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Guest Writer: Jheanell Lumsden
I remember leaving my classroom after teaching one of my toughest classes and crying in the bathroom of my placement school during my student teaching practicum. This was something that happened quite often. I constantly felt like I was drowning and I would often question whether teaching, in urban communities, was my calling. When I did my research, I realized this was a sentiment shared by a lot of teachers, expressly teachers of color. According to Amanda Machado, teachers of color left the profession 24% more often than their white counterparts. So, I knew the odds were against me and this reality weighed heavily on me. More so, I wondered if that statistic is even greater when the teacher was also an immigrant themselves.
I’m a 24-year-old Jamaican teacher, who taught English Language Arts in the United States for 2 years before returning home. During those 2 years, I would struggle to balance my social life with the stresses of being a new teacher: the lack of sleep, generating new lessons on a daily basis, grading stacks of essays and papers, preparing students for state exams, adjusting to the policies and procedures of a new school, and working in a high needs and low resource environment. In addition to these challenges, I was working to not seem too “black” in the workplace, frequently (but proudly) answering questions about my Jamaican background, providing support for my students of color and my immigrant students who were terrified in the current political climate. This added to the mental and emotional stress of being a new teacher. According to John King, the former U.S Education Secretary, this is known as the “invisible tax” that teachers of color experience during their jobs. Again, I wondered if immigrant teachers, who were also adjusting to a new culture, language, and traditions, paid an even greater “invisible tax.”I was working to not seem too “black” in the workplace, frequently (but proudly) answering questions about my Jamaican background, providing support for my students of color and my immigrant students who were terrified in the current political… Click To Tweet
I knew my intersectional identity as a black, immigrant, and woman placed me in a unique situation as a new teacher. Self-care was always emphasized in my teaching program, but I felt that there weren't self-care tips that fully captured the complexities of a new teacher who is black and an immigrant working in high needs communities. There are extra layers of stress and inner conflict when race and nationality are added to the first years of a high-stress job. I would often turn to my colleagues (some who were teachers of color and some who were immigrants but there was never someone who had that similar combination), but I felt like they couldn't quite understand the cultural norms of self-care and how they differ in my culture vs. the American culture. Also, they often failed to understand the different forms of self-care that a black teacher in a predominately white school would have to undertake.
Complexities of Self-Care for the Intersectional New Teacher
Adjusting to being a new teacher, coupled with the issues that arose due to my intersectional identity, led to a whole host of unique problems that have contributed to a more emotionally draining journey thus far. Here are some of the aspects of my experience that complicated my self-care capabilities:
I had to internalize the fact that I was the only black immigrant student-teacher in my teaching program, one of the few black classroom teachers at my placement school and then the only black classroom teacher at the first school I worked at. This led to feeling very conscious of my race and often times I would code switch, and then have to work through the isolation and self-consciousness that comes with being one of the only black and immigrant teachers in a school. In the broader national context, it was hard being continually confronted with my own position as a black, immigrant, a woman in a nation with institutionalized racism and police brutality towards black citizens, and where intolerant opinions towards immigrants have become more overt since the election of Donald Trump.It was hard being continually confronted with my own position as a black, immigrant, a woman in a nation with institutionalized racism and police brutality towards black citizens, and where intolerant opinions towards immigrants have become more… Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, the racial demographics of the school staff didn’t represent or match the racial makeup of our student body. My own identity has made a lot of students comfortable with asking me questions about their fears of being an immigrant in the current political context, or questions about being a young person of color in the United States. This can be emotionally difficult because, while traversing your own internal battles, you’re helping vulnerable groups of students with difficult and sometimes uncomfortable matters as they emerge into adolescence within a society in which they sometimes feel unwelcomed.
Adjusting to a new culture also presented its own challenges. As immigrants, we’re undertaking the task of acclimating to the customs, norms, history, language, and traditions of a new country. This can take a toll on us as we struggle to function in a place that could be dissimilar from our own homes. It takes time to digest all the nuances of a new culture and in the case of living in the United States, I had to get used to being labeled a “minority” and all its implications, when I was a part of the majority in Jamaica.
Furthermore, I had to navigate both the racial and cultural norms of self-care. In the Caribbean, mental health is often disregarded and our emotional pains are undermined or delegitimized as just “stress.” Also, it is expected that we uphold the “strong black woman” trope and handle our mental health in private while maintaining a tough, we got-it-together exterior. Therefore, we may feel ashamed of turning to others for help, or opening up about our own feelings, especially with other black persons and/or immigrants. Additionally, growing up with Caribbean parents, who invested in my American college education, meant that I had to work hard for myself but also work hard in order to honor their sacrifices. I knew I had to be extremely diligent to make them proud. So, I felt like I had to work twice as hard to feel as if I was half as good a teacher compared to other new teachers. This meant that I suffered from severe guilt that I wasn’t doing enough, or that I was letting my students down whenever I felt sick or needed a day off.
