When I entered the world of education, it became very clear that I was part of a system based on the principles of white supremacy. As a black immigrant woman, I quickly discovered that my expectations of becoming a teacher in the charter school world depended on my evolution as a culturally neutral professional.
To this day, I am triggered by the word “professionalism,” a Eurocentric, colonial-minded word that makes me cry whenever it is uttered. Still, during my first year in class, I remember clear guidelines on how to look, sound, and behave in the school space. Direct instruction to students not to speak informally (read: No AAVE or non-American dialect). No head wrap unless aligned religious affiliation is required. No big hoop earrings or unrealistically long nails.
The list asserts that these expectations were not for young, white teachers imported from the majority-white space. These expectations were for this Teachers who look like me.
These guidelines also reflect how arbitrators in our school system view our students. For the sake of “professionalism”, I worked hard to meet these expectations: small nails painted in muted colors, quadruped earrings, and a neutral accent freed from any cultural symbols. In school buildings, I was the high expectation teacher who held the line. I make sure my students ’shirts are always tucked in, correct the use of non-academic language, and make sure they enter and exit in a straight and silent line across all rooms. I was considered a role model.
In fact, I was the promoter of the tyrannical system prevalent in white-centric spaces. Every day, I felt like an agent of dehumanization because I supported structures that erased the most beautiful aspects of my students ’authentic identities – Students who look like me.
So, why did I stay?
At the beginning of last year’s Vasant Tu, which we now call the “Unprecedented Time,” a new leader led the school. Dumer Paden, a black man born and raised in Crown Heights, the same society where he now serves as principal. Dummer created a space where the cultural symbols I once hid were now an integral part of our school community. It was their assertion that if they could not be honest in their leadership, neither could the people they led.
After six years in my role as Academic Dean of Achievement First, it is clear that I am the ultimate secret to real, cultural change. There was no secret code. I just needed to be me.
Creating a model for cultural authenticity
There was a clear change in our school when Dumer became principal. Our teachers began to talk enthusiastically about the racist policies that had suppressed our school culture for years. Free space for students to share, advocate and connect without the heavy hand of “professionalism”. Slowly but surely, the staff and students alike began to defend them.
For me, it means I can finally breathe. “Yeah, are you okay?” I didn’t feel the need to lower my voice when I asked such a student. My principal casually approached our staff and promised to “keep a stack of it” at the staff meeting every Friday. Dabs took the place of a warm handshake between colleagues and everything was right with the world.
My freedom to accept cultural authenticity means I can show my students that not all professionals are properly packed in pressed pantsuits and straight hair. My 4c curls and extra acrylics were new models for professionalism. I became a symbol of what our school could be and the evidence of what was once considered essential for our students to achieve academic success was problematic from every angle.
Is growing beyond the system
Doomer’s influence as a leader is critical to the structure of our school culture and to the development of leaders like me.
By no means do I want to convey that I recommend for the mother to be inactive. This work is complex, and many of these protracted issues require systematic change.
However, I believe that this charter can lead schools to a fair and responsive education for all. Showing as an honest leader ignited my fire, a fire that subsided when I assimilated into a culture that valued whiteness more than my own. As a result, there have been genuine and meaningful changes to the values and systems that define our school, changes that have not only inspired me but also enabled our students and teachers to bring their own best version into our society.
My power to make a difference seemed limited at first. Now, the possibilities are endless.