Imprint

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It’s the beginning of another school year. Many of us are beginning to gather things for our classrooms or enjoying our last moments of vacation. During this last week of rest and relaxation, I read a book! I can hardly believe it myself! I’ve begun several, but this book seemed fitting as I begin to get back into the focused mindset of daily instruction. The book incited a great deal of reflection, but not only that, it is special because it is the memoir written by my father.

The book details my father’s life, beginning with a simple life growing up in rural south to his success as the first African American to lead a major national organization. He speaks in great detail of the values and mindset instilled in him at an early age by his parents. The encouragement he received and the motivation to believe he could achieve whatever he set his mind to were imprinted in him from as far back as he could recollect. Time and time again, he attributes every advancement in his career to the foundation of values his parents had imprinted in him. I stopped there in my reading to reflect.

Think for a moment. As an educator, what imprint have you left on your scholars? An imprint, by definition, is an impression or a mark made by pressure. This is a commanding responsibility when you consider all we are tasked to do within one year. Nonetheless, I believe it is necessary for each of us to evaluate the imprint we intend to impress upon our scholars as they enter our classrooms. To do this, let’s begin by thinking about your purpose in education. Why are you here?

Education is not for everyone as many of you well know. For those that are educators, think about why you chose this particular field. We all have our personal and/or professional reasons, but, it is my opinion that to be effective in this field, you must understand your purpose. I hope those of you reading this are here for the purpose of educating children (or adults) and developing productive thinkers and problem solvers as opposed to monetary gains and/or extended breaks. While financial stability (some of you probably chuckled right there) and weeks of vacation are attractive benefits to being an educator, nothing is more fulfilling than watching a child learn and grow before your eyes. Understanding your purpose for teaching is the first step toward leaving your imprint on a child.

In addition to understanding your purpose, the book also speaks about values. Think about the values you endorse in your life. Are they like the values of your classroom? Chances are the values you hold in the highest regard are ingrained and ever present in your life, no matter where you are, therefore, they will be modeled for the young people around you. As a teacher leader, it is imperative that we are clear and consistent about our values in order for them to leave an imprint.

The most important values I work to instill within my scholars (in addition to the school wide values that unite our school community) are growth mindset, kindness, and acceptance. These values set the climate within my classroom each day and throughout the year. They set the precedence for each individual and holds us all accountable for our choice behaviors.

Growth Mindset:

For my scholars, a positive mindset, above all, has transformative power. I have heard the phrases, “ I can’t…”, “I’m not good at…”, and “I don’t know how…” on more occasions than I’d like to admit. The second I hear just one of those statements, I pull that scholar aside to see if I can determine the root cause. I tell them specifically to, “Get your mind right”! They often look at me with confusion.  I go on to explain negativity has no place in their words. Further, I go on to explain the power of the mind. You see, once a scholar begins to think they can, more often than not, they will. I keep my expectation bar raised high and I do not ever doubt they cannot reach it. Of course, I may have several bars at different heights to meet the needs of each individual scholar, but know that each of them is reaching high to meet their own set of expectations. Seeing what once was a self defeating attitude and mindset shift into an intrinsically motivated zest for learning is more gratifying than any amount of money could buy.  This is probably the most important value I hold in my class.

Kindness:

Words can build you up or they can tear you down. I’ve witnessed some shattered spirits enter my room.  The power of kindness can break down barriers and allows people to open themselves up to build better relationships. It is important to understand that using kind words and feeling that one is a valued contributor within the class also helps build confidence and risk taking.

Acceptance:

It saddens me when I come across a scholar who feels they do not belong. In my presence, we are all uniquely different, with amazing gifts and individuality to offer the classroom community. I work diligently to create an environment where each scholar is encouraged to share a piece of themselves with the class. This allows people to acknowledge and respect each others differences since there is something uniquely defining in each of us. Being accepted for the unique person you are helps build self-esteem.

