Monday, June 15, 2020

School Leadership, Black Lives, Systemic Racism, Social Unrest and Social Justice Education


We’re at an interesting place in education in 2020. Although police killings of unarmed Black men is nothing new….in fact, it has been occurring for a very long time, what is new is that these killings are now being captured on cell phone video, surveillance video and police body cam video and broadcasted on television for the world to see. For the first time, the world is seeing what the Black community has been crying out about for over a century. With the recent cell phone-recorded police killing of George Floyd, the surveillance and subsequent body cam videos of the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, and the home invasion and subsequent police killing of Breonna Taylor, America has shifted. The America of today, June 15, 2020 is not the America of May 24, 2020. In other words, when George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020 where a Minneapolis police officer (knowingly being recorded) kept his knee on Floyd’s neck to the point of suffocation for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, America shifted. Starting with Minneapolis, the masses immediately “took to the streets” in the form of marches, protests, rallies, demonstrations, rebellions and rioting. As I write on June 15 (21 days after the George Floyd murder), masses of people are still “in the streets” of America and the world, across racial / ethnic groups, demanding justice, solutions and immediate change relative to the policing of citizens of the Black community.

The aforementioned has implications for the classroom every day that cannot be disregarded. The social unrest that we’re all currently observing and will in all likelihood continue to observe for some time to come cannot be ignored, circumvented or “swept under the rug.” At the district and school levels, it must be met head-on. It must be welcomed and embraced. Why? Because it impacts every child sitting in your schools and classrooms. Schools across America must be willing to embrace and infuse America’s new reality into every classroom in the country under the banner of Social Justice Education. Of course, there are many schools that have embraced Social Justice Education long before 2020, but there are other schools where Social Justice Education is “way off the radar.” The times dictate that Social Justice Education is an inherent part of the teaching and learning process across all disciplines…Math, Science, Language Arts, Social Studies, etc. For the purpose of this essay, I am making the case for Social Justice Education in schools where Black children are enrolled because I am writing specifically here about “Black Lives.”

What is Social Justice Education (SJE)? First and foremost, I was a social justice teacher and principal because it was just natural for me professionally as it emanated out of who I am personally. I took on the tough topics and issues with my students because I felt it was my duty to do so. I owed it to each and every one of my students to have the courage and audacity to be a social justice educator...for them. But secondly, I have read extensively about SJE over the years and there are so many definitions and perspectives out there as to what it is and what it is not. For me, it’s simple. SJE is the ongoing student-centered exploration, examination, assessment, critique and analysis of the world upon which your students exist…the world around them relative to their relationship with it and how they fit into it relative to issues of social justice (and injustices) and overall systemic, institutional and individual racism (unconscious, implicit or explicit). As it relates to your Black students for example, the question becomes, “What are the realities of being Black? What are the realities, experiences, challenges, obstacles, needs, interests, goals and aspirations, across genres, of being Black in America? What challenges does being Black pose to your Black students?” Depending on the age of your students, chances are that your Black students have very strong, emotional and intellectual thoughts and opinions about the reality of being Black in America. As I indicated previously, SJE along with your Black students’ thoughts and opinions therefore cannot be ignored, circumvented or “swept under the rug” because the implications and correlation between their world and their academic success in your classroom and beyond are immeasurable. For example, they see the current unrest; they can relate to the current unrest; they understand the current unrest and many even may be participating in the current unrest. You must therefore ensure that SJE is an inherent component of learning and discussion in your school which not only enables your Black students to put their world’s in perspective toward confronting it, but equally enables your non-Black students to better understand and appreciate the world of their Black peers.

