Doing The Work

Sometime at the end of last school year my Head of High School suggested that I organize a session for the National Association for Independent School’s People of Color Conference. I balked. As a white woman, it felt like an odd choice. My obvious lack of melanin (not to mention my naiveté as a fifth year teacher) pushed me to believe that this was perhaps a conference for me to attend, but surely not on the basis to give any sort of advice. I argued as much to him, baffled as to what he, a division head of color with years upon years of experience, thought I could possibly offer. He laughed and planted a seed in my head; perhaps there were other teachers out there, early career teachers like me, who had the same questions about navigating the same classroom management scenarios I had come seeking his (and other peoples’) help with earlier in the year. He gently suggested that instead of giving advice on a topic in which I am such a novice, I find my mentors and ask them the questions I have been formulating in my head on a panel so everyone can learn from their insight and experience. I was sold.

Flash forward a few months later to the week after Thanksgiving where the conference, as well as its sister Student Diversity Leadership Conference, converged on the Music City Convention Center. Over 6,400 teachers and students from all over the country, including myself, were tasked in the opening session to immerse ourselves in the work. The work became a ubiquitous phrase over the course of the next 3 days, a stand-in for a wide range of ideas that all led to the same end goal: making independent school education more welcoming to people of color through hiring, admissions, curriculum, and policy. The scope matched that of the physical space we occupied, it was utterly enormous. Sessions ranged from my panel for early career teachers, to doctoral students presenting their research on the impact independent schools have on girls of color, to more inclusive curriculum strategies, to sessions geared specifically to help those of color navigate hiring, promotions, and climbing to the next rung in the ladder in the private school universe, and beyond. The conference was jam packed with energy, information, and unanswerable questions.

The conference was transformational for me on a multilayered basis. At the surface, I reached a personal and professional goal of headlining a presentation at a national conference. The room was packed as the panel answered questions on the spot from me and audience members with heart and wisdom, expounding on well over 50 years of collective experience in education in a wide variety of settings. I honestly was so nervous that I don’t really remember what happened, but apparently it went over well. Audience members came up to each of us over the course of the next few days to thank us for our questions and answers, particularly appreciating the willingness of my panel members of color to serve as resources for young teachers of color. I now vaguely understand what it must feel like to be Bradley Cooper and direct and star in your own movie. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Through attending sessions for myself, I recognized again the immense privilege that I have walking through the world with my skin color. I don’t think I have ever spent as much time being so obviously in the minority in a particular place as I spent during that conference. Everytime I felt weird about it I was reminded that for many of my colleagues and students this is their everyday. They don’t get to opt out. I spent a lot of time wondering what work I could do to make the experience less jarring for them.

I heard time and again of the moments that are most difficult for kids of color in schools that are majority white or in which the teachers are majority white. I teach in a space that despite working hard to be more inclusive in every facet of the definition, has both a majority of white students and faculty. I listened to how exhausting it is to have people ask about your hair. I heard about the frustration of having to always be the spokesperson or the exemplar or the ‘only one’ all the time. I really just did a lot of listening. I realized I need to work on better ways to make school more comfortable and less emotionally taxing for my kids of color.

Finally, I learned that this, this work is just that. It isn’t a single assembly or unit. It can’t be done by one teacher or one student. It is day in, day out, even when you are tired, or scared, or totally unsure how it will impact your career or relationships with others. It requires speaking and acting and teaching with care and compassion. It means learning about your students and colleagues in the same way that you expect them to learn about the nuances of the English language or the American Revolution. It means acknowledging when you have screwed up and doing better so you don’t screw up the same way again. It means putting in the effort, all day every day.
Do I think I am suddenly a perfect educator who is totally qualified to lecture others on the dangers of racism? No. Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that there are no quick fixes or one-size fits all solution. I will admit that perhaps I am slightly more self-aware than before I went. I better understand how to look out of my students of color and make sure I am not taking up space from my colleagues of color. I am more cognizant of the flaws in the history curricula I teach each day, and am actively trying to find ways to fix it. In short, I am working.

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