experiences that we veteran teachers have. I currently have 25 years of experience behind me that I want to use to support others and help advance the future generations of black educators, and educators in general, in any way that I can.
For a little context, my friend Latrina Cockrell is a former teacher and current specialist with the professional learning department. Cockrell taught in Fulton County, GA schools with me for 15 years. During that time, as two black educators, we taught in predominantly white schools in the northern part of Fulton County. Then, we opened a school in South Fulton County together.
Now there’s something mind-blowing here in our story. We opened the school with just two hallways.
There was no front office or cafeteria yet! It was just two hallways that intersected, on a campus that was surrounded by a dirt road from construction, with a barbed-wire fence that I am not sure would have been there if the school was not located in a black area.
The school was opened with kids running around and learning while it was only half-finished. We could have had the things we needed completed faster, but we were too occupied with taking care of the kids that were already there. We didn’t have the luxury of time to be able to fight for our school to be taken care of the way it should have been. We went without for a very long time, but the work we did while the school was starting up was extremely valuable because that was our little way of fighting. The police brutality fight was not as present back then, but the fight for kids has always been our fight.
We’ve had to learn how to sit and play the game, bite our tongues…We had to learn the language necessary to be heard. Most importantly we had to learn how to be leaders in the place that we were. It was relevant to us that our kids were there to learn. The parents, the principal, and the vice principal were not going to let us do anything but teach. Regardless of the physical structure, our mental structure had to be in place. The staff was phenomenal. It takes a certain mindset to grind in that kind of environment, and if you can grind in that kind of environment, you can grind anywhere including for the kids that aren’t in the advanced learning programs, the ESE department, or for the police brutality movement.
At one point, a teacher was worrying about not having enough time to prepare for school to start, and I reminded her that if everything in the room was removed and the kids showed up right now, you would still teach even without all the equipment. Nowadays, teachers have a few more luxuries, with many resources we can use like smartboards and online textbooks, but we have to remember that the most influential thing in getting students to acquire knowledge, make meaning of it, and transfer it into practice is the teacher. Everything else is a resource. You can have all the nice equipment in the world, but if the teacher is not mining for gold in those students, their will be no progress. We want all our students to elevate and have the knowledge they need to be successful. A students path to success starts with extraordinary teachers.
New teachers have amazing skills to bring to the table and there is no doubt about that, but as a veteran tecaher, I want to pass my experience down to help others grow even more. There are two major lessons I’ve learned throughout my 25 years of teaching:
- Be Self Aware: A lot of teachers tell others to go learn this, go read this, and go find these things, but the question I learned to ask myself is “what am I doing?” If I was telling all these students to go learn and grow while I am not actively learning and growing than I was doing a disservice to them. I started to read self improvement books and have a coach direct me into new perspectives based on my strengths and weaknesses. I continued to learn so that I would have the tools that I needed to be more self-aware.
- Change Things Now! This is an important lesson to learn to start to lead from where you are. If you see an issue in how a system is running or what someone is doing, take the actions to change those things now. If you wait to do something that could be done in the moment that you notice the issue, you could save the issue from spreading any further.
Here is a real example of these two lessons working in a classroom setting:
During a class one day, both Cockrell and I were in the same classroom observing a teacher doing a lesson. The teacher was explaining a concept to the class and asked for a raise of hands if everybody was familiar with the example she was going to use. No one in the class raised there hands, but she continued to use that example anyways. Me and Cockerel glanced at eachother, knowing that what she was doing needed to be corrected. So, I urged Cockrellto intervene and explain the concept in the way that was best for the kids. She stopped the lesson and corrected the teacher in that moment, and some might say that was rude or impolite to the teacher, but letting the students continue to learn the wrong thing would have been rude and impolite to them.
Being a leader and making corrections does not have to be be a negative conflict. It can be very positive because not only did those students learn, but the teacher learned too. The teacher might not have known that she was doing anything wrong, so making others aware of there faults so that they can become better it extremely important for overall improvement. Another lesson I’ve learned from teaching is that conflict is not negative. If two people always agree, one of them does not benefit from it. One of them is not growing.
From the example above, the teacher was not aware of how her lesson could have affected the class. They might be so influenced by the foregin concept she used that they start to think that is the only way things work within society, when she really just wasn’t aware of all the other ways. Then, when Cockrell interrupted her lesson to correct her, that was a perfect example of leading from where you are. It is extremely important to make positive changes from where you are at because no one else with your knowledge is there to do it. If you don’t start to make the changes, the issues will continue to expand.
If you don’t take anything else from this today, please remember that as a teacher it is your responsibility to advocate for your students. Become self-aware for your students because they need to learn from you and you need to have the tools to give them the knowledge to be successful in life. Then when you see faults from a system or faults in another person’s actions, make the change now. Don’t wait for those systems or people to teach others false ways of thinking.
Start to lead from where you are now!