So what does this all have to do with school leadership? EVERYTHING. It requires leadership…strong leadership…purpose-driven leadership…visionary leadership…courageous leadership…passionate leadership to ensure that Social Justice Education occurs in all schools toward educating the “whole child.” Toward the implementation of Social Justice Education in your schools, I offer you the following ten self-reflective questions to guide your thinking, planning, organization and implementation:

1.  What do I know about Social Justice Education?

2.  What would Social Justice Education mean for the students of my school?

3.  Why would Social Justice Education be necessary in my school?

4.  What are the reasons that Social Justice Education exists in my school?

5.  What are the reasons that Social justice Education does not exist in my school?

6.  Can our students; particularly our students of color articulate, beyond emotional reactions, the injustices that surround them?

7.  Do the teachers that I supervise have the necessary cultural competency to engage our students in issues of social justice?

8.  What type of PD do we provide staff toward developing a comfort and confidence in engaging our students in issues of social justice?

9.  How knowledgeable am I in issues of social justice?

10.  How competent am I in incorporating issues of social justice in my overall instructional leadership with staff?

Principal Kafele is the author of seven ASCD books including his recently released Amazon best-seller, The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth. For further writings authored by Principal Kafele visit PrincipalKafele.com.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

First Year ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL LEADERSHIP in the Age of the Coronavirus


As we are in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, I have thought about educating children even more so than I typically do…if that is humanly possible.  Specifically, I have been obsessed with how our educational systems will be able to sustain education for our children throughout this crisis upon which we find ourselves. As with most areas of education, I do have a few strong opinions about how to get through it so last Wednesday (3/18/20), I took to FB and Twitter Live and spent an hour and a half offering strategies and suggestions toward maximizing distance learning with an emphasis on the usage of webcam platforms such as ZOOM meetings. On Thursday, I decided I wanted to speak specifically to first year teachers toward addressing their unique challenges so I wrote a blog post specifically for them. On Friday, I decided I wanted to speak specifically to first year principals toward addressing their unique challenges so I wrote a blog post specifically for them. As I type, it is Saturday morning and I have the first year assistant principals on my mind, and I know they have unique challenges, so I decided I would devote my morning to writing specifically to them. From this point on, I will be writing in the second person as I share my thoughts specifically to first year assistant principals (veterans too).

As a first year assistant principal, once you entered the ranks of administration, you essentially entered an entirely new world relative to your previous work; presumably you were a teacher or a counselor. You are now a leader of men, women and children. You are a supervisor of a portion of your school’s staff. You are an instructional leader in addition to all of your other responsibilities including student discipline, cafeteria duty and bus duty. And then came COVID 19 and your world as a new assistant principal took on a change that graduate school could have never prepared you for. In other words, as comprehensive as your graduate school program may have been, chances are good that you didn’t have a course on “Leading Through a Global Pandemic.” Like all of the leaders out here, leading students and staff in the midst of a global pandemic has to be learned “on the job” and in real time. Yes, there are experts providing guidance but at the “end of the day,” this is something very different. To that end, I offer you the following five suggestions as you fight through this global crisis as a first year assistant principal.

1.  Your role is to assist
First and foremost, your title is Assistant Principal. You are there to assist. Although it is admirable and commendable when you take the initiative in areas that you see require your assistance, your first course of action in so many cases is to consult with your principal. I cannot overstate the significance of you and your principal being on the same page; particularly during this Coronavirus pandemic. Be sure to stay in constant contact with your principal who is obviously working out of his / her home. In other words, your principal’s home is now your school’s main office.  Keep your principal abreast of your thinking and initiatives that you want to take before you take them because remember, your principal is trying to figure this thing out too. This is new and different for everyone.
  
2.  You know your staff
As a supervisor of a portion of your school’s staff, chances are that you know these particular staff members, including teachers, a little better than your principal does. These staff members report directly to you. You are their leader. They too are trying to figure out how to maximize distance learning while keeping their students engaged. The reality that you can never lose sight of however is that teaching is only a portion of their lives. They are also individuals with lives outside of their career. In the midst of a global pandemic, they too are dealing with the emotions that accompany the uncertainty of the time we find ourselves. This is where your leadership is so crucial. As an assistant principal and in your case, a first year assistant principal, you must maintain contact with your staff beyond your supervisory role. It would be great if you could just check in on them. Strengthen those relationships that you have with them and assure them that you are there for them. Beyond their school lives, they have their own individual lives. They have their own emotions to contend with. And they have family responsibilities as well. Be therefore sure to compliment, encourage, praise and support your staff as often as possible. This can be done through email, ZOOM meetings (dept. or grade level) or however you deem most appropriate to maintain contact with staff. Some of your staff may be taking the pandemic in stride while others may be really struggling with it. As best you can, you want to be a support for these staff members as we fight through it daily.

