Just finished another year. The eleventh year to be exact. Allow me to take this time to reflect on the people, events, and things that brought me joy as well as the people, events, and things that did not bring me joy. Since I have been at this Ignatian Catholic school for the past seven years, I have come to really value the time and space to look back in order to move forward.
Intentions: I am writing this piece because we rarely hear the words "joy" and "school" in the same sentence. Does your eye-brow go up when you read those words knowing that a Black dude wrote them? Be honest. A part of reforming education, especially for Black folx, means inspiring, identifying, and embodying joy in our bodies and then in our schools. That said, I am making it a habit to highlight joyous moments from this year. I am fighting the urge to just focus on the bad. For the record, my state of joy or my search for joy has kept me grounded, covered, and focused, especially in the eye of the sh!t-storm. Y'all don't hear me dough.
1. New Teachers
Context: It is weird to think that I have veteran status in my 30s. If a person can make it past year five in teaching, then that person is considered a veteran. I do not subscribe to that particular notion, but I can say I do have some wisdom or game to give (if anyone's willing to listen). I know any job can be socially and emotionally draining, so I do not want to be another block, burden, or barrier to a colleague’s professional or personal well-being; instead, I try to be a bridge between the new and the old faculty members by checking in with folks hopefully to bring them a smile and or a sense of relief.
Furthermore, we returning teachers can respect that we were once new teachers and acknowledge that new teachers have a seat at the table, too. I do not imagine myself so much as a mentor but more so as a colleague who is here if and when needed. Availability and accessibility are two professional tenets that have sustained my good standing in my school community. I may not be agreeable and adept all the time but I am amicable and authentic with everyone, from the janitorial staff to the copy machine guy. Besides, some parts of teaching include trial and error, so affirm and allow new teachers to find their teacher voice and teacher persona; of course, help with logistics and technical stuff but mutually respect boundaries and bandwidths (theirs and your own). Also, make sure you know the difference between being a mentor teacher and a teacher coach, and let me tell you, money is the difference. Sorry, you got to pay to play. Don't complain because I don't want to train (for free).
So what brought you joy: The new blood gave me tremendous joy this year; their presence and passion alone gave me perspective; even sharing small conversations in passing made me question my own complacency as well as look critically at that cup of corporate Kool-Aid, half-empty and half-thrown up.
Call to Action: To my returning teachers: how can we create welcoming spaces for incoming educators, especially when a school does not have the programming, policies, or leadership personnel to make and maintain a space conducive to healthy and long-term teacher retention? One of my goals outside of my classroom is to get teachers to fully envision themselves as lifetime educators, even if their journey takes them out of the physical classroom.
2. New Teaching Assignment
Context: This year I had the opportunity of working with students who were way smarter and way more resourceful than me. I taught three sections of Sophomore Honors English, a course that did not require a big jump in curriculum development but a steep learning curve in instruction. Since I taught solely regular college-prep courses during my whole teaching career, I had to keep it one hunnid with my students and let them know that first week that they are no better than any other students whom I taught. My intention was not to humiliate but to humble because referring to students as “Honors” kids can create ego, entitlement, and insecurity in students; I preferred saying that I taught “students in an Honors course.” That slight change of words sent a strong message to keep power dynamics in check and also show my respects for their advanced placement.
In other words, these students were very extrinsically motivated by their grades, not necessarily rigorous coursework. And what did I do? I put those kids through the wringer. (Cue my evil laugh). I explained to students that they do not have to prove anything to me but rather to themselves. I made my students frequently write academic goals and self-evaluations to hold themselves accountable and celebrate their own progression in their own eyes. As I told my students, Mr. White doesn't give grades; students earn grades. Yep, I referred to myself in third-person AND!... I would like to say that I earned their respect even through their tears and fears. Nonetheless, respect, rigor, and reward go hand-in-hand, for the students learned to push themselves and work together to make it in Mr. White's class.
So What: I loved the sense of pride the students took in their work and honestly, the grind , not just the grades. Ask any of my students: Mr. White can make a “B” feel like an “A” in terms of the work ethic I demand of my students. Like a strength and conditioning coach, I work my kids as well as work with my kids to make sure they are not cheating the workouts, so to speak, but better yet trying to best themselves with each new assignment. I appreciate them for being a vocal group who held me to just as high of a standard. Like many of my classes, we shared much laughter together as we learned about our mutual quirks, perks, and works (of art or academia).
With my emphasis on performance improvement and genuine human connection, I had some real heart-warming interactions with students who would come visit me before, during, and after school to share about their lives outside of class. I am glad that we helped each other build a learning environment that could hold real rigor, relationships, and rifts.
Call to Action: Teachers, if you have the capacity and the competence, then do not be afraid or apprehensive about a new course or new cohort of students. Of course, I didn't choose this course but I went with it. And I will not hold you: it may suck to build new curriculum.
