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“Thank you for helping me feel seen.” As educators who advocate for equity in education, some of us might expect this statement from a student. So would it surprise you that this was from a teacher?
I recently returned from a four-day teacher leadership academy where several veteran teachers presented on various topics, including “Community, Culture, and Relevance.” Our task was to provide early career teachers with tools they might use on their first days of this new school year. We also set them up with potential mentors who would help to guide them through the start of their careers.
While I had incredibly diverse, knowledgeable, and engaging colleagues and co-presenters, I was also pleasantly surprised by the beautiful diversity of new teachers in the room. White, Black, Asian, Latinx, fresh from their first year in the classroom and second career educators, and a variety of other “differences” all came together to embark on a few days’ journey to become better teachers. Little did I know, I was going to learn a lesson on why it is so important to feel a sense of belonging to a community as an educator. I have always put a lot of effort into ensuring that my students feel welcome. However, after three days with fellow educators, I would soon learn why ensuring fellow educators feel a sense of community is just as important.
Being the type of person I am, I have always been naturally drawn to anyone I feel stands out in a crowd. Whether it be in a room full of students, or a room full of educators, I am always looking for the one who might not fit the “norm.” I love to seek out the culturally ambiguous, the one with the colored hair, the tattooed teachers, and those on both “spectrums” of either super outspoken or unnaturally shy. I remember complimenting on “dope purple highlights” that were impeccably done in one early teacher’s jet-black hair. I remember taking a picture with the guy in the Tupac shirt. And I remember making it a point to speak more than once to the one teacher at our table that seemed the most reserved. Looking back, I realize that I made this effort to create a sense of community with teachers the way I do with students. I have been a mentor for years, but this experience showed me that there is more to mentoring than just providing feedback on lesson plans and activities. Sometimes, just noticing what makes another unique is a form of affirmation. It can be a vital ingredient to create community among educators.
In my journey to make relationships, my eyes became more drawn to the beautiful art several teachers had tattooed. It started with a request to photograph a beautifully intricate and detailed flower, then to an almost angelic bird sitting on a branch, then to a dragon, then to a full back mural of a road with trees and inspirational words, and my sharing my own Native American tribal feathers. I really had no idea what I would do with the photos, as I was tasked (along with others) to capture photos in the event for our website. I did not plan to post these, but something drew me to the beautiful body art. I had no idea that my small gesture would lead to an impactful moment for another and a learning experience for me.
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A Simple Gesture
It was my final day at the conference. I had presented the day before and was happy to participate as a learner. I learned so much from not only my veteran colleagues but was truly invigorated, nourished, and refreshed by the youthful energy epitomized by the fresh ideas, creative lessons and activities, and great conversations I experienced over those few days. I was saying my goodbyes as we concluded the day and before I had to head to the airport. Then, one of the early career teachers stopped me and opened up.
“You know, I just wanted to say thank you.” I came back with the customary “You are so welcome!”
“I was honestly nervous when I came here. That’s why I put my hair up”. I soon realized that she was not referring to the content shared in the academy. “I looked at the website and did not see anyone who looked like me. You know, colored hair and all”. I didn’t immediately respond as I wanted to give her space to convey her feelings. “And I saw people with button-ups, so I made sure to cover my tatts…”
As I listened, I felt both surprised and immensely grateful she felt comfortable enough to share this with me. Here was a beautiful teacher, with her colored hair in a modest ponytail so as to not draw unwanted attention, and a dress that covered her body art.
I put my hand on her arm in what I hoped was an encouraging gesture as she uttered the words, “Thank you for helping me feel seen.”
I almost didn’t know what to say. Then, I saw the gratitude in her eyes and said what I thought would solidify the moment. “We tell our students all the time to be themselves, and I love your hair and your tatts. It’s important for everyone to feel seen”.
It’s The Little Things
As I sit and reflect on this moment, I am in awe at the impact we as teachers have on not only our students but our colleagues. How many others, whether early career or seasoned educators, don’t feel truly seen? How many others are hiding who they truly are to fit a “mold” they feel they need to fit to feel accepted as part of the norm? I had no idea that admiring someone’s hair color, choice of shirt, or tattoos would have such an impact. I am one who has always looked for those who, in my mind, stand out in the crowd.
This was yet another lesson for this “veteran” teacher: it doesn’t take much to make someone feel seen, heard, or even acknowledged. As we prepare for a new school year, we need to put just as much effort into these important efforts to reach out to our colleagues as we do our students. It’s not just about creating safe spaces for our students but for our colleagues as well. You never know if you might just be that one who makes someone feel like they are finally being invited to bring all of who they authentically are to the table and finally feel like they also belong to this vast and beautifully diverse community of educators.
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