3.  You are a resource
As a former classroom teacher and current instructional leader, you are an academic resource. Although there is a plethora of distance learning resources that can be obtained online, you know your students and staff. Theoretically, you know what resources will work well with your students and staff. Therefore, although there’s a ton of great stuff on line, don’t hesitate to offer your own suggestions and resources as well.

4. You know your students’ parents
In your capacity of assistant principal, chances are excellent that you communicate with more parents than anyone else in your school. The parents know you and you know the parents. They too are dealing with their own anxieties and emotions in the midst of the Coronavirus. Many of them just want an ear to talk to. It would be ideal if you could be one of those “ears” and they can continue to reach out to you via email or ZOOM. You could also assist your staff where necessary toward them engaging the parents in ZOOM parent meetings. Additionally, in your assistant principal capacity, you work with a number of students. You have helped a number of students. And quite frankly, you have turned around a number of students. With the amount of time that your students may be away from school, much of what you established could potentially unravel. I therefore encourage you to utilize this time away from school to communicate with several of the parents of the students you have worked with and possibly the parent and the child simultaneous on ZOOM for example toward increasing the probability that what you established can sustain itself.

5.  You’ve got to maintain personal balance
As a first year assistant principal and therefore a first year school administrator, I can only imagine how overwhelming this experience may be. You are in this job you worked so hard to attain, and then out of nowhere, you are leading through a global pandemic. Despite the pressures and demands of your new position, it is absolutely imperative that you maintain a sense of balance. Your physical and emotion health is crucial. Self-care must always be a priority. Yes, work hard toward making education work for your students and staff, but balance out your work life with your personal life. In a pandemic, you have a family that needs a large portion of your attention as well. Attend to their needs, but don’t ever leave out yourself. Take time out for your own peace as well. And never lose sight of the fact that you are not alone. There are first year assistant principals all over the world in this fight with you. In the age of social media and particularly Twitter, you actually have access to many of them. Communicate with as many of them as feasible, including the ones in your own district and geographical area. And at the end of the day, remember, this too shall pass.

Even during a pandemic, your responsibilities can be potentially endless. Many children rely on the school for breakfast and lunch for example. A part of your duties might include distribution of meals at your school. Many children may be having difficulty coping with the realities of a pandemic; particularly students in graduating grades - 5th, 8th and 12th. That is a blog post in and of itself. You along with the other administrators and staff may have to grapple with these emotions until more information is made available. The bottom line is that the work is endless....even during a pandemic and as I said above, the communication between you and your principal is absolutely crucial.

For further Principal Kafele writings and recordings, visit principalkafele.com.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The First Year Principal in the Age of the Coronavirus


Yesterday, I wrote a blog post entitled, The Coronavirus and the First Year Teacher, which spoke to the challenges of not only being a first year teacher, but being a first year teacher in the age of the Corona Virus.  While writing the blog post, I couldn’t help but think of the first year principals out there and the added challenges to leading a staff and students in the age of the Corona Virus. Because of my passion for the principalship, I decided that I would follow up my teacher essay with this 2nd essay specifically written for first year principals and to first year principals. I have therefore chosen to write the remainder of this essay in the 2nd person.

