A new study by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance highlights an issue with retaining teachers of color in the state. The report notes that not only are teachers of color underrepresented in comparison to the student body, but that teacher turnover for Black educators is much higher than their white counterparts. The study suggests schools should do more to hire and support teachers of color
But, there has to be more to this conversation and practice than just “hiring individuals that look like students…”
As I continue to wrestle with these statistics and the notion of hiring individuals to increase diversity among staff, I think we are missing the bigger picture and the opportunity to craft how exactly our vision of equity and our mission center around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Most recently, I’ve centered my work and studies around the work of equity and what that looks like in a school setting/learning environment. Here are the three strands that shape my thinking:
Equity in terms of access for all learners, ensuring learners have what they need to be successful and display academic growth
Equity in terms of content that’s social-justice centered and focused; and
Equity in terms of adequate representation of students (i.e.: hiring practices, culturally sensitive curriculum, inclusivity practices, student voice, and choice, etc.)
When I think about the educational settings in which I’ve worked, I keep returning to a few questions: How much do we level the playing field? How do we ensure resources are adequately distributed? How do we know/address the varying academic and social needs of students to help guide their success? These are all questions that require more than just some thought but strategic ways of application and figuring out what works best.
I wonder how much of equity is relational? It is obvious that time and trust goes into ensuring relationships are worthwhile and one can assume that in the learning environment, relationship building is extremely critical and necessary in hopes of being an effective practitioner. At least that’s what I believe. So, with the cultivating of those relationships come the realization of what students need. Equity is not seen as some unfamiliar phenomenon, but rather an obvious and organic occurrence that takes place as a result of a continual relational build. Maybe? Maybe not? This is what I’m currently wrestling with.
In Memphis, the population of students was always a majority of Black students, and we often didn’t feel it necessary or adequately equipped to even have such conversations around race, equity, diversity and in some cases, competencies. There was no preparation for making such a commitment as an educator and no gauge to measure our own racial consciousness.
Now we must ask ourselves, what exactly is our motivation behind placing more teachers of color in classrooms. I believe there is more to it than just the simple hiring of teachers. We should be ensuring spaces are created that are supportive of all teachers and that best practices that suit the needs of learners are utilized. These are the conversations that should be being held in a broader scope. Why is turnover so high in some places? I would argue the support pieces are not in place. We have not formalized what it looks like to fully support teachers holistically beyond curriculum implementation and standards teaching. I shared my thoughts in a recent blog post published by Ed Week and I’ll share similar sentiments here:
With these initiatives, the data is still startling. What about this system doesn’t appeal to teachers of color? I actually can answer that question by sharing my own perspective and truth. I made a personal and later public vow (after I resigned from teaching) that I would never (willingly) be a part of the problem. I wouldn’t lie to students via final grades reflecting their allegedly learned skills and competencies, and then pass them on. For students that couldn’t read, I wouldn’t simply excuse it. I would move beyond calling it out and help that student learn to do what others sometimes seem to brush easily past.
I will not look into the eyes of innocent faces and not try my best to properly equip them for futures that await them. So for this particular teacher of color, no amount of money and/or incentive could ever get me back into a classroom to pass on those lies and inequitable practices that I had to witness daily, and I still sadly observe and witness in schools across this country.
It’s Bullying Awareness Month. I thought it would be wise to sit and talk with the anti-bullying champion Ms. Leshundra Robinson who is the Executive Director of UCAN of Memphis. She has dedicated the past ten years of her life to ensuring students understand the importance and dangers associated with bullying and she helps families and the communities at large know how to identify the signs of bullying, how to prevent bullying and how to intervene in bullying.
We kicked off the conversation with the interesting notion of how mental health awareness is correlated with bullying and Leshundra’s personal story of how this work is a personal goal of honoring her brother’s legacy.
L.Richmond: In your opinion, what’s the main reason for increased mental health scares and the decreased level of awareness in our community?
L. Robinson: I think this question is quite simple. In the black community, our people don’t really know what’s going on and refuse to talk about this issue that’s beginning to plague our community in record numbers. There’s a perception of mistrust. People don’t feel empowered and/or compelled to share what’s really going on? If I tell people that I have a mental health issue-will people still deal with me?
L. Richmond: Do you think it’s a black person issue or across the board?
L. Robinson: I think the issue is across the board. However, I believe in our community its a matter of getting help and lack of awareness.
L. Richmond: What was your motivation to get into this work?
L. Robinson: My brother was 26 years old when he came to me with this thought of him being bipolar. I shrugged it off and chalked it up as him being stressed out over school and possibly being poorly connected to a young lady that I didn’t particularly care for him dating. A few weeks prior, he had shared with me that the young lady had begun sharing her belief that she was bipolar and I felt that she had transferred that energy and those alarming thoughts on to my brother. My response to my brother was that of a concerned sister; (what we often say); “you’re good. You just need to rest. And you need to leave that girl alone.”
Less than 1-year later, (my brother was 27 years of age at this time) he had started taking medications in which had been prescribed by his doctor. My issue with him taking the medication was then and still is, why would a doctor prescribe my brother, or anyone, medication where the side effects are suicidal thoughts. To this day, I have yet to resolve that inquiry.
