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I've experienced many racial equity trainings for teachers over the past two decades that were intended to transform my school's culture. Recently, my school began working with Dr. Lori Watson, and it made me rethink what's possible.
What Hasn't Worked Before
There were a number of reasons previous racial equity trainings did not always resonate with our school community. The timing of the PDs definitely influenced the lack of any shifts. Facilitators were often brought in as reactionary responses to racial events at our school when in fact, the work should have begun long before that. Some facilitators rushed into content without first building relationships with the staff. Others did not find ways to make the content accessible or relatable to all staff. As a result of these mistakes, people did not feel invested in the work.
Introduction to Dr. Lori Watson
Dr. Lori Watson has a way of making you feel like you know each other or at least have been in the same space before. A tall, Black, fiercely but comfortably dressed, almost regal woman, with confidence and a swag oozing from behind a welcoming smile. She had a smooth Southern drawl that would charm the most closed-minded "good ol' boy" who walked into our library. She looked as if she felt right at home. I was fortunate enough to have a few minutes alone to chat before the meeting started and was immediately impressed. The impact she left on me in those few minutes would increase exponentially as she led us through the day's learning. Here's what educators who are trying to facilitate racial justice work can learn from Dr. Watson.
Build Relationships First to Establish Rapport
Dr. Watson had a way of putting everyone at ease when communicating what she was there for. I looked around and saw colleagues focused. Even teachers I had witnessed blatantly rolling their eyes in the past appeared engaged, and even nodding. She did not beat us over the head with how we needed to change, accuse us of being this or that, or even state obvious truths about the closed minds that refused to entertain the idea of differing mindsets. She simply stated that "Race-Work is Love-Work…Humanity-Work".
I looked around the room and saw how such a simple statement resonated with my staff. As teachers, many of us get into education because of our love for kids. Many understand the humanity in all of us. We strive to look beyond the surface level things people often get caught up on, such as race, gender, or intellectual ability. Understanding that when it is all stripped down, all many students want is to be loved is a key component of empathy. How could anyone argue with the love we all desire in this world and the humanity that resides in all of us? Seeing students as humans first allows us to get to the real work of establishing relationships and building the rapport needed to embark on this work.Racial Equity Work That Actually Works: Lessons from Dr. Lori Watson Click To Tweet
Establish Clear and Purposeful Norms
Educators are used to having norms imposed on us. But this was one of the first times I felt the norms were well thought out and explained. They felt purposeful beyond making us pay attention and stay engaged. Dr. Watson was also very clear about her reasons for establishing norms: to make everyone feel acknowledged, heard, and included. Many previous presenters jumped right into norms without discussing the purpose of the norms. Dr. Watson's norms felt very well thought out and specific to this work. As a result, they felt more valuable than general norms we had seen before which could be applied to everyday meetings.
Dr. Watson immediately established some principles for our work together.
"We are not here to single out White people."
"The noise [of instilling fear and dividing people] doesn't tell the truth."
"Stop demonizing anti-racism."
I immediately felt the atmosphere shift and an almost audible relaxing of the tension among many in the room. I am sure many of our staff were apprehensive. Perhaps they had assumptions about how the meeting would proceed or negative experiences with previous racial equity trainings for teachers. But Dr. Watson had a way of "reading" the room that skillfully put us all at ease. Dr. Watson never yelled or raised her voice to get attention. She played music and called us back, and then explained that any time she played music, she wanted us to come back together. She smiled, paused, acknowledged nonverbal affirmative feedback, and gave clear examples of whatever she was trying to convey at that moment.
Use Student Narratives Intentionally
Teachers often hear student narratives meant to cause us to pause and reflect on our teaching practices. Previous facilitators used this practice as well. Either the examples did not resonate with our particular school community, or the delivery of the narratives had an accusatory and shaming tone. Dr. Watson's examples did none of that. She talked about a conversation she had with a student who had been called a racial slur in a classroom. The student knew that it was said loud enough for the teacher to hear it. But that teacher proceeded to ignore it. Dr. Watson asked us to think about how that student possibly felt knowing that "they were in a classroom with a person who was supposed to make [them] feel safe and would let that happen to [them] and do nothing about it."
I had an extremely emotional Selah moment. I immediately felt like this story hit me to my core. I silently prayed I had never let this happen to a student. The way Dr. Watson told the story drew me in. It made me reflect and question my own classroom and experiences I might have had in the past. I had to fight the urge to fall into condemnation and understand that, as they say, "When we know better, we do better." Leaving the past in the past, I vowed to make sure all my students knew that my room was a safe place.
Lead with Inquiry Instead of Blame
Dr. Watson asked us to be open to not only acknowledging but learning from someone else's narrative. Dr. Watson had a way of asking simple, digestible, and inclusive questions. Her technique was a well-designed spin on the concept of learning how to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Some facilitators I experienced in the past would metaphorically (and sadly, sometimes even literally) wag a finger of guilt at us. Dr. Watson gently encouraged us in a way that ensured we would never "dismiss someone else's truth" even if we didn't agree with it or even understand it. She asked us to honestly ask ourselves, "What can I learn from someone else's narrative?" Again, I saw nods from some who understandably shut down at previously ineffective PDs around race work.
Make the "Why" Clear
Dr. Watson not only taught us but demonstrated her "what" and gave us the "why." She showed us a video of Michael Jr. What vs. Why. Transparently, I had seen this clip before, but looking around the room, it did not appear many others had. I felt like I was watching it with fresh eyes as I observed my colleagues and looked at the clip, and followed their reactions.
In the video, Michael Jr. states, "When you know your why, your what has more impact because you're walking in or towards your purpose." Our purpose in education is what drives us to stay. Of course, this made me revisit my "why." Why do any of us stay in education? Why is it important to do the internal work necessary to embark on truly impactful work around racial justice? What part of our teaching practices could "shift" to better meet the needs of our students of color? All of these questions are ones we need to ask ourselves as we think about our purpose as educators.
Our journey with Dr. Watson is just beginning, as our administration has informed us that she will be visiting our faculty once a month. After this news, I immediately felt sad that I had to wait an entire thirty days to "experience" Dr. Watson again. I wanted more, and I wanted it much more often than once a month. This has been one of the few PDs I am actually anticipating. Her relatability, insight, and strategies provided are things many can learn from when embarking on such important work. I learned much more than the important content of the PD. I watched, learned from, and experienced a masterful way of delivering and facilitating any form of PD, especially one that can influence a tremendously necessary shift in our school culture.
Soon come, Dr. Watson. Soon come.
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