Hey new first year principal out there, think back on those years as a classroom teacher when it hit you that you wanted to one day be a principal. You subsequently enrolled in grad school and worked diligently toward your administrator’s degree while simultaneously continuing to teach at a high level in your classroom. Eventually, you became an assistant principal and you served in that capacity effectively for as many years that you did, while keeping your eye on your ultimate goal – the principalship. You yearned for this opportunity for several years. You desired the opportunity to one day lead your own school. You knew that given the opportunity, your school would ultimately achieve at high levels if you were just given an opportunity to lead. Now you are in your leadership position – the principalship – and you have been in your new capacity since the school year began. And now, in the month of March, 2020, something called the Corona Virus has unexpectedly become a part of your leadership reality.

Before I go further, let me say that I was a 4th year administrator (principal) on September 11, 2001. What a day, week, month and remainder of the year that was for me. Graduate school had not prepared me for leading a school in the midst and aftermath of a terrorist attack in the next state over (I was in northeastern New Jersey) that created a school and community-wide panic. I had to figure this out while on the job and in real time. In other words, in school leadership, you must always anticipate the unexpected. It’s simply a part of being an effective school leader.

As you read this essay, you are a first year principal of an empty school building. Your students and staff are at home and social distancing is the order of the day….but you still have to lead. In fact, your school community is counting on your leadership…they need your leadership more than ever. Although your school is closed for an indefinite period of time, school is in session via the various forms of distance learning. As the leader of your school, you must demonstrate leadership from afar…remotely while simultaneously holding everything together. Again, nothing could have prepared you for this as nothing could have prepared me for 9/11, but at the end of the day, leaders must lead. To that end, I would like to offer the following five suggestions:

1.  Your home has essentially become the main office / principal’s office of your school
Said differently, the leadership of your school is coming from your home. As challenging as leadership is within the school, it’s certainly a greater challenge when you are leading from home. To that end, if you haven’t done so already, I strongly suggest that you guide your staff via the utilization of  ZOOM meetings or some other webcam platform so that you can communicate with them regularly beyond emailing them. Because your staff is working with your students daily, it is my contention that you schedule ZOOM meetings with your staff daily or every other day. They don’t have to be long meetings but that face-to-face time is vital toward enabling you to communicate with your staff from afar with everyone hearing the same message while they simultaneously hear from one another and communicate with you. Of course, your meetings with staff do not need to be confined to whole staff meetings. You may want to meet with departments or grade levels or whatever works best toward leading your school remotely. I might add before moving on, that communication with parents during these challenging times is vital as well. This must be encouraged of your staff but just as you and your staff are using ZOOM to communicate with each other, you and your staff can do the same with communicating with parents. It is doable and it speaks to the way that the Corona Virus is going to significantly change the way that schools utilize technology to communicate.

2.  Compliment, encourage, praise and support your staff as often as possible
Remember, you have staff members who are “all in” with meeting the needs of your students but at the same time, like most people, they are dealing with their own anxiety. They have their own families to contend with. Some of them have young children while others are caretakers for elderly parents. When they have a principal who’s knowledgeable and understanding of their various realities in the wake of the Corona Virus, it makes the work that much easier to endure. They can have the confidence that you have their back.

3.  Get as much feedback from staff about your students as possible
Like your staff, your students have their own anxieties. This experience is new to them as well. There has been a complete disruption to life as they previously knew it and it is affecting them in a variety of different ways. Moreover, you can never lose sight of the fact that so many students in schools were “dealt some of the most difficult hands imaginable” at birth. Home life is a challenge for so many students and now it is compounded by the uncertainty of the Corona Virus. Through your staff and as best you can, you need to be able to learn of the current emotional well-being of your students.

4.  You’ve got to maintain personal balance
Despite the challenges, obstacles, pressures and demands of leading a staff and students in the age of the Corona Virus, it is incumbent upon you that you maintain personal balance. Yes, your students and staff need you to lead effectively from afar, but they also need you to be stable and strong throughout the process. In other words, your teachers have you to lean on and your students have their teachers to lean on, but who do you have to lean on? While you are working through your own anxiety relative to the virus while simultaneously leading your staff, balance must always be a priority. Your emotional and physical stability matter. You can never lose sight of your own self-care which includes how you manage and utilize your time.

