Quite often I have my babies call me, FaceTime me, text me, WhatsAPP me, FB Messenger me, IG me, and if I do not answer, they challenge me. They send me messages questioning what I am doing where I cannot answer their messages. This makes me smile. These babies are old students who became my mentees, and somehow became my little brothers or sisters, or my only biological sons' siblings. He laughs when he sees my messages pop up. He has even heard former parents call me asking me to reprimand "my baby," their biological child because they know my desire is to help them to be the best student, human, person that the can.
They contact me to share their new relationships, their new jobs. They call to shed tears or share laughs. They do this because I was not just their teacher, but I was a person that assisted them with life. I was a person that taught more than content. I was that teacher that could embed life lessons in just about every lesson that I taught and I was never concerned with test scores. I knew the secret...students will pass their test when they trust you. If you give them respect and teach them those soft skills that we don't think are essential, they will give you anything that you desire. My desire was and will always be for them to do the best that they can do. Many teachers will never understand this because they rush, they think that content is the most important thing, and then they complain and waste time. When I won Teacher of the Year for my county a few years ago, an inappropriate question (I thought it was and still do) was asked of me: How do I teach those type of students? I refused to answer the question, but I challenged that person to tell me what type of student they were referring to. They could never answer, but I knew what that micro aggressive comment really meant.
My dad was the first and only Black teacher that I recall until my eighth grade year. This year, my eighth grade year, I remember three Black male teachers that made a true impact on me; teaching me about Black literature, sharing the voice and ideals of Les Brown, and promoting HBCU’s in their classrooms; Florida A&M University; Shaw University; Norfolk State. As an educator for over a decade, I see the significance in this.
They were my dreamkeepers. And now, I am the dreamkeeper to so many. My biological son asked me to create a list of compliments and/or messages that I receive and honestly, I have yet to complete it because humbly I receive messages almost daily. Yesterday I received a one sentence text, “ Thank you! (With a heart emoji).” This former student and I sent messages back and forth for about thirty minutes or so and right before we ended our messages she texted, “And I’ m happy my African American experience professor became my big sister, third mother and listen mentor.” She wrote in all caps, “YOUR THE GREATEST QUEEN!!” In my late twenties I was her college instructor and we grew together. She learned that she could conquer anything she wanted despite her circumstance. It took vulnerability from me to show her this. She now holds a masters degree despite the hands she was dealt because she had mentors and I am blessed to be one of those. She saw a "Black Queen" that grew up in a similar circumstance be someone that was abnormal in the environment that she was raised. I could relate to her and many educators fail to make attempts at building relationships and seeing just how vital they are to ensure a student is successful.
Just as the young student above, I have others that are first generational college and high school graduates, and are now passing it forward. As I prepared to write this, I had two students (former college students who ironically became best friends after they were in my class)FaceTime me. They are now both teachers and this doesn’t just put a smile on my face, but it warms my soul. One called me a few months ago and shared "I am sorry if I ever disrespected you and I just love you for teaching me." I laughed because she and I remember the many times I had to give her a stern eye, hug her, and sometimes provide her with stern words that made her cry. She and I also remember the many times I would make a deal with her and gift her dinner at a restaurant of her choice because she survived another semester. I was her mom after her biological mom passed away. I was one of her cheerleaders to help her believe in herself. I was not just an educator that stressed her about book knowledge that we all eventually forget and have to take refresher courses, but she saw me as her dreamkeeper. The stories that I have from both of them make me chuckle and feel confident that they will give our students what they need. The other young ladies biological mother is also an educator and there were many times that she reached out to me to speak with her daughter (I was blessed to have her during her high school years and several times during college).
All three former students, current mentees, and daughters ( I cannot deny this) that I have been gifted allowed me to be myself. And I allowed them to be themselves as young Black females. When they were upset, I did not prevent them from sharing their feelings for fear that someone might see them as one of those Black girls with attitudes. I didn't prevent them from being true to them. But I did model specific behaviors and they allowed me to provide feedback when I did see that it was needed.
I did not just do things to empower myself during my time with them and even my time now as an educator, but I found ways to empower my babies; to include, my biological son. As a Black woman, educator, we see microaggressions are common. Microaggresions stem from a variety of things; particularly for me in a K-12 classroom. As Black women, we are stereotyped and assessed so much that many are forced out of education because they can never be themselves. Our voices, our firmness, our strength, and just our being are never appreciated because we are told that we must conform to the ideals of Eurocentric teachings. We are expected to carry ourselves like our majority White counterparts, which fails not just ourselves, but we fail our students. We are looked at as "pro-black" if we celebrate Black history. We are looked at as "the trouble makers" when we address issues that are unjust. We are never allowed to be "ourselves" which makes it hard for us to truly close the achievement gap.
Cultural differences are ok, but we are taught that they are unacceptable. As a Black woman, I am harder on my Black students because many of those that I have taught come to me beat down and ill-prepared because of the culture of education. They have educators; to include, leadership that conform versus teaching them that it is ok to be themselves. A black male is seen as disrespectful if he shrugs his shoulder. A black girl is noted as disrespectful if she rolls her eyes. Both cases fail to address the educator who typically does nothing to "bond" with them. And yes! It is important for an educator to learn their students. As students, they are expected to learn the rules and regulations of their teachers; for example, how to write the heading on their papers, so why aren't educators expected to learn their students?
In addition because so many Blacks are passive and are afraid to address the microaggressions, they watch as their colleagues and leadership fail these students. They have such educators fail them because even though they look like them and understand their plight, they are afraid for the mainstream to categorizes them as…. Black. They are afraid that the media, which is sometimes the only interaction that many of ourWhite colleagues have had to “learn” about Blacks will embarrass them versus teach
them that all Blacks do not look the same nor act the same; hence, all Whites don’t either, right?
As you, Black Woman and Black Man Educator continue your journey to educate our youth, be true to yourself. Do not depreciate yourself for a system that needs to find innovative and practical ways to close the achievement gap. Do not depreciate yourself for a few dollars. Do not depreciate yourself for colleagues who are close-minded and cannot understand the need to be seen in an institution that is suppose to be fair and just and help all become successful and live out our dreams.
Kiera Vargas; JD,MLIS,MS
Teacher of the Year, Madison County, FL 2019
ePIFhany, LLC; Educational Coach