I do this work from a place of love and a place of pain. An educator of color who started her journey in education as a little black girl at a Title 1 inner city school, I was too often underestimated, second-guessed, confronted by racism, and surrounded by lowered expectations. I fought hard to prove myself time and time again, to transform trials and tribulations into triumph. But my degrees, awards, and accolades mean nothing if people don’t know my “why.” The reason I am in this work is because I care… so deeply, in fact, that it hurts sometimes. My experiences shaped me into the school leader I have become today and deepened my commitment to this work.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world quickly pivoted to remote learning, forcing school leaders to redesign the entire educational system overnight, teachers were hailed as heroes. That is, until people grew weary of quarantining. Protests to reopen schools denigrated virtual learning, negating the time, energy, resources, and planning poured into this model. Health experts and politicians pressured schools to reopen before securing adequate funding or further discussion of the extensive resources needed to make in-person learning safe for all. Teachers were faulted for fear and anxiety over COVID, accused of not wanting to teach. Administrators were blamed for COVID outbreaks and disjointed educational experiences caused by school closures and pivots back and forth between virtual and in-person learning. Educators were forced to choose between their lives and livelihoods. Initially hailed as heroes, they were now being told to teach or quit.
And then there were principals like me caught between a rock and a hard place. Rarely acknowledged in the trenches, we were invisible, working tirelessly behind the scenes to create safe, positive learning environments under a barrage of complaints and criticisms. Few seemed to understand the complexities of our role and the endless amount of work it entailed. We were torn. On the one hand, we were very aware of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and individuals with disabilities, and we owned the importance of remote learning. On the other hand, we recognized a dire need for students who were unsuccessful learning online to return to a brick and mortar building for in-person instruction. Principals were also caught in the political crosshairs of school boards, teachers’ unions, government officials, health experts, employees, and families who all had competing interests, needs, and motivations. There was a national assumption that learning in person was best, but at what cost? Closer examinations of historical achievement and opportunity gaps between demographic groups called this into question, but who would be courageous enough to challenge this assumption? This was a prime opportunity to reimagine education by revolutionizing virtual learning, but were we missing the moment in this push to return to the status quo? Moreover, we were battling not just one pandemic, but two – the pandemic of racial injustice evidenced by rampant examples of police brutality captured on video.
So, I set about preparing for a year like no other. I updated my will, life insurance policy, and got my financial affairs in order. I couldn’t care for my family or my school community without first taking care of myself. Just like on an airplane, I had to place the metaphorical oxygen mask on myself before putting it on those who rely on me. Educators were being ordered to march to the front lines of a war that we hadn’t signed up for. Yet, we pressed onward.
As a kid, I was taught to hold my head up high with an omnipresent smile. Never let ‘em see you sweat. Don’t put your business out in the street. And Never. Ever. Cry. I learned early on that the feelings of little black girls like me weren’t held in as high regard as my peers. I didn’t have the privilege of showing emotions without being seen as a threat, weak, or portrayed as a mad black woman. These life lessons followed me into school leadership.
I learned to model calmness and composure in the midst of raging storms as the world burned around me. And in 2020, it literally burned. From wildfires to fiery protests against racial injustice, flames lit the night sky etching embers into our hearts and searing them into our minds. In the wake of the George Floyd protests spanning from coast to coast, I fought flashbacks of Walter Scott, the unarmed black man shot in the back by police in Charleston, SC on April 4, 2015. I knew him well. To me, he was far more than a statistic. A former deacon at my church, “Deacon Scott” was a lead singer on our gospel choir, dynamic drummer, and my former mentor in the music ministry. I stifled tears reflecting upon memories of The Emmanuel 9 just over the bridge downtown, murdered in cold blood during Bible study by a self-proclaimed White Nationalist itching to start a race war. I relived the dichotomy of despair and hope during President Barack Obama’s soul-stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” as I sat in the pews at Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. Rage swelled within me when black churches, including mine, were vandalized by gunshots in the aftermath of these events in my hometown. I remembered fearing for my personal safety and that of my children, who were afraid to attend church after these incidents. But I couldn’t share these emotions out loud. Sharing emotions isn’t safe for people who look like me.
The crises of 2020—social justice, public health, and the ensuing economic crisis—brought the fight to my front door once again as loved ones became infected with COVID and died. Then, members of my school community contracted COVID. With so many casualties of the pandemic, I felt helpless. People looked to me for guidance, leadership, counsel, and answers. But how could I help them when I was waging the same war and fighting the same battles?
The answer came to me swiftly and clearly. My life’s purpose was hiding in plain sight within the very meaning of my name, “life” in Swahili. After the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, I could remain stoic no longer. I defied past messages not to emote, embracing moments of vulnerability with my staff during Zoom meetings and in weekly email updates. I shared my personal stories of overcoming racial trauma, empowering others to do the same. Allies felt inspired to take action. When educators asked me, “What can we do?” I seized the opportunity to enlist their assistance to disrupt dysfunctional cycles in our schools. I interrogated inequitable policies and practices in education, acknowledging the legacy arm of Jim Crow deeply embedded within the American educational system through the school-to-prison pipeline, overidentification of Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students into special education, and disciplinary systems. Collaboratively with school teams, I set about actively dismantling those systems at my own school through anti-racism and culturally responsive teaching. We began shifting the calculus from a culture of blame and shame to an oasis of opportunity and hope. We celebrated students’ accomplishments and recognized them as children of promise rather than children with problems. I charged my school community to…
During the 2020 presidential election, I organized support groups for staff to provide safe spaces for adults to share feelings. I modeled vulnerability to encourage them to provide similar safe spaces for their students. As I transitioned from one school community to another during the pandemic, I encountered new challenges of connecting with people I had never met before in person, people I wouldn’t get to meet in person for many months. New challenges… How would I build trust, provide social and emotional support, and keep it all together? Lead by listening.