5.  You are not in this alone
As a first year principal, never lose sight of the fact that you are not alone. You may feel alone from time to time but the reality is that you are not. You have principal colleagues that you can and should lean on in your district. Reach out to them and ask them what they are doing and how they are coping. Perhaps you know principals in other districts. Again, reach out to them as well. Social media and particularly Twitter are an asset that I didn’t have when I was a principal. There are thousands of principals on Twitter and they are definitely talking about coping with the Corona Virus. If you are not on Twitter, I strongly suggest you get yourself a Twitter account and start the process of having access to principals nationally and worldwide via becoming a part of various professional learning networks (PLN’s). Also, don't forget your assistant principals. They are your foot soldiers and you must strive to get maximum productivity out of them as well during this challenging time. Your communication and collaboration with your administrative team must be ongoing. In addition to your administrative team, you have various support staff; both certificated and non-certificated...utilize them. You are not in this alone.

There’s so much more that I could say and would like to say, but then that would become a book. Just know first year principal…you are not alone. Every principal in the U.S. is grappling with the Corona Virus. Incorporate the suggestions I made above and seek out information from others and in the end, you, your students and your staff will get through this and it will ultimately be a thing of the past.

For further Principal Kafele writings and recordings, visit principalkafele.com.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Coronavirus and the First Year Teacher


I remember it like it was yesterday…my first year as an elementary school teacher in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY in 1988. I had never previously taught a day in my life. A class of 5th graders where most had been retained at least once with 100% on free or reduced lunch. I hadn’t started on your normal first day of school. It was November. The previous teacher died the week prior. He was extremely popular and beloved….and then here comes me. Every one of those children were grieving and they exhibited their grief in ways that eventually made me into the teacher I became later. This was certainly the most challenging year of my thirty-two year career as an educator.

I eventually evolved into an effective teacher over the years but that’s for a later blog post. Let’s talk about 1988. By my present standards, I was absolutely horrendous. I was a horrible teacher. In fact, I don’t know if I deserved to call myself a “teacher.” I knew nothing about teaching….and my students knew it. I don’t think I ever had a good day that year. In fact, I state often that if I ever saw one of my former students from that first year, all I could say is that I’m sorry. They are all in their 40’s now. I initially vowed to find yet another career to pursue as teaching was not my initial career choice and my undergraduate major was Marketing. I had therefore concluded rather quickly at the time that I simply wasn’t built for the classroom. Every day was a new challenge, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but every day was so chaotic and hectic. As I reflected upon it during my initial years as a principal ten years later, I thought to myself, “Wow…of that tumultuous year, the vice principal observed me once and the principal never observed me. I had one observation for about a half of a lesson and was assigned to no one to walk me through my new world.” I had to figure this thing out on my own.

To the new teachers out there, I give you this backdrop to talk about you and your first year. I know there are new teachers out there ranging from “I love this work” all the way to “I can’t see myself doing this again next year” and everyone in between. But even the ones who are having great first years, I am willing to bet that you ran into some potholes and roadblocks along the way….you experienced some bumps and bruises on your journey. In fact, this is normal for the superstar veteran teacher as well. Teaching is not easy work. The difference between you and I however is this thing call COVID 19…the Corona Virus…a global pandemic. In my first year, I didn’t have a virus to contend with. My challenge was in the classroom solely, not to mention coming in mid-year after a beloved teacher had died.

Your reality is quite different. You are in your first year. Whether you are having a good year or a struggling year, you have been hit with a challenge that could never have been anticipated…a global pandemic. As a first year teacher trying to find your way under normal circumstances, now you have a pandemic to contend with as well that is impacting all your students, their parents and the community upon which they live. That is not an easy endeavor due to the range of emotions that your students wake up to daily…the uncertainly about the future. As I type, schools are now closed, but when the pandemic first made its way to the U.S., there were so many questions about what the future held as it related to schools.