3. Student Productions
Context: There’s nothing like seeing the versatility of my students and my colleagues. For the past two years, I have helped put on two mid-size student productions: the Black Student Union Showcase and the annual student comedy sketch show. Respect to all of the performing arts teachers and directors out there. Effectually, both productions are student talent shows. For those not in teaching, any extracurricular activity outside of contracted hours means more work over more time, not overtime (pay). Some people say “labor of love;” something like that. Let’s just say, I put on 10 extra pounds from all of the DoorDash I ate during those late-night rehearsals. The time leading up to the show is so stressful but everything always comes together in the end. Man, I always feel like a low-budget wedding planner.
So What: Though my students would say that I am quite dramatic and comedic, I have no background in drama or production management. I took on these two extracurriculars because I enjoy being a witness to the dazzling levels of greatness and goodness that students bring to our school community. The students wrote, filmed, and choreographed every single bit of each show, respectively. Again, I was just there to do crowd control, order the pizza, and cut out any crude sex jokes.
We spent hours upon hours practicing, barking at one another, and wondering what jokes would go over the heads of administrators. No, the joy was not in the jokes; rather, the joy was in the joint effort. In a world where tech can separate and isolate us, these shows forced us to be in the same room, face-to-face, sweaty, frustrated, tired, but still alert, alive, and adamant about putting on the best show possible. I love how the students set a goal and met that goal. No one quit on anyone.
And I want to give out a big shout-out to my faculty co-moderators who brought their logistics and technical skills as well as their good humor to such stressful activities. Seriously, I am a scatter-brain, who can barely remember to feed himself. It was quite the joy to share a mic or a stage with my colleagues, who could have been anywhere else during those late nights. That said, everyone was down for one another, with little to no ego, especially in spite of petty hallways beefs, dean pushback, and Mr. White's bare feet. Who let the dogs out!! Roof! Roof! Roof! Roof!
Call to Action: If you have the time, talent, and (pain) tolerance for teenage theatrics past 4pm, then consider taking on an extracurricular activity that speaks to your gifts outside of teaching or celebrates students' creative side. If anything, give props (compliments) to your colleagues who do extracurriculars--in addition to the athletic coaches-- the Yearbook staff, the band teachers, the Speech and Debate coaches, those who may not have as big of a stage or audience.
4. New Additions to the Family
Context: Though I have had to watch him grow up via pictures and videos, I enjoyed the birth and growth of my little teething nephew. When I visit back home in Texas, I love being with my parents and brothers; however, playing with this little bundle of joy keeps me hopeful about the day I become a family-man. Is it just me or do you feel like your soul is pure when a baby smiles at you or raises their arms toward you to request a hug or pick-up? Little kids can read energy--that's all I'm saying.
So What: Though I visit only a few times a year, quality time with loved ones and the sites of my childhood help me honor my inner child, my intergenerational support system, and the ineffable universal order that advocates for my daily existence. Less than 16 months old, my nephew is now able to walk, and his little pigeon-toed self pivots like a young Carmelo Anthony. What an honor to have him Bambi-tip-toe to me! Like him, I am trying to take life one step at a time. Matter of fact, what would it take for any of us to walk in awe of the universe instead of in control of it?
Call to Action: What? Do you expect me to say have kids!?! No. Maybe. Sure. Your choice. Whether you are a relative, god-parent, big sibling, or a trusted adult, just cherish every single second with every little being you are blessed to encounter. Make time for family--biological or not. And take a page out of a baby's book.
5. Teacher Healing Circle
Context: For the past eight months, I participated in a teacher healing circle, which included a small group of ten educators of color learning and trying out different non-Western holistic healing practices. Like teaching and learning, medicine needs to be differentiated. My medicine may not be your medicine. Notice I said "healing" not "therapy" because Western ways would have me lying (in more ways than one) neatly on a couch, trapped in my mind, with some really nice white lady taking notes or alternatively, sprawled out on an exam table, scared and fidgety, wondering what shape of pill will be prescribed to me from some young doctor, still carrying his iPad around to confirm symptoms on WebMD.
So What: Where else can you seek and find your healing instead of from the inside of a pill bottle, a red cup, an e-pen, or a video game? Who am I to be so sick yet so self-righteous? I'm just saying that I never really thought of diet, meditation, and nature as "therapy." Guess I have gone fully "Californian" with the mystical crystals, incenses, fruit smoothies, and long walks on the beach. Not to mention, I may have traveled through time and space a few times this year. Trippy, I know, right. I am really grateful for the other teachers who accompanied me on this unconventional experience. Without getting into the details, the joy was in the group healing, the diversity of healing practices, and the reimagining around holistic healthcare.
