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Reporting on the Racism at Work

I spent a few hours with a reporter yesterday and I hadn’t planned on spending that much time but that’s just the way it worked out. We had been meaning to get together to discuss several things for stories she’s working on, both personal and professional, though the lines on that blurred because of the things that interest her personally and manage to cross over into the professional.


For many years, as I’ve written online extensively, a common thread was writing about my own experiences with racism at work. None of it is spectacular or surprising except that what I’ve witnessed is neither spectacular nor surprising. It’s standard by any measure if you know how to take the temperature of a person on the receiving end of the micro- and macroaggressions that come with being in a minority where you work.

“I have too many examples,” I said at one point while we talked prior to turning on the tape recorder.

She stumped me, though, and it stayed with me for the rest of the day. I should mention here that I don’t think I did my job perfectly whatever that definition may be. Like many people I felt inadequate while dealing with students. There’s no rule book that tells you that you’re doing it right 100% of the time. That’s impossible. A lot of the job has to do with those gut-checks where you hope you’re doing or saying the right thing to a parent asking you for advice or a student who is seeking counsel on how to handle their complicated relationships with friends. Working with teens meant that I was dealing with an as-yet-undeveloped brain and that’s not a put down. It’s fact.

“I have too many examples of my own failures,” I thought. I didn’t give voice to that, though.

She stumped me and she warned me that she would. Well, not in those words, but in saying that she was going to ask me hard questions. That’s what a good reporter does among many other things. But they ask you to reflect, find the errors without being told they’re errors, and they help you work through the narrative without telling it for you.

I have a lot of respect for good reporters and excellent reporting. Why wouldn’t I when I’ve spent the better part of the last decade reminding myself and anyone who would listen to watch the narrative?

She asked me, after leaving a district I started working for in 1994, what they would say bad about me. She wondered what terrible things they could report about me as an educator and whether or not I had rebuttals to them. When she puts together the sound bites for the story I’m sure she’ll cut my dead air at that part but I spent a great deal of time in thinking mode.

My thinking mode is to look up or bite my lip or inhale deeply. It’s to pause and stare off into space where I’m most comfortable. It’s the part of me that is an ambivert who enjoys being “on” camera or “on” stage but who needs the quiet time to reflect.

During the interview she asked me that question twice in different stories we discussed and I mentioned it to my husband and children when they asked about my day.

“She wanted to know what terrible things my former bosses would come back with about me,” I said to my husband. “I must have sounded so arrogant because I couldn’t come up with one. I have no idea what they’d say.”

He reminded me of some of the times I’d come home from the job incredulous that someone at work would engage in institutional gaslighting or outright racism. The times when my secretary told me my hair was “more professional” when it was straightened and aligned with white ideals. The time when I mentioned to a publication that we don’t honor or nominate our Black students for enough awards when they clearly made up for those numbers in the general population. The time when teachers were texting and called me a bitch for that very publication while they were in class and students witnessed it because it was on their computers that were connected to the monitor. That was on full display for kids. Most of the time it was covert or hidden in coded language.

There was the time when I took a teacher to task for giving me a list of parents she wanted to meet with for parent/teacher conferences and she made an “academic” list and a “behavior” list. When I mentioned that her “behavior” list was full of Black students that were mostly boys she balked. “There are some white kids on that list, too!”

Again. I have too many examples.

Reporters, the good investigative ones, have a way of picking a scab. That’s what happened yesterday and I bled all over the table we were sitting at and couldn’t stop the bleeding until this morning when, after my thinking mode, I realized why it’ll be hard for them to come up with anything.

None of my evaluations are bad. There are no letters in my file. I wasn’t disciplined for anything.

That’s how this works, this covert racism. It protects itself by working in cliques and behind closed, inaccessible doors. People will discuss what it is they can “do” with you and your big mouth that keeps on tattling on systemic racism and they want that response to be professional or legal and when they can’t come up with that you’ll be discussed in hushed tones and with visible eyerolls when you walk into a room and, if you really don’t get in line with status quo, job relocation.

I have too many examples.

This is cross-posted on my Medium channel


Fire Prevention Week [a review & some resources]

This is post is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association and Review and opinions are all mine.

It probably doesn't seem very sexy to discuss fire prevention.