Schools are closed now but teaching…education has not ended. It just looks and feels different now. Now its distance learning from your home and chances are, as a first year teacher, no one prepared you for teaching through a pandemic in undergraduate school…from your home. So here you are now for example conducting ZOOM lessons virtually. That is not easy to do for your most seasoned teacher. The good thing however, is that like myself entering my first year in a very unusual situation but overcoming it, you too are in an unusual situation but you too will overcome it.

Hey first year teacher, as difficult and frustrating as it may be right now, do not get discouraged; do not entertain quitting; do not second guess your decision to teach nor your skillset. Always keep in mind that this is a difficult time for all of us in our various different capacities. On the one hand, you are a teacher, but on the other hand, you are an individual with a life outside of school. Dealing with a pandemic on an individual basis can be overwhelming in and of itself but when you couple that with the responsibility that you have for your students, it can be downright daunting…if you a allow it to be.

I could go “on and on” on this topic, but I won’t. I wrote these 900 words to simply say to a first year teacher somewhere in the world that “You got this! This will probably be the most challenging year in your career. As you adapt to and overcome this challenge, it will equip you to overcome all challenges. Keep learning…keep growing…keep adapting…and make sure you are collaborating with colleagues…the ones that have your best interest at heart, and you will be fine...and never forget...this too shall pass."

For further Principal Kafele writings and recordings, visit principalkafele.com.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

What Would You Say If a Former Student Came Back as an Adult and Told You That You Let Him or Her Down as a Child?


This title that I chose for my December blog post is a potent one and one that I would think that anyone who works with children in any capacity would feel compelled to stop, pause and reflect upon deeply. I actually think about this daily because I know definitively that I am guilty; particularly with students from my first year of teaching. In full transparency, it is normal for me to share with my audiences that it is always a joy to run into former students or for them to find me on social media and share with me how they are doing in this journey called life. But that one class…my very first class of 5th graders in 1988 in Brooklyn, NY…I didn’t know what I was doing yet….I didn’t know good pedagogy, I didn’t know good lesson planning, I didn’t know classroom management and I definitely didn’t know classroom climate and culture. As I say to my audiences frequently, if I ever run into any of those students who are all in their 40’s now, all I can say is, “I’m sorry.” The truth of that matter is that one did reach out to me about a year ago on social media. I recognized her name as soon as I saw it. She said she had been following me for years on social media and that she is a Columbia University professor now. She gave me a tremendous amount of credit for her trajectory. I was in disbelief but she told me in detail why I mattered to here. My point is that when I reflect back over my years of teaching and leading, that first year was a disaster because I admittedly didn’t know what I was doing and I therefore in my mind, let that class down. When I saw her name, I was emotionally prepared to say, “I’m sorry” which I did despite all of her praise.

How about you? What would you say if a former student came back as an adult and told you that you let him or her down as a child? Would you be able to embrace it? Would you dispute it? Would you resist it? Would you become defensive? Or would you use it as a vehicle to grow? How would you handle it? Most of us as teachers will have our students for one school year and then we become a memory for the rest of their lives (if we left a lasting impression). How will you be remembered by your students? What will they say about you 10, 20, 30, 40 years from the time they are with you as your students? What will be the impression that you leave? Will any of them harbor anger as a result of an incident we simply got wrong….but didn’t realize we got wrong at the time? I had this experience a little over twenty years ago which is what inspired me to write this blog post. In other words, in my first year as an administrator (assistant principal), I suspended a student for an incident that I investigated thoroughly and felt at the time was the best possible decision. The student, a young man, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. I looked into it further because he was so adamant, not to mention that he was my student when he was a fifth grader, so I really knew this young man. He was now an 8th grader. After another full investigation, I concluded that a suspension was in order. Again, I was a first year assistant principal with much to learn. The year was 1998.