L. Richmond: Did your brother know that one of the side effects for the medication was suicidal thoughts?
L. Robinson: Yes! So, on top of taking this medication, on top of a broken relationship (at this point, him and the girl had broken their relationship off), being in a new city (Knoxville), without family, and he was in his residency (veterinarian medicine), my brother had hit his breaking point and began having suicidal thoughts which later led to his demise.
L. Richmond: What happened next?
L. Robinson: I broke. I acted out. I didn’t care about a job or myself. I thought I could have prevented something. My children lost their uncle, a mentor, a friend. I didn’t go to therapy because I was in denial. I didn’t want to hear, “It’s not your fault!” I should have gone to therapy but I didn’t. I ignored everyone’s push to go to therapy and didn’t want to hear the common, “It’s going to be alright.” Nor did I want to talk to anybody. I even considered suicide myself. But I was faced with the harsh truth. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t listen to my brother. I brushed it off. How could I have not known that something was wrong beyond stress? But, those were all the thoughts that would have continued to keep me bound and in a depressed state myself. This went on for about a year.
L. Richmond: How did you survive this?
L. Robinson: (smiles softly) I title this: “My come out.” I kept reading my brother’s suicide letter addressed to me that said I was stronger and how to honor his legacy by promising to bring awareness around mental health and that it’s okay to get help!
UCAN of Memphis is apart of that promise of keeping his legacy alive. I can’t afford to miss another opportunity where someone is crying out and I’m not listening and taking into account everything that is being said. Our kids are crying out. And as a community, we are not listening. I can’t change an entire system but I can do my part. A lot of my sessions and workshops with students involves just listening and allowing the students to simply share. I learn so much about them from just listening and their circumstances. Listening to them helps me to plan, helps me to think through being proactive and also gives me what to share to audiences of adults.
L. Richmond: Do you still read your brother’s letter to you?
L. Robinson: Yes! I’ve even found the strength to present it in some of my larger settings. I keep it as a reminder of the promise I made to him to not allow his life or legacy to be in vain by helping kids in similar situations.
L. Richmond: So just for a second, switching back to the learning space? Do you think the learning environment is prepared to adequately handle the mental health challenges of students on any level?
L. Robinson: No, I believe that they need additional resources, training, and additional support in the school and more specifically the classroom. Teachers have to look at students from where they are and not necessarily who they are. There is so much training and development that needs to have at the school level to fully support students and their wide range of needs. We do students a huge disservice if we don’t provide them with the adequate support and resources. I am appreciative of every school that welcomes me and what UCAN offers to its students.
L. Richmond: What is the impact you would like to have with students in schools?
L. Robinson: I would like the students to know and understand everyone goes through trials and tribulations. Life is filled with adverse situations but it’s all about how we handle it. We have many options available but we have to choose the right one that not only fits our lives but at times those around us. Suicide is not the answer. Having mental issues is extremely prominent in society but our biggest challenge is listen to others that say we don’t have to get help. Just pray about it. Yes, we definitely want to pray but we also want to know that He provides people around us that have the resources to help so utilize them.
My impact is to have students understand even as an adult I still go through it but it’s my personal goal and God’s purpose to not give up and give in to the negative statements of what can’t be done, what I don’t look like, what others have and I don’t and most importantly what will never happen. Everything is possible if you just try. Then try again and again.
L. Richmond: Wow! I am in awe of your strength and boldness. Is there anything else you would like to share?
L. Robinson: Yes! My struggle has been real and if I can help anyone with my transparency, then I will. This is my letter to suicide:
Last night I saw him. I saw a young man that looked like my brother when he was younger. He had his “beginner dreads.” Was built just like him. I stared at him and watched him walk back and forth from the kitchen. I had not encountered this moment in a while and I wasn’t ready to face it again.
Why did you talk to him that day?! Why did you whisper in his ear “do it”? Their pain won’t last long. Just do it already!” Why did you hover over him for months, for years with a dark blanket saying just do it? I hate you!!!! You been in this family for a while but I personally manage to Ignore you. Then you decided to get what you knew was close to my kids cause I wasn’t going to be touched. How DARE you touch him slightly then overturn his every thought! How dare you!!! You knew what he needed and why. You knew if you took him far enough away that we couldn’t get in arms reach of him you could make your next move. You finessed his mind to contemplate loving you. Then when he said NO go away, I have something else better, I have people who love me and need me, go away!!! You decided that wasn’t going to do. You needed another “soldier” on your team. So you let him slide and you patiently watched and waited for him. Watched over and the people he was connected to. Then bam that’s when you found your right target to get him to come to you.
You waited until he was most vulnerable and used every tactic you knew. You waited until our mom died. Even though we both knew she would pass that year just not the date, you waited to see if that would break him, break us really. But, it didn’t. We held tight to each other. Then you thought you had him when I got divorced because to him that was the only model of a happy and healthy relationship and he knew that he could have one just like that. But when I got divorced, it broke his model and his heart. You thought you had him then but he held tight. He was almost there but his nieces and nephews were at a delicate age that they needed him. So you then brought along a woman who you knew would be the “right marriage model” for him. That he would fall head over heels in love with her and THAT would be the moment you land.
You are a weak coward who needs other people energy to survive. You are a thief who doesn’t care how you steal it, whether it’s in the day or night. But you know what you are most importantly…You are double edged sword!!! You portray to want to get help because you are depressed then you wait until everyone is gone and you change to (inserts expletive) everybody!!!” You are a coward, a thief, an asshole, a b*&%h, a leech and I hate you to the pits of hell!!!!