These are only a few of the values I reinforce in my classroom and I think it is important to share the reason they are important is simply because they were instilled in me at a young age. I learned that the power of words tear you down as a new student, bullied and teased for the way I talked when I moved to a new school at 11 years old. At that same time, I learned to conform to social standards to be accepted by my peers. This is something I decided would not be the case for my scholars. For my scholars, I would vow that they would not succumb to the peer norms of acceptance that I faced. Being different and unique is okay and all of us would respect each person’s unparalleled skills and abilities.

I learned about mindset a bit later in life. During my younger years, I’d always believed the smallest effort was my best effort. That is exactly what I would tell myself. This limited effort resulted in average grades. I was average and average was my best. That’s what I thought to myself for the longest time. I didn’t understand what true effort looked like or sounded like, even though it was right in front of me day in and day out. As long as I read over something or copied something correctly, I was putting forth my best effort. It was not until I went away to college that I learned that true effort meant more time, more reading, more research, more practice; simply put effort means put in MORE!

It may seem trivial on some level, these three simple foundational values; but when you consider the impact they have collectively on a child’s future, it seems worth the investment. When my scholars leave and enter middle school, they enter with new imprints. They enter with a better understanding of who they are, what they are capable of, and a sense of self worth; all because I chose to leave my imprint on their lives. Now, what will your imprint look like?

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Don’t Be Defined by Disappointments

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Over the last year, I have worked diligently to reach newer heights. I added to my consulting business portfolio by becoming a National Trainer through the Center for Teacher Effectiveness (CTE). I also became inundated with the task of perfecting a professional development session focused on teacher efficacy, student engagement, and motivation. Keep in mind, I have led professional development sessions locally, but had not yet taken on the challenge of presenting at the state level. That all changed this last year. I was both honored and privileged to have my presentation/proposal accepted at four state teacher/administrator conferences! I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, but now here I was preparing to present at four very established state conferences.

Have you ever prepared for something for so long that everything just seemed to fall right into place? I mean, the presentation looks great, it sounds great, and in your mind, you envision everything running smooth as pudding? This has been my experience and has led to an exceptionally eye-opening year to say the least! The opportunity to share my knowledge at the state level has the potential to finally boost my business to the next level. The mere conception of reaching districts beyond my locality has become intoxicating! I instantly become inspired by the expansive impact I would be able to make within neighboring states and communities. Needless to say, however, what was to be an exhilarating experience evolved into an overwhelmingly stressful, anxiety laden test that would become a lesson lying in wait.

I’ve been wanting to write for the longest, but for some reason, working to build the public speaking portion of my business left my voice silenced, ironically enough. The emphasis on making sure just the right slides were included, that each annotation was accurate, and each objective was being met loomed over me.  It may be difficult to understand, but while I was organizing and reorganizing slides, I began to feel a great deal of pressure. It was really all I thought about in my spare time and I became almost obsessive about the entire presentation. There was a lot of research and great detail placed into making certain the session was just right. It needed to be perfect! 

However, in my reflection of this past year, I finally have something to share with all of you, and that is this… disappointments can only define us, if we allow them! Think about that statement, then, think about the many successes you have achieved. Should one disappointment negate all of those?

Last summer, around this time, I created a professional development presentation focused on teacher efficacy, student engagement and motivation. My proposal was accepted for the very first time to present in October (2017) in Columbus, Ohio at the Fall Title I Conference. I was incredibly excited, yet, also nervous. Not about the content I was sharing, but more about how it would be received. I presented by myself, as I typically do, and I began to feel a tremendous amount of apprehension. The presentation went pretty well, but I sensed that I was not reaching some of the participants, particularly those that were administrators. My target audience had been teachers up to this point and teachers have been extremely receptive of the material. I found that I was a much harsher critic of myself than those I presented to because feedback and evaluation ratings from them were high. Very high! It was a confidence booster that I did not realize I needed! I became even more elated when as a direct result of this presentation, I was invited to speak at the spring Title I Conference in May! I thought to myself, I have finally created a platform for myself to reach educators across the state!