About twelve years later, a seasoned principal and now in a different school district, I was working late one night and security came to my office and said I had a late night visitor. He said it was a man and he told me his name. Wow…it was the young man I suspended in 8th grade, but that suspension was erased from my mind. I was excited to see the young man and told security to send him in. As he walked into my office, we embraced and I told him to relax his coat and have a seat. After we got through all of the pleasantries, he said, “Mr. Kafele, do you remember when you suspended me back in 8th grade?” At that juncture, the incident came back to me and I said yes. He said, “I didn’t do it…you didn’t believe in me and I never forgot that. Not only were you my 5th grade teacher, you were my favorite teacher and you suspended me your first year as an administrator for something I never did.” In other words, he essentially told me that I failed…that I let him down. As I indicated with my class of 1988 above, all I could say to this young man is that “I’m sorry and I apologize.” He accepted. We talked for about another hour. We embraced and I haven’t seen him since. I changed that night…not only as a principal but as a human being. I changed forever that night. That hurt. It stung! But I grew!

Hey somebody out there, what would you (or will you) say if a former student comes back as an adult and tells you that you let him or her down as a child? I failed when I made that decision. It was like I failed again when he came back twelve years later and told me he was essentially harboring anger from my decision. It hurts as I am writing and sharing this account with you which is about ten years since I last saw this young man. I therefore wrote this blog post just to say to you to think through thorough EVERYTHING you say and do when with your students at whatever capacity you work. We just never know the implications of our words and our actions. I regret that decision to suspend and can only pray there are no more lurking out there.

For further Principal Kafele writings and recordings, visit principalkafele.com.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

“HAVE YOU EVER SPOKEN TO AN AUDIENCE AS WHITE AS THIS ONE?” (Let’s Talk About Unconscious Bias in the Classroom)


As an education speaker, I speak to a wide array of audiences regularly. Because I have spoken to such a variety of audiences all over the U.S. and different parts of the world, I am very comfortable speaking to all audience compositions, which include when I am the only African American in the room (which is often). As a speaker, I would argue that one must strive to feel comfortable with all audiences if one is going to experience longevity in the world of speaking.

Countless times in my capacity of speaker, I have been the only African American not only in the auditorium, gym, library, cafeteria, classroom, ballroom or meeting room, but I have been the only African American in the entire building when you consider the support staff who are in the building who are not a part of my presentation. In this context, there is this one engagement that will always stand out for me that has probably crossed my mind at least once per day over the past year since it occurred. I was in a state that shall remain nameless where the African American population is rather small with a rather large white majority. I was invited to speak to the entire school district staff at their day long professional development conference via a morning opening keynote and an afternoon closing keynote.

When my contact person invited me, he informed me that the district had no African American educators but that they did have a small percentage of African American students. Since this was not going to be an uncommon experience, my response to him was a simple, “no problem at all…I’ll be ready.” On many occasions when I am the only African American in the room, it is quite normal for me to address the “elephant in the room” early on by making a light joke of the fact that “I guess I’m the only African American in sight,” because the “elephant” is so obvious and blatant in those situations, though not uncomfortable for me at all. After all, I’m a speaker and speakers speak to people…all people.

As I walked into that gym that morning full of educators, I felt a different vibe from my norm. I am accustomed to being spoken to by somebody…anybody. I was alone that morning. No one acknowledged my presence. People walked past me as if I wasn’t in the room. I knew I stood out not only because I am an African American but because I was that one unfamiliar face in the building. I truly felt alone, isolated and invisible in that moment…and I was the keynote speaker. That meant I had some “heavy lifting” to do that day for sure. Consequently, due to the "vibe" in the room, I even refrained from resorting to my normal joke about being the only African American in sight. I didn't think it would fly in this setting.

