Once You've Got a Seat at the Table, You Need to Have the Tough Conversations

During my time in school, I only had two Black teachers and they were both female, one in the fifth grade and the other in seventh grade. I never saw myself represented in the teachers who taught me, but that never stopped me from wanting to be an educator. Nationally, only 18 percent of teachers are of color. Out of the 18 percent, 7 percent are Black and of that only 2 percent are Black men. Throughout high school, I was the only Black girl in my honors class. In the 11th grade, I was the only camp counselor of color. Back then, it never really registered with me that I was one of a few. Once I started working in various schools, I found myself one of the only people of color.


Since I was named a teacher of the year, I have found myself, again, being in places where I am the only one. I don’t bring this up to complain, in fact, I am more than okay with it—I am here for it. But it has made me wonder, have you ever been the only one? Do you ever think about how it feels to be the only one? Have you ever been in a situation where you did not see a reflection of yourself in any situation? In February, I found myself sitting in room in Dallas where I was one of five Black teachers of the year out of 55. For a moment, I felt a bit of discomfort, but then, I heard the words of Katherine Bassett, CEO of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), echo in my head: “If you are comfortable, you’re not growing.” During this time, we were preparing for our year of service as teachers of the year. Katherine shared with us a quote from Jane West: “When you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Early in my career, I told myself that I wanted to go where the need was the greatest. I wanted to teach in inner-city schools and give my all to support underserved children. Yet, throughout my career I have worked at schools that do not reflect what I felt were areas of the greatest need. I often have felt that I was not really teaching where I was needed most because I was not there in the communities that I grew up in that needed the most care. That was until I realized that I was right where I needed to be. My experience in underserved neighborhoods allows me to be a voice to my colleagues who may not understand what students who have lived there go through each day. In those moments, I know that I have to be here. I have to be here to speak up for the Hispanic boy in class who you think is being disrespectful because he doesn’t look at you when you speak to him. I have to be here to tell you that he was raised not to look you in your eyes because, in his culture, it is a sign of disrespect. I need to be here to tell you that, even though you thought it was a compliment, the Black students in your class might find it offensive to be told, “You speak well,” and I have to be here to speak up when the test you want to administer may be culturally biased for certain groups of students. Those at the table, be encouraged, and understand that your presence at the table is necessary. While you are there, be unafraid to have courageous conversations, dispel stereotypes, and speak up for all students. When you are at the table, we all are at the table with you!
Kelisa Wing
Kelisa Wing is the author of "Weeds & Seeds: How To Stay Positive in the Midst of Life’s Storms" and "Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline" (both available on Amazon). She also is a 2017 State Teacher of the year, speaker, teacher and activist for discipline reform. Kelisa holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland University College, a ...

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