While I was looking forward to May 2018 and the future presentation I would deliver, I still had to present in February 2018 at the conference for Teachers of English Language Arts. This conference was very involved and my presentation was even more well received. There was standing room only and participants were extremely engaged! I was able to share a couple of strategies, but the discussion was so interesting, we not only lost track of time, but also ran out of time! A Board member spoke so highly of the session that she suggested more time for me next year! Great! I will be there! I am feeling very confident about the direction my business is heading after this conference. I should have known that disappointment was lingering nearby just waiting to pounce on me and wear down the high level of efficacy I have worked hard to build.

By the time I get back to the Title I conference in May, something was feeling off. I was distressed, but I am not sure why. Perhaps it was from the stress of the school year wearing on my spirit; the desolate feeling I had being at this conference and every conference prior; or perhaps it’s the sudden inadequacy I was feeling as a lone presenter or regarding my presentation itself, as the case may be. I cannot pinpoint exactly what brought on this unsettling mood, but there is definitely something happening. Although it wasn’t the best, I believe I was still able to meet the basic objective of the presentation. Participants seemed to leave with a basic understanding of student engagement and motivation, as well as a couple of strategies to share, but something just did not feel right. I was definitely disappointed at the end of it, feeling that I had not given my best me. I immediately take participant feedback to revise the session to make it even better for the next presentation opportunity.

June 2018…my fourth and final presentation of the school year.  This conference was with Elementary School Administrators and leaders. My biggest challenge yet. I felt good about it going in, but once I got there, the feeling of trepidation enshrouded my being. Perhaps it is because I am presenting to a new audience or because, in the back of my mind, I knew I was not fully prepared for this particular audience. In hindsight, I recognized there were steps missed to meet the capacity of this group. I talk myself down, thinking, “Things have been GREAT up to this point. You’re overreacting!” Oh, but, my gut was very aware of what was about to happen. The very first thing that happened was, I lost my voice just before the presentation began! Literally, lost my voice. It was awful!! It had to be a sign! Then, I began to sweat and watch the walls come tumbling down, figuratively speaking. I presented to the most difficult room I have had up to this point. Participants were in fact NOT engaged and the more I tried, the less they listened. There were more administrators in the room this time and the words coming out of my mouth did not seem to spark any wick of interest at all. I wanted to stop immediately, but I pressed on, thinking the entire time, “What is happening?” Disappointment had shown its face! I was so disappointed in myself. I was saddened that participants left unfed and disengaged; distressed that I was unable to shift the presentation enough to gain attention; and frustrated that even though I saw it coming, what I did to prepare for it just wasn’t enough.

I immediately begin to reflect. In fact, I have been reflecting for the last month over what I consider a “major” disappointment in my career. I reached out to my mentors for feedback about what I experienced.  Receiving criticism, admitting defeat, accepting this “set back” as an opportunity for a come back was hard, but the fact of the matter is, disappointments are a normal part of life! While they are painful, for sure, they are necessary for growth. It is my belief that when you hold yourself to the same expectations day after day, week after week, disappointments are bound to make their way into your space, because one becomes complacent with what they are tasked to do. Think about this… if your expectations are the same day in and day out, they are bound to misalign with the needs of someone else. The implication of this is not that the end result will be different, however it does imply that the route you use to reach the goal may be (and, in fact, should be) different than the route you took before. Understand that this takes time, efficiency, and precision to ensure that each specific objective is met for the needs of the identified audience. Otherwise, disappointment is surely inevitable.

As a result of these personal learning opportunities, I have come to realize that my expectations were set to meet MY own needs and not the needs of those to whom I was speaking. The feeling of disappointment sensed that fragility in my session and pounced right at the perfect time. Now, what I thought were great experiences, became growth opportunities for me. Lessons in planning, public speaking, recognizing the needs of the audience, and lessons about myself as a growing entrepreneur, passionate about what I am creating and preparing. Rather than receiving these experiences as a lesson, I took them as progressive failures and personal attacks on my ability to teach and advocate for change. I was at an all time low and had allowed disappointment to define who I was as an educator and advocate.

