Reflections From a
First Year Black Girl Teacher
By Logan Lawson
Logan Lawson was born and raised in Hartford, CT, and currently serves as a science educator in the city. In 2016, she graduated from Williams College with a degree in Chemistry, Africana Studies, and Public Health. With regards to education, she is drawn to doing work that contributes to dismantling a system that has created a normalized culture of policing Black and Brown students. In addition, she is interested in being a part of movements that empower the voices of teachers of color.
I am writing today, because I am seeking a community of Black women educators who have similar reflections, and are willing to be a part of the continued movement to create for the cultivation of an empowered consciousness in our students. My current feelings are the result of what I have been able to glean from first year observations as a Black radical womanist STEAM educator teaching in an urban high school. I identify myself as a “radical” educator, because I am constantly uncomfortable with the normalized culture of my school community, and those across the country that are responsible for the lives and minds of Black and Brown children. I am a “womanist” educator because I align myself with work that makes the contributions of Black women more visible. As a Black woman, I know that all of my Black and Brown students feel the pressures of society silencing them. I also know that as Black woman, we are especially hushed in spaces outside and within our community, and this suppression of the feelings of young Black girls and women is unbearable.
When I my first year of teaching came to a close, and I went into a space of meditation that has feelings of Assata’s journey of understanding, “I was a puppet and I didn’t even know who was pulling the strings.” Assata penned this statement after looking back on what she had thought of herself and our community before being introduced to the supernatural power of Blackness. I appreciate and admire Assata’s writings in her autobiography because she sits in a constant state of humble reflection. I know that with time, the perspective below will evolve because as I spend more time in education, the fingers holding strings will be made more apparent. I also appreciate and understand importance of being in the present. So, I have took the time to write on a few lingering thoughts.
Working through Anti-Blackness
“Why do you give us so much work, we aren’t white kids?” One of my students uttered those words one day in chemistry class, after being reminded of the written work, online assignment, and lab report that were imminently due. In the moment, I retorted back for about five minutes, about how I try to not let the academic expectations of my students be negatively influenced by mainstream societal viewpoints of the learning capabilities of Black minds (my verbal responses to students are never as great as my written reflections).
The beat of anti-blackness can be so easily internalized, because it is so abundant. As an urban Black student being taught by anti-Black white teachers, it can be hard to not absorb the slightest of the “speeches,” a teacher will give saying, “You are going to fail… you all are never going to make it...you are destined to clean the streets of the city (colleagues have disclosed these remarks to me about students, and it is known that they will give these talks to students to feed their own egos...). Yet, I did not think that the “racial coding” of academic rigor as “white,” was still something that my students would have to face? Five years ago, when I was in high school, this perspective was something often shared by my peers, but I had thought it was the result of being in a learning space with a very small representation of Black students.
Many of my students have been attending predominantly Black and Brown schools their entire lives, how did the “white kids,” even come into the space? Why are we even discussing our academic endeavors in proximity to whiteness? My continued verbal response to the aforementioned comment did reference the fact that yes, within American public education, students with more “white kids,” often have more resources because Black minds are devalued by our country. Yet, once this has been acknowledged, and it is learned that our communities have been constantly fighting to close the gaps, our classroom space - our Black learning community can celebrate our Blackness without constantly referencing the “white kids.” How about, “I give you so much work, because I know you can write like Zora, fly into space like Mae, heal like Patricia,, speak like Malcolm, lead like Stokley, and teach like Chisolm.”
For the fellow teachers of this community, have you observed comments such as this? How do you respond to the statements, and then work to unpack the anti-black sentiment with students?
Notes on the Hopelessness of Students
The challenge of teaching in a school that is underfunded, and seemingly forgotten within the city is intensified when students who are at the end of the public education system have given up on attaining their dreams through academic success. This year, for one of the sections of my chemistry course, I was given a class of all Black and Brown males (later in the year, two female students joined the group). 75% of the students in the class had gpas of 2.0 and below. All of the students were within the 11th and 12th grade. Teaching the content of chemistry was quite difficult to the group, because of gaps in math and science, and a general lack of vision for how doing well in school (could) lead to attaining many freedoms later in life. Given that there were days where the majority of the class would come to my room in a defeated state, we had many “circle discussions.” In these instances, I would push the desks to the outskirts of the room, and create a circle where we would just talk about life. The discussions were organic. We would have serious talks about goals for class and the future beyond high school. I would also give space for silliness and fun, because although some may hide it, I always have time for when their pockets of “black boy joy,” shine.
In one of our “circle discussions,” we got on the topic of caring about change. I asked the group why the seemed to not care anymore about school, and they said, that they did not care, because none of their teachers cared about them - they had been marked as the “bad” students years ago. In addition to the individual stigma, the school was falling apart, like many of their schools in the past. They went on to say, “You only care right now because you’re a new teacher. Give it 5 years, and you’ll be like the rest.” In the moment, I did not have a response. I told them that they were right about the fact that their minds were underappreciated in the education system, and that there were structures designed so that they could fail, but having an understanding of these factors did not mean that one should just give up. After the discussion, we had a solid few classes, where we flowing through coursework, and then the class fell into another hole. The entire year was full of peaks and troughs.
As this was my first year, it has been exceedingly challenging to find ways to spread hope to students who have given up on education and justice. In an era when students are watching members of our community being slain and their murderers are released without consequences within our American “injustice system,” I understand that there are days when hope cannot easily be accessed. When you attend a school where books are a luxury, and you have more security guards than guidance counselors, I understand that hope appears to be just a fantasy. My hope derives from knowing that members of our community have been surviving and thriving in and out of time, and that their existence is not bound to one era. It took time for me to grow this unfaltering hope, and I do share my journey with my students, but I need support on how to guide my students through their own paths of realizing the power within themselves and our community.
For the fellow teachers of this community, how do you provide students the time and space to reflect on sustaining hope, especially for students who have internalized many negative sentiments that lead to spaces of despair?
A Call Collaboration for Intersectional STEAM Collaborations
I could not write this without thinking about becoming a better STEAM educator for my students. I teach high school physical science, biology, and chemistry, and I am always thinking of ways in which to make the content intersectional. During this first year of teaching, I have been able to share the stories of Henrietta Lacks with students, we have had general discussions about experimentation on African Americans in the medical industry, and case studies on infectious and preventable diseases. When I can, I also try to include the narratives of modern Black scientists in the classroom. I would love to do more work with fellow STEAM educators, so that students leave my classroom with a deeper understanding for science, society, and self. If there is anyone within the community that would like to plan, please let me know!