I Cannot Heal Black Children in the Classroom

Ms. Willis
Oct 5, 2018 · 8 min read

It was a Thursday in May 2014, near the end of my first year as a teacher. I was meeting with my principal for a post-observation debrief. On my way down to her office, I was riddled with anxiety. I knew the observation didn’t go well. I already knew what I had done wrong. I already convinced myself I was getting fired. Perhaps on the spot.

I don’t remember much about the actual meeting. “You scored a one in this domain, a two here, blah blah blah.” When I’m told things I already know, I don’t do a good job listening. What I do remember is looking my principal in the eyes and saying, “I think you think that because I didn’t perform well that I don’t care about what I’m doing. I do.”

She sighed and responded coldly, “Ms. Willis, have you ever thought that maybe you weren’t meant to be a teacher? Maybe you should work with children in some other capacity.”


That hit me in the gut like nothing ever did before. Here I was, a first year teacher, finally doing what I felt called to do, only to be told that not only was I horrible at my job but I shouldn’t have been teaching in the first place.

That principal was a bitch. I say that objectively now. In 2014 though, making her out to be Satan’s Spawn — sent to that school to torment me — assuaged my fears that…she was actually right. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a teacher.

“What made you want to be a teacher?”

I tell this cute little anecdote every time someone asks me that question.

“Well, I never wanted to be a teacher,” I always start. I think it’s amusing watching the listener’s face oscillate between confusion and intrigue as I set my story up this way. Without talking, they ask, “Well, why are you teaching in the first place?”

I tell them about the many educators in my family. My mom, who’s been teaching for over twenty years. My aunt, who’s been in education for a similar time frame, but is now an administrator. Another aunt who works for the city government, advocating for youth and education. A cousin who teaches in New York, and my grandmother. Granny was never officially in a classroom, but she taught her children. She taught me. “Everybody is a teacher,” I tell the person. “So it kinda runs in the family.”

Then I tell them how my mom used to take me with her to work sometimes. How I enjoyed those days, seeing her do what she loved, but was always aware of how hard it was for her. How seeing her deal with difficult kids made me say, “I love you mom, but I don’t love what you do. I’ll never be a teacher.”

The person and I chuckle at that part in the story because we both know the hypocrisy in that statement.

I continue, highlighting my past teaching-related jobs — basically giving an overview of my resume post-undergrad. “Teaching just kept falling in my lap,” I’d say, “and eventually I realized how much I loved it.” The listener would nod and smile, and tell me how cool of a story that was.

I’ve perfected that anecdote. It’s almost like a memorized speech now. I move through it pretty quickly whenever I tell it because usually the listener is an acquaintance who doesn’t need a long presentation of my life choices. But if I had the time — and obviously, now I do — I’d go a little deeper into what I saw from my mother that made me initially reject her profession.

I don’t think it was ever her students that gave me pause about teaching. And man, did my mother have some difficult students! There were plenty of times when I visited her school and some sort of fight happened, in her classroom or another. Some kids were just downright disrespectful, and I felt this weird satisfaction when my mother responded to them in the same manner she talked to me at home. I also understood why those same kids came back to her, and called her their favorite teacher.

It wasn’t what happened at my mother’s job that made me adverse to what she did. It was everything that happened after. It was watching her come home tired, mentally and spiritually beaten down at times. It was watching her try to forget how that day had particularly broken her so that she could have something to give me and my siblings. It was watching her have to choose between motherhood and grading papers or lesson planning. It was watching her cherish every small victory she had with a student because she’d be utterly devastated when she thought she hadn’t done enough for another.

It was watching my mother lose faith in a system that she had believed in for more than two decades.

“Our current school system does not care about the completeness of Black children.”

In my eight years as an educator, I’ve been in almost every type of school and district.

I’ve taught in the urban, public school. Where “low-income” and “underserved” are buzzwords for the mostly white teachers who — through gratuitous alternative teaching programs — are using education as a stepping stone for other careers. Where mostly Black students are tired of people trying to “save” them and have the audacity to demand more of the adults standing in front of them. Where communities are considered forgotten wastelands, and it is reflected in the chipped paint on the school walls, or the broken heaters, or the outdated textbooks.