No more! I refuse to allow disappointment to run my life and hinder my successes. I have come too far and accomplished too many positive things in this field to allow that to happen. So, I say to you, although it is often difficult to receive, let us welcome disappointments and use them as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Disappointments compel you to redefine who you are in order to maintain engagement and relevance and it does so frequently. It can and it will define you and ruin you, but only if you allow it. Disappointments always linger in wait. When they come for you, listen, learn, change your route, then move onward and upward toward success.

Teacher Leader…or Lack Thereof?

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“BE A LEADER!” We utter these words almost daily to our scholars. What exactly do we mean when we say this? Don’t we have specific expectations of what it means to be a scholar leader? These last couple of weeks have had me thinking. How can teachers exclaim these words and struggle being a leader themselves? Aren’t we supposed to “lead by example”? That’s what we tell our scholars, isn’t it? Is there gratification in not being a teacher leader? Are the standards of expectations we have set for ourselves the reason they are so low for our scholars? I have been engrossed with these wonderings all week.  

Let’s think about this. What exactly qualifies a teacher as a leader? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that standing at the front of the classroom is not a certifiable characteristic of leadership. There is much more to being a teacher leader than simply that. In my reflection, I began to think simplistically about the characteristics I’d expect to see in my scholar leaders in order to decipher how this might transfer to educators.

When I’m identifying leaders in my classroom community, yes, I look for the general character traits such as respect and responsibility. These are at the very foundation of what a leader should display. But, sometimes it seems that even these are too much to ask of some colleagues. I’m not certain why this blaring lack of professional responsibility is agitating me so much these days. Typically, we get into a slump and we climb our way out. This year has been disparagingly different….challenging, to say the least. I’ve had to stop and think about why I’m here to begin with. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was told that I would never amount to anything as an educator, but thankfully, my scholars communicated otherwise. It is because of not only my scholars, but the many experiences I’ve had along the way that assure me that leadership is much MORE than simply respect and responsibility.

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The obligations of teacher leaders have the potential to bear heavy weight. As schools continue to work towards improvement, teacher leaders stand at the helm, advocating for quality, equitable education for all young scholars. However, with systemic issues such as poverty, homelessness, drugs and violence at the forefront of many scholars minds, it becomes more and more difficult for teachers to encourage and motivate them to be effective learners and in turn, becomes equally challenging to be effective, efficacious educators. Teachers are becoming more and more overwhelmed working to support scholars as they struggle to deal with the realities of their own lives. The days seem to be getting longer and harder the closer we get to the end of the school year. Morale is low, complaints are high, students´ instruction is done just complacently enough to say simply that it was done. It is clear as I walk the halls that many of us are tired and some even burned out. Our scholars are feeling it too, expressing their frustration with outbursts and disrespectful behavior because they lack the skills to express it in any other way. Relationships between teachers and their scholars are suddenly falling apart. How we deal with this sudden decline in school climate can be the difference between how successfully we lead our scholars or not. I leave the building perplexed, wondering how the year has come to this.

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I would venture to say that being a teacher leader is indeed challenging. In my eyes, however, it is a welcomed challenge. We are in a position to be change agents in this field, but this requires commitment. Commitment to change and commitment to the charge. Teacher leaders are charged with the task of identifying the issues hindering the academic growth of scholars and whether the instruction they are receiving is effective or not. More than that, teacher leaders encourage and motivate not only scholars, but their colleagues to be the best instructional leaders they can be. Growing leaders, however, requires that teachers be open to learning new things, habits, concepts, and strategies. However, in that new learning, one must be willing to modify the old. I have been feeling as if this is wherein lies the thin line between one who simply teaches and one who teaches to lead. Quite honestly, itś the difference between whether you are teaching because itś your job and teaching because itś your passion.