I encouraged educators experiencing emotional exhaustion. Compassion fatigue. Burnout. I pressed forward, observing classrooms in person, donning PPE—my mask, face shield, gloves, and heading into the thick of things to show teachers that I would never ask them to do something that I was not willing to do myself. This was warfare against an invisible enemy, and I would not abandon my troops on the front lines. I offered words of praise and dropped positive notes and messages in their mailboxes, inboxes, and virtual meeting chat boxes. I chose to…
But this mantra proved especially difficult when my dad, who lived several states away, was rushed to the hospital at the launch of in-person learning. While his illness wasn’t COVID-related, it was life-threatening. I couldn’t visit him due to travel restrictions and hospital guidelines. In the midst of this, I was in the process of hiring for several open teaching positions while fielding anxious COVID questions, concerns, and angst from staff and families. The next month, I lost two close members of our church family within a week of each other. One was like my adopted grandmother. My mother, who was their pastor, eulogized them both while serving as the primary caregiver of my ailing father. I admired her strength, in awe of her drive to keep moving forward despite her circumstances. I attended the virtual funeral services and moments later logged on to a mandatory Zoom call with my superintendent. The expectation to function normally under circumstances that were anything but took a toll. But there was no time to stop, breathe, exhale, or grieve. I held out hope for the holidays, but the seasons came and went with only virtual visits on Zoom, Amazon Echo, and FaceTime because I didn’t want to potentially expose anyone to the virus. When my staff shared their own stories of spending their first holidays isolated away from loved ones, I empathized deeply. As hard as it was, with a heavy heart and tears stinging my eyes, I realized now more than ever that I desperately needed to…
Then, my husband was furloughed just before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, his organization being the latest COVID-19 casualty in our lives. We didn’t know how we were going to make ends meet to support our four school-aged children but held onto hope that this season wouldn’t last always. In the face of adversity, I chose to rise. Phone calls punctuated my mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays with the unfortunate news that another person I knew had tested positive for COVID. As I listened empathically to heartfelt stories from families who had lost as many as six relatives during the course of the pandemic while still being expected to work and send their kids to school, my heart ached. Why couldn’t the world just stop spinning for a minute? Why were so many people intent on plowing full steam ahead without acknowledging the impact of prolonged crisis management? The needs were so great, and they were all laid at my feet to fix, respond, answer… to save. But how could I save them when I couldn’t even save myself? Were my words even making a difference? Yet, I heard the resounding moral imperative.
I couldn’t fix it all. Silver and gold had I none, but such as I had, I was willing to give. Words of Life. Hope. Truth. Inspiration. And so I shared them freely and unapologetically, realizing there was a great deal of uncertainty in the air, bringing with it anxiety, fear, anger, disillusionment, and questioning. I found that these questions often led to blame. Why weren’t teachers doing more? Why wasn’t the principal doing more? Why weren’t school districts doing more? And then rationalizations and swerving outside of our lanes.
While these reactions were very understandable, this type of communication was not helpful. I solicited the patience and understanding of my school community while sorting out the messy nuances in this COVID era. No one had all the answers, not even the experts. This was new territory for all of us. The Coronavirus itself was novel, although the pandemic of racism had a long, ugly history imbuing the fabric of the American conscience. If there were any silver lining, it would be that there was finally an acknowledgement and renewed energy to fix what was broken. Federal, state, district, and school-level policies were being reviewed and rewritten for these changing times. New challenges in this new school year offered new perspectives and new opportunities to shift our thinking and embrace a growth mindset. I implored my team to lean into discomfort. We now had the opportunity to live out the true meaning of our mission. It wouldn’t be easy, but we could do it as long as we supported each other through it all. We were compelled to…
I acknowledged the very real impact of COVID on our school community. For affected members, there were feelings of isolation, loneliness, sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame. We were all dealing with loss and grief on some level. In moments of uncertainty when there were more questions than answers, I challenged our community to uphold each other and treat each other with grace and love. Speak kindly to each other. Watch our tone of voice. Ask politely rather than demand. Don’t complain. Offer solutions. Work collaboratively. Assume best intentions. Agree to disagree. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Avoid negative communication patterns and intentionally hunt the good stuff. The task ahead?
Things began to change, not necessarily for the better or worse, but just… different… perhaps more meaningfully. People began to truly see each other and sit with each other in our discomfort to offer consolation. They shared personal stories of impact. The impact has been felt far and wide by students and families struggling to make sense of it all. But in the midst of the darkness, a glimmer of hope, a sliver of sunlight… and then a glorious daybreak.
There is so much more to leadership than meets the eye. Like an iceberg, only 10 percent is visible above the surface, but the greatest mass lies beneath the waves. We just have to trust each other, respect each other, and honor each other’s humanity with dignity and humility. Leadership without love is nothing more than empty words, a “sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal” (1Cor. 13:13). Our words have power. To lead with love, we must be willing to…
This post is an excerpt from Caring in Crisis: Stories to Inspire and Guide School Leaders.