I’ve taught in the private school of an affluent district. Where resources are abundant but agency and autonomy are not. Where Black students are othered by well-intentioned white folk. Where teachers and staff are unaware and willfully ignorant of the plight in the adjacent communities they drive past to get to work every day.

I’ve taught in the public charter school. Where Black schools in Black neighborhoods are ran by white organizations. Where people talk about children in terms of dollars, and their communities in terms of cents. Where students with disabilities are shunned for higher test scores or misidentified for higher payments. Where “school choice” has taken the place of “separate but equal.”

I’ve just about seen it all and although not every school in every district is inherently harmful to Black children, what I’ve surmised — what I know — is that the current school system in America does not care about the completeness of Black children. That is to say, there is no school governed by our school system where Black children can heal fully or exist freely.

I love Black children.

I want Black children to be free.

I want Black children to thrive.

I believe Black children when they tell us how to love them and how to guide them.

I believe Black children when they tell us about their trauma and I trust them while they’re going through the healing process.

But I cannot adequately serve Black children in the classroom. I can’t teach, in this school system, and sincerely fight for them to be the complete, powerful beings that they are. I can’t facilitate Black children’s healing while contributing to a system that ignores their unique traumas and finds innovative ways to re-traumatize them, day in and day out.

So, I have to quit teaching and I don’t ever want to be in the classroom again.

What I imagine for Black lives goes far beyond the reality that these current systems limit us to. Similarly, what I imagine for Black children — the work that I want to do with and for them — goes far beyond what I have done or could ever accomplish in the classroom.

No matter how much I’ve pushed back, no matter how many hours I invest after the paid 40, there is always a standard to align, a curriculum to adhere to, and a “best practice” to follow. I want so much more for Black children than the black and white lines of pedagogical practice and content knowledge.

Deep down, I’ve always known teaching was not my destiny. I knew it when I watched my mother. I knew it when my first principal said it. I know it now, for sure, when I look into my students’ eyes and imagine the world we can build together, only for that imagination to be interrupted by objectives, assessments, and dismissal.

I wish I’d done a better job of knowing and trusting myself. I wish I’d settle on this decision a long time ago or at least before August. The longer I stay in the classroom, the less happy I’ll be, and the less likely it is that I’ll do my job effectively. So, I’m quitting just two months into the school year. And I feel extremely guilty.

I don’t feel guilty for prioritizing myself — and that is what I’m doing even though that’s not my motivation. I understand there are times where my happiness has to come first and I’m getting better at embracing these moments. I don’t feel guilty about making this choice. I feel guilty that this choice comes with a cost and my children have to pay.

I made a commitment to them at the beginning of the school year, feeling and knowing I wouldn’t honor that commitment. I entered silent agreements and formed intangible bonds with them every day knowing I wouldn’t be able to follow through. Seeing my students, knowing that I can’t keep my promise, is a constant tug of war between spiritual life and death. Every hug and “I love you,” every embrace, every smile, every part of themselves they give to me revives and kills a piece of me at the same time.

How do you build relationships with the intent to break them?

I hear my friends and family. “They’ll understand someday.” I know they will. I know most would understand now when I share why I’m leaving them. It doesn’t change the fact that I am leaving them. No amount of healing work I do with children in the future will alleviate the pain I’m inflicting on these children, right now. There’s simply no getting around the fact that in my decision to focus on helping children heal from trauma, the first thing I do is traumatize children.

The irony is heartbreaking.

The world that I imagine and want to build with Black children is one where trauma doesn’t precede healing. Where pain doesn’t accompany growth. Where freedom isn’t in name only. And I can’t wait to help them burn this current school system down and create/build their own education initiatives where those tenets hold true.

That’s the only way I’ll ever teach in a classroom again.

Ms. Willis

Written by

Baltimore. Teacher. Writer. Blerd. Queer. Womanist. Perpetual introvert. Serena is Queen. Beyoncé is Bae. Octavia is my Muse.

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