Silent No More: Healing For The Black Educator
By Marcus “Sankofa” Nicks
The year of 2020 has been like no other year in United States History. The devastating murders of Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor along with others who have lost their lives to racism will forever be stamped on the memories of many. As racial tensions have continued to explode across the nation, protests demanding justice have taken place from city to city in every region. Some professional athletes have chosen to sacrifice their athletic profession in order to become more active in the cause of fighting racial injustice. Businesses that are usually mute when it comes to taking a stand on racial matters have recently decided to come out making statements supporting the black lives matter regime. Many bookstores haven’t been able to keep anti-racist and white privilege themed books on the shelves. This is also an election year and while all of this has been taking place simultaneously, the world is still deeply in the midst of a global pandemic of Covid-19 that has impacted the life of every person in ways never experienced before.
For numerous Black educators in the public school system, all of these events have compounded high stress levels, fatigue and trauma that many are already dealing with. The result of the psychological and emotional strain that many have experienced has led to “teacher drop out” rates. Student drop out rates are typically talked about with more regularity, but federal data reveal that in 2012-2013, nearly 22 percent of black public-school teachers moved schools or left the profession altogether, compared to only about 15 percent of white, non- Hispanic teachers (Degruy 1). Many Black educators who do not move on to other schools or professions remain where they are and struggle to be present and give their best efforts to their occupation due to the overwhelming expectations that come with feeling as though the success of the entire black population they serve rests on their shoulders. The impacts of these “teacher drop out rates” are devastating because students need Black educators during this time now more than ever. Having less Black educators in educational settings negatively impacts student development in many ways especially academically, socially, and emotionally.
Harvard Sociologist and Professor of Public Health Dr. David Williams postulates that being passed over for a job or not getting a promotion that someone felt they were entitled not only has a major impact, but so do little day to day indignities as well. These indignities often times come in the form of microaggressions that have the propensity to be significant contributors to poor health outcomes for Blacks especially (Williams 2). Microaggressions can be seen as expressed subtle verbal or nonverbal insults. They can also be denigrating messages because of someone’s identity. As a result, Black people in America are still more susceptible to health challenges such as hypertension, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes which leads to premature aging amongst other issues due to the bodily impact of microaggressions.
According to the Association of Mindfulness and Racial Socialization, many acts regarding racism in America have shifted from overt acts and messages to more subtle and implicit expressions, which are often disorienting. This tends to cause feelings of anger, invisibility, and confusion. Subtle forms of discrimination may produce more stress due to the ambiguous nature. The ambiguous nature of these frequent experiences can have black educators over-questioning other people’s intentions due to the perceived threat and lack of trust they have based on their experiences associated with being Black. The microaggressions experienced by many Blacks educators within the education system take on many forms. Some examples to name a few are being seen solely as a disciplinarian, being made to speak softer or in a less threatening tone in meetings, being accused of automatically being from poverty and the assumption that if a few Black staff members were casually conversing amongst themselves in the hallway that they were automatically not doing their job. As a Black Student Achievement Liaison serving the educational needs of the Black student population in the schools, there have been many instances when the assumption was made that the only segment of the population that I focused my attention on were the low performing Black students. Even though public school data may often times highlight the deficits that Black students have such as suspension rates, disciplinary referrals and low test scores many Black students function at a high level and are achieving in a number of ways despite systemic barriers that are still very prevalent within the education system.
These and many other subtle indignities have left myself and many other black educators feeling the extra pressure of having to over-prove our worth, value and legitimacy in the education system. These stereotypes derive from a historical narrative that is still ever-present in 2020. As an African American husband, father, son, educator and mindset coach I have grown to understand the depth of the impact of an unfortunately negative narrative that many Black people have been subjected to. This narrative comes in the form of racist undertones, negative stereotypes, implicit biases, explicit injustices, faulty assumptions, unverified beliefs, preconceived notions, misperceptions, and inaccurate conclusions. Historically, numerous Black people have been told that they have to be twice as good and had work twice as hard to validate their credibility. The narrative often portrays blacks as criminals, thugs, uncivilized, always angry, lazy, intellectually inferior and not having a history worth learning. The narrative or story that has often been told also paints the picture that black people are passive victims with no agency or will power to influence and control their own destiny.
