I sat with Will at the picnic tables in back of Pizza Delicious and told him I loved him but didn’t want to be together “romantically.” This was about chapter 17 of our love story where one of us would break up with the other, only to change our minds a couples weeks later. This was amidst an all around confusing year for me, fresh out of college and living in New Orleans for the first time, having to figure out my purpose and my identity as a teacher in a public charter system that seemed so flawed but was revered by many as being “high achieving” or “amazingly successful.”
Throughout this first year teaching in 2012 - 2013, I sought out leadership from community members in New Orleans including UTNO (the United Teacher’s Union of New Orleans) as well as the New Teacher’s Roundtable and a program called SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). Thank goodness I was compelled to seek out these groups and people, or else I would have done a lot more harm than good my first year as a teacher. Through the mentorship of these programs, I not only learned how to be a better teacher, but also how to respect and honor a culture different than my own; in that way, I learned to be a better person.
One lesson I kept receiving was to be patient, and realize that my intervention and leadership would not always be useful or necessary. Even people with the best of intentions are capable of causing great harm to the communities they claim to serve, if they execute policies with the absence of patience and reflection.
The charter school system in New Orleans has a complex history. However, a few facts are important to note: before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans consisted of publics schools and a predominantly African American teaching and leadership staff. After Katrina, a large majority of this teaching staff was fired, public schools were shut down, and the power was passed off to privately run charter schools, who hired predominantly transplant, young, white teachers from programs like TFA and TeachNOLA. I was one of these teachers.
While in some instances test scored rose, in others they did not. And more importantly, there was and is an undeniable pattern of disempowerment and disrespect in the methods of implementation. In my three years of experience teaching in four different school settings, I can genuinely say that not one of my principals or leadership teams effectively represented or reflected the student body in terms of race or class. Teaching practices were often insensitive and assumed a lot of negativity about the students and families we “served.” The decision makers at these schools were people who did not have a clear understanding of who our students were and what they needed most from their schooling. Therefore, we shoved down information and policies thought to raise test scores and send kids to college. If our systems didn’t work we tried again. But never in this process did I witness a leadership team step back and exercise patience; the type of patience that observes without judgement; the type of patience that leans in with open ears and accepts responsible when necessary; the type of patience that is open to hearing any solution, including that you yourself are not leader for this particular march.
Will told me he thought I acted like a frog in boiling water; whenever I was faced with a bit of doubt, I jumped hard. Because of this pattern, I kept jumping because I wasn’t finding closure in my decisions. He was 100% right. It was too uncomfortable for me to sit in the unknown. I had been taught all my life that if there’s a problem you find a solution and fix it. For the first time in my life, in both my personal and my professional life, I was seeing problems and experiencing discomfort that I didn’t know how to fix. The lesson here was that sometimes the solution is a long road of patience and figuring out; taking a small step in one direction and then reevaluating after some reflection.
I am one year into my new career as a SoulCycle teacher and fitness instructor. There is so much about my new life that brings me joy and fulfillment in a way I never experienced working in a failing school system. However, there is a clear knowing in my heart and my gut that part of my purpose on this earth involves fighting against unjust systems. Sometimes I think that might be in the form of educating white students to be more attuned to racism. Other times I think that might come in the form of providing a work training program for formerly incarcerated people to be exposed to the fitness industry as a potential career path. The instinct to be the frog in hot water— to leap from job to job or city to city— still exists within me. But I’ve adopted a new voice of reason that asks me to sit and breathe. This voice tells me to start with a few conversations and a phone call or two, and trust that my connection to this work will become clear, but to prioritize patience. This way, when I am next in the position to implement my work, I am doing so with clarity of purpose and alignment with my truest values. I am listening to the people I am serving to take my cues, and I am not set on putting myself at the forefront of the mission, but open to being a pillar of support for someone else to lead the march.