The morning keynote went well. I don’t mean it produced “amens”  throughout my presentation…lol…but I thought it was productive. As I engaged in my normal self-reflection and self-assessment during my down time, I concluded that the presentation went over well. But it’s that afternoon keynote that motivated me to write this blog post a year later. I walked back into that gym while everyone else was filing in and thought that now that everyone heard me in the morning and was now familiar with me, they would open up to me….not hardly! Again, it was like I wasn’t even in the room. It was as if I hadn’t spoken to this same audience just a few short hours ago. I was invisible! When I was being introduced to come up and deliver my final presentation, I said to myself, “Here we go again….you got this…let’s do this!” As I took the microphone from the introducer, I stood on the half court line of the gym directly in front of a little over 500 faces, all white, with mine as the lone African American face in the room and the first words that came out of my mouth were, “Are there any questions, comments, feedback or concerns about anything I said during this morning’s keynote address?” Whenever there is a break in my presentations with the same audience, I will ask this question 100% of the time before we resume the discussion. Immediately, a woman enthusiastically raised her hand which relieved me. Her hand going up so quickly made me feel that on the one hand, she was engaged in the morning session, and on the other hand, I anticipated that there were probably many more questions to come from others. My thinking in that moment was, “Great…this is going to be an awesome afternoon!” But then she proceeded to ask me a question that literally blew me away. She said, “Have you ever spoken to an audience as white as this one?” Immediately, many in the room began to laugh. I just stood there and looked at my audience. I didn’t say anything…not a word. I just took it all in. I wondered though was the organizer of the event (or the person who introduced me) going to take the mic from me and address this awkward turn of events….it didn’t happen. I wondered if maybe one of the educators in the audience was going to stand up and condemn what just occurred….it didn’t happen.

Time froze for me momentarily. I was deep into my own thoughts in front of a live audience of educators as an African American man…an African American speaker…who now felt completely detached and disconnected from his audience. All sorts of history popped into my head regarding the Black male experience in America. The recurring theme in my thinking though was this feeling of isolation. I thought to myself, “So what you are an internationally renowned and respected speaker, author and educator…that’s not what you are in THIS room in THIS moment.” More importantly though, I thought about that small percentage of African American children who are enrolled in the schools where the members of this audience teach and undoubtedly have their own testimonies of isolation and invisibility (my high school story for another time). Or those African Americans who work in the lonely world of Corporate America for example, and the ongoing feelings of isolation and invisibility that many of them endure (my story too for another time). Time was truly frozen in that moment. The reality though was that I felt compelled…obligated to address what had just occurred on behalf of the African American children that they service.

As I made my way out of my momentary silence and back to my present reality with 500+ educators awaiting my response, the first words out of my mouth were, “Yes, I speak to audiences as white as this one regularly. White teachers across America comprise over 80% of the total teaching force while African American teachers are about 6 to 7%. Since I do about 200 presentations per year, I talk to a whole lot of all white audiences regularly.” I proceeded to ask her why she felt so comfortable asking me this question in this forum, particularly when I was seeking questions and feedback related to my morning presentation. Instead of answering the question, she apologized to me repeatedly. I decided that I would not spend my hour addressing my topic of student and staff attitudes but instead, I would turn my presentation into a teachable moment and talk about the repercussions for African American children when they feel isolated and invisible in white majority classrooms and schools, which would include a discussion on cultural responsiveness, cultural relevance, equity and some of the realities of being an African American male / African American man in America for the next hour. Ironically, this experience was one of those realities.

Between this teacher and the many who found her question funny, I truly believe they didn’t see the wrong and the hurt in their behavior…a clear example of “unconscious bias.” To them, it was probably quite normal and business as usual. In other words, my feelings weren’t considered until I opened my mouth and addressed them to an extremely captive audience. When the day finally ended, many in that audience, led by the woman who raised the question marched right over to me to apologize. Several were crying including the woman in question. Many had long explanations with their apologies and expressed feeling badly about the situation.

As I close, this essay is actually not about me nor my presentation. I’m a “big boy” and I will be fine. This essay is all about African American children. As educators, we must all and we must always “check ourselves” toward ensuring that we leave whatever biases that we may possess at home. Our children cannot and must not be subjected to them. When they are, we run the risk undermining their efforts toward truly maximizing their own potential to be amazing young people and eventually amazing adults.

For further writings by Principal Kafele, visit PrincipalKafele.com

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