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School is in….session? Kinda. Sorta.

While we all hoped to be over the pandemic by now, COVID-19 is still out here and mutating and shaking things up in all sorts of ways for this school year.

So I wanted to take a moment to give a little pick-me-up to the educators and students who may be going through it because despite the chaotic noise, Black teachers are still making hella moves out here. 

Just turn your eyes to Memphis, Tenn., where teacher David Jamison has jumped in the national spotlight after teaming up with Gap Kids for its back-to-school campaign. Jamison started gaining popularity in 2019 for inventing different handshakes with his fifth graders.

People like Jamison make me hopeful about this school year. I hope the good news below will cleanse your day during these uncertain times.

Don’t forget to send this newsletter to a few of your teacher friends to show your appreciation for what they do.

The makings of a ‘soul scholar’

When it comes to empowering Black and brown children, Dr. Melanie Desmuke-Battles understands the assignment.

Founder of Scholars for the Soul: An Education Solutions Consulting Firm, LLC, the Little Rock, Ark., native has taught more than 200 educators globally how to help students feel and process their own emotions while learning in a culturally responsive classroom.

“We call our educators and our students ‘soul scholars,’” Desmuke-Battles said. “The purpose of a soul scholar is one who teaches from the soul to reach the souls of our students.”

Throughout her 13 years as an English teacher, Desmuke-Battles has observed what happens to Black and brown students when emotional and culture awareness are absent from the classroom. During her first years as a teacher in Memphis, she said educators would chisel down students’ academic and creative potential with statements like, “These kids can’t read.”

She soon learned the students could read, just not on their grade level. Pressure from both the state and federal level to raise test scores forced educators to teach to the test. This made students’ achievement and skills development a lower priority.

After a student died during a fight in the school bathroom, the school’s culture became one of hyper surveillance. She said it was as if students in this predominantly Black school were being taught in a police state – led by Black teachers and administrators.

“With all that Blackness, you would think there would be more liberation and advocation for more joy, but that was quite the opposite because our teachers were operating from a space of fear and not love,” Desmuke-Battles said.

She saw the same issue when she left Memphis to teach in her home state. A trend of anti-blackness lurked in the classroom, curriculum and culture. Joy was seen as a precursor to trouble. Whenever students became too loud or tried to express through their hair or clothing, it was snuffed out, resulting in students who don’t know how to self-regulate and are emotionally helpless.

“Teachers are getting a lot of training on how to control student behavior, not how to manage an environment where students are agents of their own behavior, and where they see, ‘I have the capacity to choose,’” Desmuke-Battles said. “And that’s hard for a lot of teachers who have been taught that control, quietness and stillness is what a good classroom looks like.”

So in July 2020, Desmuke-Battles started Scholars for the Soul as her way to revitalize the teaching profession. She said real teaching looks like educators who disarm themselves of their anti-blackness or colorblindness so they can become more aware of the problems their students face.

Teachers can co-create an environment with students that allows kids to see their own power by embracing their authentic selves. Then students will start seeing their community as a place they can change instead of a place they need to abandon.

“We want to teach kids that they need to go in and challenge the systems that make the hood a place where people don’t want to stay,” Desmuke-Battles said.

Teachers should be creating an environment where students can ask themselves the following questions:

  • How can I write letters to councilmen in my classroom to ask them to repair the streets or bring in more trash services so my community can look beautiful?
  • How can I create situations in my community where we’re creating gardens in different places so we can decrease food deserts? 
  • What can we, as students, do to spark change because people do listen to children?

In order to educate the next generation of changemakers, educators must start seeing themselves as activists who are working against a system that forces them to see students’ worth through test scores.

Desmuke-Battles said that work starts with self-reflection. That’s where her culturally responsive teacher trainings and Soul+Self Care workshops come in.

The trainings help teachers identify their privileges and biases so it doesn’t bleed into the classroom. Soul+Self Care is a virtual healing space where educators practice restorative practices so they can come to class as their best selves.

“A lot of teachers leave the teaching profession between years one and three because they’re not prepared for the laborious work,” Desmuke-Battles said. “They have been involved with teaching, but it’s also spiritual work. It’s soul work. So, when you don’t connect to the spiritual and soulful side of yourself, you’re finding yourself burnt out because you’re not prioritizing your own care.”

