It’s an unusually brisk April afternoon in Lithonia. Our bedroom window is open wide, allowing a chilly breeze to waft into the bedroom. I’m reading “I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City” by Salome Thomas-El. Throughout the book, Principal El shares stories of building relationships with students, teaching them chess, life-skills, and about their history. I revisited the book because of a FB post by one of my former students, Juawn Jackson, who mentioned his experience in my classroom as a 5th grader twenty years ago, learning to play chess.
That well-mannered and curious student went on to become a teacher and is now running for a seat on the local school board in Macon, Georgia. He reminds me that our success is not solely measured by assessment scores, but by the trajectories we set in place with our work with young people. Those are the success stories I share when people ask me “What’s Good” in public education.
I’d just finished a call with my performance coach, Mrs. Sharper, who reminded me that what we all need now is to take a moment to acknowledge “what’s good”. She encouraged me to take the time to pause and soak in “what’s good” at Marbut Traditional Theme School. As she is sharing that statement, I’m thinking about how much I appreciate my team of teachers who understand the role they play in the lives of our students and families. Outside the window I hear the voices of children playing and riding their bikes up and down the sidewalk. I’ve missed hearing those voices in the hallways of our school, so I found it a welcome break in the deafening silence of social distancing. It reminds me of what I often tell my leadership team: In every crisis and conflict, we have to dig deep to find the lesson and discover what’s good about a given circumstance. It’s always there, we just have to be able to pause long enough to see it.
What’s Good! It is a layered, two-word phrase that is triune in its connotation: one part greeting, one part question, and one part call to action. A cursory glance at a social media stream leaves us all questioning what’s happening at the highest levels of our government, inciting us to challenge and question national priorities during a global emergency, but most importantly we have finally begun to acknowledge the contributions of those who provide essential services that support our children and families in this nation.
In my city and for much of my generation, “What’s good” is a phrase expressed to acknowledge someone as you encounter them in person or as you initiate an informal chat. You are essentially saying, “I see you”. Next week, we will celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week 2020 and we must take a moment to acknowledge what’s good in our public education system. The theme for this week’s virtual staff meeting was “What’s Good?”. I wanted to take an hour to acknowledge and celebrate the work of our team in the midst of the sudden shift to virtual learning. In doing so, the first group I wanted to tap into was my dedicated parents who have been key players in setting the stage for virtual learning in support of our teachers. Via text, I asked our parents at every grade level to send me an email sharing stories of teachers who have gone above and beyond since school closures began. I wanted to shed light on the calls, the follow-up calls, the video lessons, and troubleshooting that often goes on without accolades or acknowledgement. I sent the text at 10:45am. For the next several hours there was a consistent stream of emails from parents sharing their appreciation for the work of teachers. After all of the emails were compiled into one document, we had 10 pages of messages from families about specific teachers and their dedication to this work pre and post pandemic.
“I would love to give a shout out to the fifth grade team. Mr. Reddish, Mr. Knight, Coach Shafer for doing an excellent job with their communication with the parents and students. I would also like to thank Mr Knight and Mr Reddish for their fast response to any issues that’s the students may have with their school work. Zoom or anything else and keeping us inform with any updates. Please continue to be safe and Terrence stated that he miss y‘all as well. Thanks for all you do. “
“I would sincerely like to take Mrs. Crowe-Harris for her dedication to her students. Mrs. Crowe-Harris goes above and beyond. During this unusual time, I feel as though my baby has not missed a beat and that is thanks to Mrs. Crowe Harris. We still have assignments, individual sessions, and fun activities. In addition, Mrs. Crowe-Harris sends EXTRA resources for our children. I am just grateful that my baby has a teacher that is true and dedicated to her calling. I cannot thank you enough. ”
I compiled all of the messages and sent them to teachers as a link. It was a small gesture that meant much to those who have given much.
Questioning and Confronting
In the more literal sense, “What’s Good” is posing a direct question that begs an answer. Educational leaders understand that working within the system means that we must sometimes confront the very system we work within. We have to ‘rage against the machine’ when it does not work in the best interest of the communities we serve. Like most educators, I’ve been looking at the void in leadership from our nation’s Secretary of Education during the most pivotal crisis for public education of the century. Like those voices from outside my window, Dr. Salome Thomas-El and Dr. Shango Blake are the voices emerging from within public education, shattering the deafening silence, at once acknowledging us and challenging us to act.
Like those voices from outside my window, Dr. Thomas-El and Dr. Blake are the voices emerging from within public education, shattering the deafening silence, at once acknowledging us and challenging us to act.
Last year, the parent of one of my students introduced me to the work of Dr. Shango Blake. As a principal and now as an educational consultant, Dr. Blake is a champion for public education and for Hip-Hop culture. His show, The Classroom Hip Hop 101 is just one example of the work he is doing to reshape the landscape of education at the grassroots level. I was immediately impressed by the way he approaches his work with schools to confront inequities and disparities that do a disservice for students in urban schools. During this national shift to virtual learning, Dr. Blake is working with communities to support parents and educators by hosting parent/teacher check-ins on Fridays.
With education conferences cancelled, we managed to have our own mini-conference with the assistance of two educational giants acknowledging us and confronting us under the premise of two-words: What’s Good.
The challenges of leading a school community virtually require ‘out of the box’ thinking. In every challenge, there is an opportunity to improve and explore and find what’s good. What’s good is that with tenacity and faith I was able to contact both Dr. Thomas-El and Dr. Blake and encourage them to join our weekly virtual staff meeting as special guests this week. They poured into my staff, sharing concern, providing inspiration and a historical context to our present circumstances. Teacher-leaders shared what’s good from their respective grade levels, celebrating one another and breakthroughs with students. The common thread in what was shared on that call is that we have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of our families and students. We must be there for one another during these times of isolation. With education conferences cancelled, we managed to have our own mini-conference with the assistance of two educational giants acknowledging us and confronting us under the premise of two-words: What’s Good.
Soundtrack to this blog: Be Good by Gregory Porter