Listen, ¨BE A LEADER!¨ This time, the exclamatory charge is for you…the educator. And while you reflect on that, I would like to pose the following question as well. ¨Why are you here?¨ This might be a loaded question, however, in developing teacher leaders, I believe it is a very important question when the lives of children are at stake. In reflecting on this question, think about not simply why you are teaching, but why you are teaching here…in the urban school. If you are teaching for the comfortable hours, weekends off, and the extended breaks, then teaching is probably your job. If you have reached your wits end and find yourself in a constant battle with your scholars or have given up trying, then teaching is probably not the place for you and you should think about moving on. If you are teaching in the urban school because you believe that success is achievable regardless of background, color, disability, behavior, or other barriers…that, my fellow colleagues, is your passion. If you will go above, beyond, and to the ends of the earth to build and grow relationships with your scholars…that too, is passion! Seriously, reflect on this question long and hard. Be honest with yourself. Why are you really here? The answer may be difficult to receive, but it requires your immediate response because how you answer will reveal whether you are a teacher leader, or lack thereof.

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Someone Notices

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Recently, I had a guest visit my room while I was out for a department meeting. There were actually two guests that day in my room for the morning; the guest teacher covering for me and the guest teacher for our Physical Education teacher. My plans included the regular morning routine; the morning message, attendance, lunch count, the Pledge and my Scholar Statement, and finally, our morning meeting. Because I was going to be out for an hour, this morning’s meeting would entail a scholar reflection. You see, the week before while I was out for a different meeting, another guest teacher was intrigued by the Scholar’s Statement and curious to hear what this meant to my scholars. So, she asked them. She shared her insight with me the next morning, stating, “ They didn’t have a clue!” I was stunned since we had spent about a week discussing the statement before reciting it. Little did I know, a week later, the Statement would get someone else’s attention.

Now back to this particular day. As I entered the gym to pick up my scholars from class, I am again stopped by this guest teacher. “Your Scholar Statement is right on!”, he shares. He goes on to say that he’s been to many schools over the last year and a half, but the growth and progress of this school is paramount! He compliments me, the rest of our staff, and our administrator, explaining that my Scholar Statement is evidence of the growth and shift in mindset he has witnessed since his last visit to the school.

What’s interesting about the Scholar Statement is that I wrote it one summer, about 3 years ago, while reflecting on the start of the new school year. I was concerned about my students mindset. Having heard so many times over the years how they feel they aren’t capable and will never be fit to make it to college, I had to figure out a way to influence a change in mindset. That day, while on the elliptical, the Scholar Statement was born.

It was then that I committed to always address them as scholars rather than “students” in an effort to ingrain in them the belief that they have the potential to succeed as much as any other 5th grader, regardless of their background or circumstances. The statements “I can’t!” and “I give up!” do not dwell in my classroom. Because, you see, these statements present themselves as cop outs; excuses for giving up. The Statement is our daily reminder that failure is not an option and acknowledges that although we all learn differently, we are all still very capable of learning and being successful.

I must be honest… I was completely flattered that someone had noticed my heart and passion for teaching my scholars,  all in the span of about 30 minutes. I didn’t write the Statement for accolades, after all; but rather as a means of instilling self worth and confidence in my scholars. That’s all.

Sure, it’s nice to receive compliments; to be recognized for the hard work that is put into each day. But, the reality is many times, when you expect to be noticed, you won’t be. Sometimes, what we do can be a thankless job! You get to the point where you simply expect nothing. So, when this visiting educator publicly acknowledged me and my work on his personal social media page, I was doubly flattered. It was incredibly humbling and touched me at my core!

There is a take away here. While the compliment that day brought me a moment of exhilaration, I knew I had to get my mind prepared to fall back into the usual frame of mind. Look,  let’s be honest. Compliments won’t always be verbalized. So, be confident in the educator you have trained to be. Believe in your ability to touch lives. Encourage yourself to do more and be more every single day, rather than waiting for that pat on the back for the amazing things you do. Know that although you may not always be acknowledged for the things you do…someone notices. When you’re the last one at school in the evening…someone notices. When you’re weekends include attending a scholar’s game, competition, or family event…someone notices. When you go the extra mile for that one struggling scholar…someone does notice. We do so much more than teach content and give assessments. More than we can probably keep up with ourselves. Just continue nurturing and molding your scholars into the strong, confident thinkers and problem solvers they are meant to be and remember… When you think no one notices, someone really does.