Feeling a sense of powerlessness, many Black educators struggle with knowing how to show up in professional spaces out of fear of not confirming the negative stereotypes that they have already been labeled with. With these themes being an underlying constant burden that many Black educators carry, it is not rare for many to move about their school buildings in a state of hyper vigilance while bearing the extra weight of feeling as though they having to always operate in a state of perfection simply because there is a lesser margin for error due to the color of their skin.
As one who has worked in Maryland’s public school system for over 11 years as a middle and high school educator, I have recently observed an awakening amongst school system educators and professionals like never before due to the stormy social climate of the country. As a result of all that has been happening, many Black educators and staff members have felt more compelled to use their voice to speak up and no longer “suffer in silence”. In an effort to respond to the charge of playing their part to combat racial injustice more Black educators have decided to be more intentional when it comes to calling attention to the injustices that black students and staff experience within the public education system. Whether it has been school system sponsored virtual healing spaces, community forum discussions or petitions, many have become more transparent in sharing their stories and experiences. These actions have resulted in the opportunity for people to better connect with each other and heal together. The centuries old history of the Black experience on American soil is replete with the strong intent to silence the voice of the oppressed in order to maintain a racial caste system. This has occurred in many ways from anti-literacy laws, lack of Black representation in textbooks to lack of voting rights.
As the late Civil Rights Leader and Politician John Lewis stated, “Never be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Many Black educators have been putting this memorable quote from John Lewis into action by choosing to no longer be passive and overlook injustices within the education system due to fear of conflict with other colleagues or job security. The recent events that the country has experienced have brought forth much momentum and a sense of urgency that many black educators don’t want to dwindle. Even though many still remain skeptical, pessimistic and cynical others have been able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Many Blacks in America want to seize the moment because they know they have a listening audience now more than ever.
A busy and fast-paced school environment can make it more challenging for educators to reflect and stop long enough to check in with themselves. In recent times, many school jurisdictions have made attempts to implement mindfulness practices, wellness initiatives and mental health services. These implementations have had positive impacts, but creating a restorative environment that prioritizes wellness has still been a work in progress in many school systems.
The poet, writer and activist Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Stories are powerful and it has been inspiring to see my fellow colleagues use the time of Covid-19 to make self-care a personal priority by reflecting on their personal life stories. Many who I have spoke with have mentioned that they have been journaling, taking nature walks, exercising, meditating, tapping in to their artistic creativity, doing yoga, spending more time with family, deeply reflecting, juicing and building businesses along with a plethora of other things in order to make self-care a continuous lifestyle. I believe self care is crucial for Black educators because the better off they are the better support they will be able to provide for their students.
Many Black educators have been able to use these stressful and traumatic times to reclaim their power. This has been a time to put things into perspective and create new meaning for their lives. Richard Tedeschi who is one of the originators of the theory, Post Traumatic Growth states that even though traumatic experiences can be painful, “It can help people develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life (Tedeschi 1). “Many Black educators have taken the current state of national affairs and have used it as a catalyst to further develop their voice and be more assertive as they confront head on what trials and tribulations life brings. Author Resmaa Menaukem in the book, My Grandmothers Hands: Racialized Trauma and The Pathway To Mending Our Heart and Body makes the following statement from his book,
As every therapist will tell you, healing involves discomfort- but so does refusing to heal and over time refusing to heal always becomes more painful. Dirty Pain is the pain of avoidance, blame and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away they experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others. Clean Pain is the pain that mends and can rebuild your capacity for growth. It’s the pain you experience when you know exactly what you need to say or do; when you really, really don’t want to say or do it; and when you do it anyway. It’s also the pain you experience when you have no idea what to do; when you’re scared or worried about what might happen; and when you step forward into the unknown anyway, with honesty and vulnerability (Menaukem 19-20).
Even though 2020 has been a difficult time for many black educators, it has created an opportunity for much healing and growth. I look forward to the continuation of this momentum as we move in to the upcoming school year. We will no longer be silent! Let the healing continue!