Trust me when I say that no matter what kinds of things you're passionate about you can always find others. I didn't have to go looking for this one.

Back when my children were in elementary school they had a classmate who had a house fire. Every time, prior to this one, that I heard about someone's house burning down I would sort of shrug it off like, "Awww, that's too bad. Good thing we have insurance." It wasn't particularly compassionate of me until I stopped by where they were staying (right next door with friends) and listened to them talk about the actual things they lost. Family heirlooms. Photographs that couldn't be replicated because this was prior to digital pics. Handwritten letters from ancestors long gone. It was heartbreaking and, in that moment, I had to face my own apathy about it. It was pretty shameful and I'm not proud of it.

She had two young children, a son and a daughter, and that was also around the same time when I stopped titheing to my church and directly gave her money. (Story for another time.) We went through our clothes and since my children were growing like weeds and I wasn't the most organized mom this required some work on my part to get it together so that we could donate.

As schools are considering what to do this week for Fire Prevention Week (an important part of teaching whether or not curriculum dictates it) I have a few things that might be helpful for teachers. My husband served on the volunteer fire department for years so he's taught me a thing or two about fire safety that I wouldn't normally know. 

I was asked to review the NFPA’s Sparky resources which, I've learned, can be used by teachers during Fire Prevention Week coming up between October 9-15, 2016.

What follows are my review thoughts on the game:

The "make-believe" link on the game features a child in a wheelchair which is rather progressive of them. WELL DONE, DEVELOPERS. Also, there are diverse races represented as well. I'm not being insincere when I say this: Thank you for being inclusive on this. This makes possible a game where kids playing it are able to see themselves.

Sparky has a Firehouse app for those times when you're out with your kids and you want to keep them entertained while simultaneously teaching them how to be safe in case of a fire. YOU KNOW THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME SO MAY AS WELL USE IT WISELY. I like the app version and, after trying it out online first, was surprised at how well it translates.

Here it is available for play on the web for those times when teachers sign up for the computer lab and want to focus their student's attention on an education game. SparkySchoolhouse encourages adults to teach fire safety to save lives, something that can be a scary topic for children. However, they use appropriate language and upbeat music to soften the lessons. Educators can find more resources at the SparkySchoolhouse Digital Backpack as well. (This is chock full of lessons and more games.)


Of the options for game playing, you'll tap one of the boxes to play. I chose to play Hear That? It was like the game Concentration where you hear sounds and have to tap the buttons to play them again in order. I don't think that's the object of the game, though. The instructions also tell you that if you hear the smoke alarm you are to tap the door immediately without finishing the game.

My favorite resource is the Sparky lessons.

There are downloadable PDFs and all of them meet CCSS standards for different grade levels. As an educator, my pick for these focuses on grades 1 & 2 for children. There are, of course, different grade-level appropriate lessons. Here's a sample of one for ages 6-10 (up to 5th grade):

Sparky the Fire Dog® and his friends set out to solve a mystery in The Case of the Missing Smoke Alarms, a free app that teaches kids fire-safety skills with a compelling new story, standards-aligned materials and loads of fun tappable animations.


What I liked about that is that kids get, by nature, engrossed in what they're doing and need to be able to hear sounds that signal a danger may be present. I got through about 5 levels before the smoke alarm sound went off and tapped the door immediately to get outside.

The game rewarded me by congratulating me for going outside and it showed a meeting place, something else I taught my young children when they were small. "If we ever have a fire and we're apart, we'll meet up by the basketball hoop in front of the house. If you come out the back doors then make your way to the hoop so we can know you're safe."

My overall opinion is that this game is really great for very young children and I stand by my earlier claim that kids will be playing games on mobile devices anyway so they might as well learn safety tips while doing it.

Fire Prevention Week is a necessary part of what schools are doing to make sure their students are safe. Many school districts are required, by law, to run fire drills several times a year so that students can be safe in school buildings. Why not extend this learning at home with your young children in a fun way, too?



10 Things Schools Can Do for Black Students

We now have a Medium channel to spread the work of Being Black at School where this piece lives. I'm republishing it here as well as a resource for schools.