When Nobody Else Compliments You, Then Compliment Yourself

 

Victims of Circumstance

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I’m sitting in a leadership team meeting listening as team members engage in conversation regarding student data. District wide, we are monitoring student progress in two significant areas, reading and writing. The data shows growth within the district, however, our students continue to perform low comparative to the norm. The question is posed, “Why would some teachers implement a strategy and others not?” I took a moment to reflect. My summation, stereotype threats are real and it is with these threats that our students unknowingly fall victim to their current circumstances.

Stereotype threat refers to an individual being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group (Steele & Aronson,1995). We’ve encountered many stereotype threats in our day. Threats like, boys are stronger in math than girls, Asians are stronger in math than whites, blacks are better athletes than whites; all are examples of stereotypes that threaten the success of the individuals that identify with these particular groups. I couldn’t help but stop and think about this in the context of our current conversation.

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According to our district’s state report card, approximately 66% of the district is identified as minority, 49% are Hispanic students, 17% Black.  Of equal importance, 98% of the district is economically disadvantaged (2015-2016 Ohio Department of Education Report Card, retrieved November 24, 2016). Stereotype threats are looming throughout the local community. We hear some of them from parents during conferences and sadly even within the halls of the schools. In a district where language is a constant barrier and education lacking, at best, our students unconsciously inherit the limitations that have stunted the success of their parents. This is important to know because it speaks not only to the level of confidence our students come to us with, but also the level of efficacy we as teachers have to address these threats.

It’s a fact that our students are faced with challenges. Our perception of what it must be like to live in poverty is our students’ sad reality. But, are their circumstances truly indicative of their ability to be successful students? What is our role in ensuring that our students do not fall victim to their unwelcome circumstances?

As educators, it is my opinion that we first look at poverty differently. It is not a disability, it’s an obstacle. It’s a mindset that exists because the people in and around our students lives have yet to figure out how to change their circumstances or are unaware of the resources available to assist in changing them. Once we ourselves believe that our students circumstances are systemic rather than defining in nature, we need to be purposeful and intentional about working to change their mindset. Their mindset has been fixed on stereotype threats for much of their schooling already. I imagine it is difficult for them to think of anything different. Many of our students that are struggling readers come to us already years behind their peers. Place on top of that, being a non-English speaker. Some of our parents didn’t finish high school or get past the 8th grade for that matter. Think about the conversation happening in these homes. The fears and failures of the parents are now threats that hinder our students growth and progress. But it doesn’t have to.

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It is imperative that we raise our expectations. I understand that as educators, we don’t want to see our students fail. Their failures do become our own. However, we have to refrain from lowering expectations to meet our own needs. This is not about us. Our job is to provide all students with a quality education. That means we need to empower them. We need to continue raising our expectations and providing instruction that will challenge students thinking. We have to realize that when we show our students how much we believe in them, they will begin to not only believe in themselves, but, they will perform. So, raise the bar! As we begin to break down the threat barriers that are hindering our students, they will begin to reach for the bar where it has been set for them.

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Continuing to limit the growth of our students by succumbing to the belief that they cannot perform at the same rate or level as their peers is so damaging. And think about it, if we cannot ourselves break away from the stereotype threats, then who are the real victims of circumstance? We should know and do better.

References

American Psychological Association (2006). Stereotype threat widens achievement gap. Washington, D.C.: author

Ohio Department of Education (2016). Annual District Report Card, 2015-2016.

Reducing Stereotype Threats. Stereotype Threats. Retrieved from ReducingStereotypeThreats.org on November 24, 2016.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

Tyler, K. & Tyler, C. (2009). Stereotype Threat. Classroom Learning. Retrieved from Education.com, November 24, 2016.

Promoting Diversity

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The issue of diversity has been raised in many different venues and circumstances. It is certainly no surprise that it be raised as an issue in school districts across the country as is the particular case in the district in which I teach.