Desmuke-Battles said educators and community members can join the Soul Care Collective so they can start receiving weekly tips and info about Soul+Self Care, holistic wellness, social emotional learning for adults and students, and culturally responsive teaching.

For educators who want to go ahead and set the foundation of self-care now, Desmuke-Battles shared these tips:

  • Radicalize your self-care by prioritize yourself:  In the words of Auntie Rep. Maxine Waters, we’re “reclaiming our time.”  Make the time to treat yo’ self to 10 minutes of quiet time, journal or meditate. Desmuke-Battles recommends setting an alarm for self-care just like you set an alarm for your mornings.
  • Practice gratitude: This is probably Desmuke-Battles most important tip. “Gratitude allows us to recenter ourselves from the calamity of the world and focus in on the beauty and the joy that is before us,” she said. “Sometimes we get so consumed in our stuff that we miss the joyful moment.”

Our “honor roll” of Black excellence

Desmuke-Battles isn’t the only one who turns up the melanin magic when the school bell rings. Here is a roundup of other educators who will energize you with their positive presence for both students and teachers:

Black Joy 101

For our post-secondary readers, what college courses are you taking this year?

I’m pretty sure Finding Black Joy During Pandemic isn’t on your class list. And I’m pretty certain you didn’t expect to have COVID-19 interrupt your college experience again. So as a little cheat sheet to this test called life, I decide to tap two college students from our Young, Southern and Black series to talk about how Ms. Rona changed their view of joy last year and how they are finding joy this school year.

Devin Franklin: After chatting with me about how the South is birthing a Black, queer renaissance, Devin Franklin has now entered their senior year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The pandemic didn’t really slow down their life – it put it in hyper drive.

New episodes of their podcast The Queer Code, which Franklin co-hosts along with now-UCLA graduate student David Parker, are starting to drop. Franklin helped the Black-and-queer-led Birmingham Black Repertory Theatre Collective direct the play “One in Two” by Donja R. Love. Now they are prepping for a statewide tour with Theatre UAB. Whew! Through all the busy work, Franklin said the most important lesson they learned about joy is that it is a state of being and not a fleeting emotion.

Here’s how Franklin is sustaining joy this year:

  • Going to therapy – regularly: “There’s something so helpful about knowing that someone not only has compassion for you but has the additional practical tools to help you move forward and through your life.”
  • Accepting rest as a necessity and not a luxury: “Shoutout to the Nap Ministry (an organization in Atlanta) for constantly reminding me that rest work is liberation work because exhausted people are defeated people.”
  • Expanding when people want him to shrink: “So many systems want me to shut up and be invisible. A little life isn’t the life for me. So think again!”

Alexus Cumbie: A graduate student at University of Alabama, Alexus Cumbie has been spending the past year growing her social justice presence on the ground and on TikTok, where she educates her more than 20,000 followers on how to secure internships in civic engagement and shares her experience navigating southern politics. She has partnered with other “sheroes” across the state as they sharpen their public policy advocacy and leadership skills through the Women’s Policy Institute – a fellowship ran by the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. She also joined the Blackburn Institute at UA, which is all about giving back to Alabamians through civic engagement and leadership.

But Cumbie couldn’t have everything during the pandemic. She wasn’t able to walk for her college graduation in 2020 and her move to Washington, D.C. for a dream advocacy job couldn’t happen. It’s on those days she remembers the most important lesson about joy.

“You have to intentionally find joy,” Cumbie said. “I have to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the things of this world that bring me home to joy.”

Here’s how Cumbie is pursuing joy this school year:

  • Making a list of joy: “When I am out laughing with a friend and they grab my arm to let me know the laughter has overtaken the strength in their body, I write that down at night….The hum of a barbershop razor and the falsetto in Frank Ocean’s “Pilot Jones.” All of those are on the list and when I need joy, I can revisit these to bring me there.”
  • Remembering her grandmother’s wise advice, “What’s for you is for you.”“This mantra reminds me that there are no missed opportunities. Anything that I am meant to experience in this lifetime, I will. Anything that I am meant to be or do, I will have in abundance when it is ready. This is really important as I look for a job when I graduate next May.”

Good luck this school year, y’all and continue to spread your Black Joy! See ya’ next time!