10 Things Schools Can Do Today

1. Suspend lessons that may trigger students

If you’re doing a forensic lesson in a high school science class that involves a physical body as part of your teaching then today is a good day to take a beat. Or, if the lesson in history class is about protests that this country has held before (like that Boston Tea Party) and teachers are not making that connection to civic disobedience and the protests for Black Lives Matter then it’s probably time to reassess how we’re using critical thinking and promoting individual thoughts and beliefs in the classroom. Not every lesson is for every day. Teachers may not be comfortable with the discussions that ensue.

2. Use your Emotional Health Triage systems

Many schools are equipped with social workers and psychologists and teams of professionals who work toward emotional health. We employ these in the system when crises happen such as the death of a student, violence in the community, or a state of emergency. These teams need to mobilize NOW as a response to Black students who both empathize and feel deeply about the world around them and the ones who are experiencing crushing depression and anxiety around the state-sanctioned violence they see and hear about.

3. Respond with ACTION

Black students (specifically women) at American University this week have been attacked with bananas and many students are dissatisfied with the response from their school. In order to create safe spaces, schools should respond with conduct charges, investigations, and pro-active statements to their communities about how they will deal with violent acts. Instead, students are pressuring school leaders to do something more than empty town hall meetings. Systems need to respond first and not put the onus on violated students to force it.

4. Create Safe Spaces

Students, today especially, may be in need of a space in which they can express themselves. Provide art materials and journals and safe adults to them when you notice them acting out no matter what their developmental age is. Many young students aren’t prepared to put into words what they’re feeling so provide soft items (like pipe cleaners and squishy balls) for them to use as a calming device.

5. Practice Radical Empathy

Oftentimes, Black students are not allowed the space to emotionally express what’s happening. If you notice them acting out in new ways stop what you’re asking them to do and see if they need to be escorted by a loving adult to one of the safe spaces mentioned above. Suspend judgment and lessons on which they cannot concentrate today. In fact, take their emotional temperature on a regular and consistent basis. All schools can work toward this for Black students that they regularly send to discipline offices instead of caring for emotional needs.

6. Engage Family Participation

A really easy phone call to make to parents raising Black children is to simply ask, “Is your child particularly affected by the events they see in the news of violence?” This is two-fold: one, schools can acknowledge that this is a lived truth and two, they can open a conversation and allow parents of Black children to LEAD in how to care for their children. This is good practice no matter the news cycle. Invite parents raising these children who know them best to participate in the creation of safe spaces. Often, this is all parents want to do in the first place.

7. Study Cultural Competency in a whole staff setting.

Teachers, support staff, and administrators can all work toward this by putting it at the top of every agenda especially when working with populations that aren’t reflected in the adults in a building. Unpack your invisible knapsack. Revisit implicit bias in your pedagogy. Create teams for restorative justice. This work can be done in team settings as well. Use this for your next faculty meeting focus. It’s already too late.

8. Call for help, not police or SROs

Schools are tasked with caring for children with professional adults who have training and knowledge in areas of child development. Police and SROs should not be called in to deal with a difficult child who happens to be Black. You are re-traumatizing a child when you do that with the absence of their parent present. Use social workers, psychologists, administrators, and caring adults who understand the work of anti-racism in systems. Reach out to organizations who do this work if your school is woefully lacking in this. Never ever threaten a Black child by telling them you’re going to call the police on them.

9. Be mindful of White Savior Complex responses in systems

Language and semantics matter every day, but it’s important to be mindful of how schools are responding today for students feeling disenfranchised and ignored. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, we are now a minority-majority education system, with 51% of our students (25.9 million) being of color. As of 2007–2008, 83 percent of teachers in U.S. public schools are white. Recognizing this disparity is crucial to understanding how much work needs to occur in systems that can create inherently racist policies and ignored responses to the emotional health of Black children. Our goal at Being Black at School is to identify this first in order to change it.

10. Empower Black Students

Give them space for leadership. I have not given up hope that this generation is prepared for things which my own generation was not. Young activists are out there. Students care about their education and also of their well-being and they are out here doing the work. While you’re at it, empower your Black colleagues today as well. Don’t rely on them to do the emotional lifting and do not demand anything from them. Ask Black teachers, administrators, and students what THEY need today and then get to work.


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