So, what can you do as a black, immigrant teacher to take care of yourself?
- Diversify your lessons as much as possible: As much as your school allows you to, incorporate black and/or immigrant authors, scientists, activists, public figures etc. in your classroom practice. Highlight these groups of people who are typically excluded from the school curriculum. As an English teacher, I used supplemental texts as an avenue to create lessons and have critical dialogue about some of the issues that many of my students are experiencing and have their voices heard in a meaningful way. It was empowering for both myself and my students to be able to read pieces by people who were like them rather than solely focusing on the writers that are a part of the literary canon. You’ll be surprised the impact it will have on your own mental health to be celebrating people who share experiences with you in your workplace and sharing that with your students.
- Honor your cultural norms of self-care: Each culture may have their own specificities and norms when it comes to taking care of oneself. During my college experience, I felt guilty because the college party culture didn’t interest me and it’s quite common in Jamaica for people to be homebodies as a form of taking time for oneself. It’s important to uphold your cultural norms (if you subscribe to them) because they may work much better for you. So, don’t feel guilty if your cultural norms of self-care differ from your friends or colleagues.
- Find a support group: Find a group of people that you can turn to when you feel exhausted by the job and/or by the immense payoff from the invisible tax that teachers of color face. Unfortunately, you may not find people who are in the exact situation as you, but in addition to my friends, I would turn to my mentor teacher who was a black teacher, or fellow immigrant student-teachers. This would help me to decompress after tough days or exasperating incidents at school.
- Keep connected to people from home: I kept in touch with people from Jamaica and these connections made me feel closer to home. I tried to keep my culture close to me even though I was in a different country. It may be really helpful to find spaces in your community that remind you of home be it restaurants, places of worship, markets, clubs, bars, clothing stores. It’s nice to be able to escape the American culture and step into somewhere that makes you feel at home (in whichever way).
- Don’t give up things you love to do: As teachers, we give so much of ourselves to our jobs and our students. As teachers of color, we sacrifice a lot of ourselves on a daily basis through code-switching, providing solace for a lot of our students of color, etc. So, it’s important to hold onto things that we are passionate about and follow things that make us happy. I was a dancer for over 10 years but once I started teaching, I gave it up, which definitely negatively impacted my happiness. However, I turned to writing as a healing platform and continue to use it as an outlet for my emotional adversities. Find something that keeps you sane and try as best as possible to stick to it; trust me, it can be a saving grace.
- Find different resources for help and guidance: I worked hard to find resources that were specifically tailored to my experience but sadly to little avail. So, I would write down tips that worked for me in addition to finding people on Instagram or Twitter who were teachers, writers or educators in some capacity which helped me function on a daily basis both inside and outside the classroom. Some resources and some of these accounts that have helped me and continue to help me are: Valencia Clay, Rupi Kaur, Alexandra Elle, Nayyirah Waheed, and Back to School: A Survival Guide for Teachers of Color (which has a wide range of resources for creating a decolonized, anti-racist, and harassment-free lesson plan and classroom culture, resources for finding support groups and resources for receiving donations).
- Work to unlearn the unhealthy expectations of mental health: Make a conscious effort to deconstruct the toxic views towards mental health within the black community, and/or the communities of your home country. It’s an ongoing process, but learning to acknowledge that our mental health is real and quite impactful to our lives, is key to our survival. Further, learn to reach out for help when necessary; while we’ve been taught to deal with our issues on our own, it can be a harmful way of coping - so get help if necessary. Here is a list of Therapists who provide high quality and culturally competent services to Black women and girls. Use this resource as a starting point to work through the difficulties we may face in our jobs and lives.
- Take time for yourself, listen to your body and be forgiving: While it’s so important to be available to your students, especially those who really rely on us for guidance, you need to take days where you eat lunch in your classroom with a closed door, go home at the sound of the bell or take a day off. You’re not letting down your parents, yourself, or your students and it definitely doesn’t mean we’re not good teachers. In fact, we need this time to recoup in order to be better teachers for our kids.
Despite it all, trust that you are making a positive impact on your students (even if it doesn’t feel that way every day) and that your presence is needed, important and valuable in these communities.
(a note from one of my students of color given to me at the end of my first year of teaching)
Please note: This article is intended to provide the black, immigrant, woman perspective of self-care for new teachers. However, these tips can be applicable to other persons of color who are in similar circumstances. Also, I encourage you to make your own list of self-care tips that capture your unique experiences as a teacher with an intersectional identity. It’s so important for you and your students.