If asked to name a single word that I associate with learning, I’d have to go with “noise.” I’m thinking mostly of murmurs here, what you hear as you walk through a school: the whispers between classmates; overhearing a teacher’s lecture from the hall; internet videos bleeding out of earbuds; or students composing bars to reinterpret Merchant of Venice. These murmurs are what become the ‘buzz’ that we feel in an institution of learning, the sensation that there is a transfer and synthesis of ideas. It seems a simple concept: in order for ideas to be communicated there must be sound. Even if it is the sound of our own inner voice reading along to one of James Baldwin’s deep truths. Learning does not happen in silence. And yet, the idea that it does has picked up steam and is pushed upon too many students.
This past fall I transitioned onto the leadership team at the school where I spent that last two years teaching. I put a great deal of stock in my identity in any space I enter, and the transition into leadership forced me to shift my educational identity from teacher to school leader. In leadership meetings, I quickly realized that the way I needed to make decisions could not just be from the vantage point of a teacher. I needed to approach all situations from a broader perspective. This required of me my experiences as a special educator, math teacher, and advisor to inform how I approached the everyday issues connected to running a school. Over time I settled into my identity as a school leader. Except, while I adapted to this new identity, I also begin to settle into another feeling, loneliness.
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” -Toni Morrison (Nobel lecture, 1993)
In terms of the Black community, the "deficit theory" of education asserts that Black students, who differ from white American standards of education, should be considered deficient. In order to counteract deficit narratives, it is imperative to incorporate positive representations of Black culture, history, and contributions at every level of education. The intentionality of including Black voice, leaders, research, and initiatives will consequently contribute to the success of the Black student. Black students in America are steadily misrepresented, fueling a false narrative that wrongly defines standards of education. In my personal quest towards higher education, I've identified three circumstances that further perpetuate deficit narratives.
This week signifies the eight-month mark of my professional gap year. A gap year is a period of time during which one takes a break from school and traditional employment to pursue whatever one wants (e.g. travel, rest, entrepreneurship, etc.). My gap year will last a little over twelve months but others may take shorter or longer breaks depending on their financial situation and professional plans.
Early to class as usual, while sitting in the midst of those who are there with eagerness to either learn, get through this course to finally graduate, or filled with anxiety, because of the unknown of what this series of lectures entails, is an experience that is seldom recognized.
Within this moment, there are silos, small chatter of familiarity, and remarks echoing with inquiry about the author of the syllabus. Nonetheless, because the professor for this class, whose name lives with an identifiable sex, coupled with the distinction of a terminal degree, but without remnants of his racial profile, one of the classmates in a bold, yet calming and unobtrusive tone, asks “Does anyone know this professor? Anyone every have him before? Any information on him?” “No,” says another student, “but all I know is that, ‘this is my last class and I don’t have time to be playing around with anybody new.’”
Depending on the day, if you ask me what I do, you will get different answers. Somedays it’s comical, “I am the lead captain on an alien space ship” and other days it’s much more serious, “I train miniature humans for future citizenship.” Neither answer is incorrect, because I am an early educator (and decoding toddler talk is often like decoding an alien language). There was a time that I used these outlandish job descriptions as a defense, as early educators don’t get much respect. However, 10 years into the field has been eye opening.
My mother and I migrated to the Philadelphia in 1986 from Jamaica in search of “the American Dream” of sustainable health, financial stability and educational success. After so many years we haven’t struck gold, nor do we have that white picket fence, but there is definitely a great sense of self-worth that has been achieved. The only thing that was important to my mother was becoming better that her via receiving an education. Everything was about school and education. My education would prepare me for life and provide unique challenges that would guide, mold, and shape me as a man. Elementary School through college seemed to do just that. I experienced some personal road bumps and struggles but I was able to persevere and tough it out. Education, to those around me as well, seemed to be just as important.
As a School Psychologist working in an inner city elementary school, I am faced with a vast amount of students, who are exposed to trauma: an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm.
Many of my students live in impoverished areas, where drugs and violence plague their neighborhoods. Many live in homes with absent mothers and/or fathers, and in homes where there are multiple family members living with them. I once had a student tell me that she sleeps on a sofa in her living room with her two cousins. After hearing this, I got into a habit of asking my students about their home life. To my surprise, I found out that I have students who run drugs back and forth between dealers, students with incarcerated parents, students who have witness shootings, students who have been mentally and physically abused, and students who live in apartment buildings where there is sex trafficking.
When I think of black education, conversations organically go towards catering to the needs and access of resources to students. As a professional in the field of higher education, my primary focus is to work alongside my colleagues and institution to support our students in and outside of the classroom. However, black education and the state of this nation, it should encompass more than just providing support to students. It should also focus on developing ways to continuously support the development of practitioners to better support our students. It is crucial to understand the impact that contributing to the development of staff has in their day-to-day work. Given the nature of this nation and our education system, it is important that as we continue to serve as frontlines of support to students, colleagues, and institutions of work, that we also receive the same levels of support and empowerment.
Progress is a tricky thing. For example, in 1954 after the NAACP convinced the Supreme Court to strike down the separate but equal law that encouraged separate but UNequal schools across the nation, many rejoiced, assuming desegregation was a progressive improvement. However, few thought about how many Black teachers and school leaders would lose jobs or how much trauma and hostility was visited upon the Black students and families brave enough to integrate all-white spaces. This lesson alone shows us the importance in measuring progress carefully and fully. And while the resources we were demanding did, in some places, eventually come, we also lost a lot of incredible Black teachers who instilled pride in and fortified Black students in a way that was, and still arguably is, lost.
Blackademia the blog
Two Black women navigating the world of academia. Read about how Tiffany & Autumn discuss (and bring levity to) issues of education (both secondary and higher) in America. .