Call to Action: Do some research. Disclaimer: I am no health guru or holistic healer. I am just a Black man, originally raised Southern Baptist, who used to think Avatar the Last Airbender and Dragon Ball Z were just figments of our imagination when it comes to the power of the mind, body, spirit, and the universe. For us busy teachers, whose minds bend with every school policy change, whose bodies serve as community cornerstones, and whose spirits flow (like water) into our pupils, who knew raising our power levels meant powering down and resting?! Please consider taking next summer off, Darius. There is rest in a state of joy, and there is joy in a state of rest. Trust.
Disclaimer: Because I do not want to be a Black boy without joy, I will keep this section fairly short. Do not take my brevity to mean triviality.
1. Too Much Grading
While I believe in giving my students multiple opportunities and modalities to show their understanding, I do not find joy in the constant grading. Even in my eleventh year, I have not found the most efficient grading system. No matter what, grading essays just takes time.
2. The Loss of Life
Rest in peace to my little cousin. I have little words for the loss of such a young life. I pray for you, your mother, your sisters, and your children.
3. My (Poor) Health
Honestly, I have not been the best role model for self-care. I need to listen to my body more instead of drowning it out with "tough man" self-talk. I never want "I'm good" to turn into "I'm (very) sick." I stayed quiet, and my body spoke loudly via the chest pains. If you don't hear me, then at least listen to your own body--every ache, every bone crack, and every breath. My body: he don't hear me dough.
Overall, I love seeing my students and my colleagues graduate to bigger and better things in life. Of course, I understand that students will inevitably leave; however, the hallways, offices, and school retreats will not be the same without certain colleagues. I know they are one call away, but their unique energies can't be duplicated or replicated. Transition is just a part of life. We will all go, eventually.
Joy is all around us, just like misery. Allow joy to have an "in" and hate to have an "out." In this piece, I hope to invite (Black) joy into our hearts and our schools. Especially for our Black teachers and Black students, what would it look like to live, love, and learn in a state of joy daily? weekly? annually? That's not to say that bad things will not happen and that willful ignorance is an effective means to a state of joy. Please take the time to identify and record your moments of joy. All I am saying is the news and the Internet do a masterful job at broadcasting the bad. Consequently, will you pair with me to bring parity? How will I create (and maintain) harmony when the world creates harm in me? How are we going to allow joy in our classrooms if we do not allow joy into our bodies?
Just More Black Thoughts (second thoughts)
First, joy and happiness are not the same. Happiness is a temporary feeling; joy is an internal state that one must work to find and maintain.
As a little Black boy growing up initially in a little country town and then in a low-income part of a major city, I realize that joy may have seemed like a luxury, especially when someone is in survival mode. In the 'hood, many hard-working people are doing what they can to survive in hostile, unstable living conditions. If a boy is able to "make it out," he may be notably "street-smart" and battle-tested but maybe joy-starved and anxiety-ridden. He most likely had some sources of joy (i.e., grandmother, mother)--people, who because of their unresolved trauma, probably knew more about keeping folks alive than nurturing states of joy. And I don't blame them; I applaud them. Moreover, that little Black boy probably had little to no role modeling of concrete actions or strategies to cultivate a state of joy.
Like his absent father, this same boy would have entered the "fast life," looking for quick hits of dope to bring that immediate feeling of happiness or pleasure to temporarily cover up the looming pain in his life. If there is war going on outside, then embodied peace is that much harder to secure, thus making a state of joy unfathomable or indistinguishable from happiness. I mean the "fast life" is all about thrill-seeking, pleasure-seeking, clout-chasing, and motion-making. The young boys rapping about their nefarious lifestyle say, "I can't mess with you if you ain't got no motion." In survival mode, no one wants to be static because then they are "dead in the water," "a sitting duck," or "easy pickings." Unheld by fathers, embraced by the streets, and uncomfortably within reach of the long arms of the law, many of our Black boys and Black men have been spiritually "robbed" and "truncated," for they do not know the congruent states of peace, joy, and stability. Some of us may be forever running, chasing, escaping, always "at-risk" of losing life, love, freedom, and joy.
For clarification, joy is not the answer. Joy is not the medicine. Joy is not a shield or a silver bullet when egos get bruised, guns get drawn, and bullets with no names mark you absent. Hey, I don't know how to fully access my Avatar state or Super Saiyan transformation, but I imagine joy as one of the many states I hope to master, so that I can welcome the good in my life rather than feeding and fiendin' on the bad.
Happiness can become a bargaining chip, used and abused by yourself and others when dependent solely on external pleasures. That job promotion! Or that pair of shoes! Or that big house! They all bring happiness, but for how long? Joy is about self-ownership and stability; because it can be deeply interior or spiritual, joy marks journey. Maybe out of your comfort zone, but will you step back into yourself?