At the start of every new school year, educators have the opportunity to begin again. Whatever shortcomings came about concerning their teacher praxis or disposition can be rectified with a fresh start in September.
A return to the classroom (and school building at large) can offer the same opportunity for renewal for teachers and all educators.
The new year marks an opportunity to both forgive and forget those things behind us so we may press on towards what lay wait ahead of us. But for Black educators, it can be tough knowing that racism was present in 2022 and it’s likely to remain in 2023—even as we fight.
So how do we keep our sanity moving forward? To answer that, I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Malcolm X.
In this particular scene, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz is meeting with the honorable Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad is speaking with young el-Shabazz about what the teachings of Islam provide Black people.
He takes a glass of water with specks of dirt in it and holds it up. The actor portraying Muhammad says this dirty water is what Black folks have drunk while in America and if there is no alternative, this water is what they’ll continue to drink. However, if they had a clean glass of water as an alternative (as he pours a clean water in a glass), they’ll turn away from the dirty water. In this example, Islam represents the alternative to the dirty glass of water.
When we (Black educators) walk in our school buildings, we find that they are often times a glass of dirty water. Because theirs is no alternative, our kids and families are left to drink the dirty water. Toxic teachers are the dirty. Racist policies are the dirt. The invisible tax on Black teachers is the dirt. Sometimes, we cannot create an alternative to the dirty water fast enough. But there is a weapon that was created to combat (and eliminate) the dirt found in the water to make it clean again… a filter.
In 2023, I say that we, Black educators, must be the filters our students (and families) need to drink the clean water necessary to grow and thrive. But how do we become (or remain) the filters within the glass when, in some cases, the water has become so in a toxic? Can our presence really change the environment of a school building? Yes. Here are four poignant things we can do to be a filter where we work:
- Normalize greeting your colleagues when you see them in the mornings and well-wishing them when you depart from them. Here is the key: hold your colleagues accountable when they fail to respond back in kind. Call me old school but I believe that it is kind and mannerly to greet people when you see them and when you depart from them.
We’re sticklers when it comes to students observing this practice but we allow adults to get away with this and their lack of continuing this practice doesn’t help filter the toxicity from the school building. I am unsure why folks don’t speak, but I make it a habit to speak each morning—even to my colleagues who’d rather not speak back. I look them in the eye, greet them and therefore demand a response. Normalize this… don’t be a bully, but don’t let colleagues off the hook. The students are watching.
- Have kind and constructive words for all. Kind, not crass… Constructive, not critical. As educators, we’re in the possession of assessing: assessing students as well as colleagues and even parents. Sometimes, we’re crass and overly critical when feedback should be constructive and done with respect. So, when addressing our students or colleagues, whether in passing or in conversation, let’s be intentional with our words and use them to build those folks up rather than to undress them and discourage them.
- Give grace to ourselves and others. We live in a society of deadlines, mandates and to do lists. Sometimes, deadlines are missed, mandates aren’t fulfilled and some items on the to do lists remain after a period of time. We beat up on ourselves and we beat up on each other. We beat up on students and parents. There is no need to beat anyone up. Should we hold others accountable for their work and behavior? Yes. However, we’re all human and we each carry our own personal and professional challenges as we perform. We must consider that as we work with one another and offer a level of grace that accounts for the challenges that we all deal with. Sadly, such grace doesn’t come easily within society. So, we must work to extend it to one another. Maybe you grant an extension on that assignment without anyone asking. Maybe you offer a colleague support if you see their overwhelmed. Maybe you lighten the mood in your classroom to make students comfortable in the face of rigorous work.
- Don’t back away from a needed fight. What I mean by that is if you need to stand up for the students and families within your school, or if you need to stand up for a colleague who gives their all to students and families, stand up and stand in the fight. Filters remove dirt by actively removing it. They don’t ask if the dirt will comply. It would be nice if confrontation was unnecessary to secure change on behalf of students and families, but confrontation is often necessary. With that said, you may need to fight. So fight. Fight with caution and a level head. Keep your young people and their families the priority. Have your data and evidence ready and put up your dukes.
Let’s make this year one where we either become or strengthen ourselves as a filter so that our students can start or continue drinking that clean glass of water.