As discussions ensue regarding how our schools promote the diversity that is prevalent within the district, for me, this drew attention to how the diversity of my fellow colleagues is promoted as well. It’s been weighing on me heavily for some months. How can one possibly expect teachers to promote the diversity of the children and families for which we serve when they don’t promote the diversity among the colleagues they work with each and every day?

I wanted to share my growing concern, so, expecting nothing in return, I wrote the following letter to leadership:

I am writing to express my growing concern over a topic the district has identified as an increasing need in our school community. I’d like to be clear that this is not an attempt to berate or rant about my colleagues, school, or the district; only to share feelings I’ve been harboring as they relate to the topic of “promoting diversity”.

This issue of “promoting diversity” has been weighing on me for the last couple of months. At our last all day district leadership team meeting, I walked in and was halted at the door. I can’t explain why I was struck so suddenly on that particular day, but I was. I simply stood there looking around, noticing for what seemed to be the first time, that I was the only minority in the room. This issue has been weighing on me for some time since. As discussions regarding “promoting diversity” ensue and after a great deal of reflection, I feel it is important to share my personal concerns. I’ve considered voicing my opinion on several occasions but have chosen only to listen instead because I am only one voice. I’ve kept my opinion stifled as I didn’t want my concern to be misinterpreted as anger or to come across as an agitator. However, after leaving this last meeting, I’m compelled to share because I guess sometimes, one voice can speak loudly.

Over the last couple of years, I have become more and more troubled behind issues of diversity. In our current attempt to “promote [the] diversity” of our students, we seem to struggle in the same area as colleagues. Having grown up being the “only one”, I know what it feels like to be a target, to be left out, to be ignored, and as a result, I admit, I am very guarded about my feelings and my opinions. I’d like to think that because of my experiences, I am more attentive to the cultural perspectives of others and am diligent about creating a positive, culturally sensitive atmosphere in my classroom and in my school community. Contrary to my efforts, however, I have been perceived as “mean”, “intimidating”, “inattentive”, and even “unsupportive”, when really I am only misunderstood. I imagine many of our students harbor many of the same feelings. I believe these misconceptions are a direct result of cultural biases and misunderstandings that could have been avoided by simply taking a moment to sit and speak with me as a person. It is how I approach each and everyone of my students and it is why I am able to develop such strong relationships with them. In this same manner, I believe the staff in this district have an opportunity to grow and learn from the diverse experiences of others.

I agree that there is a strong need to “promote diversity” in this district. Having been (and still am) misunderstood and misinterpreted, I think it is imperative to have teachers who are new to the district exposed to cultural sensitivity/diversity training upon being hired. I also think re-instituting the “Courageous Conversations” book study, or something bearing similarity, is not only a great consideration, but a necessary element for helping teachers understand not only our students, but each other. The implications of such work could have a long lasting effect on our district by displacing the “eggshells” many of us attempt to avoid on a daily basis and, in turn, strengthening staff morale. I further believe that there is a great need for minority leadership representation, whether it be in an administrative role or as teacher leaders. In a district that is predominant in minority population, it seems only appropriate, in my opinion, that there be a more visible minority presence in leadership roles.

I thank you for taking a moment to read my concerns and allowing me to have a voice.  I am looking forward to seeing the growth and development that lies ahead.

Respectfully,
Dr. Kelly Bullock Daugherty
Educator/Teacher Leader

While I wasn’t expecting it, to my surprise, I did receive a response rather quickly. Although it wasn’t as heartfelt and compassionate as my letter, my voice has now been heard, and that’s what I really wanted. I was told, in short, that although diversity is more than race and language differences, my concerns were valid and would be noted for future discussion(s). That was the basic extent of it. I must admit I was left feeling…well, obscure and numb. I had to remind myself in that moment…”no expectations”. So, if nothing else, I accomplished my primary goal.

In terms of what will happen next, I’m not certain. It is my hope that my personal thoughts will insight conversations beyond that of student needs and include the entire school community. In order to see a change, one has to advocate for change. So, if this letter invokes deeper conversations and induces change, then my task will have been accomplished.

No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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