I made the abrupt decision to resign from my position as school leader—in the middle of the school year. Since then, I have been on my own healing journey, sitting deep in self-reflection, working to heal the trauma and PTSD that I regularly experience as a result of my time in schools.
Friends, family, coaches and mentors helped me to see the ways in which leading in schools stripped me of so much of my power that has taken years to reclaim.
I left because, despite the commitments to racial equity that the school organization boasted about—an organization that served predominantly Black and Brown children—that did not include the fullness of my humanity as a Black woman. My attempts to set boundaries, protect my peace and honor my self-care were deemed selfish and unbecoming of a leader.
In recent months, there has been much discussion in the media about major athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka choosing themselves over their professions—to honor the need to care for themselves and protect their mental health. There was public praise for Dr. Nikole Hannah-Jones who, too, made the decision to prioritize herself and her needs over racist systems in higher education that were harmful in her journey toward tenure.
These high-profile examples of Black women saying no, setting boundaries and choosing themselves should also extend to the work and harmful practices Black women are up against in K-12 schools.
I had not intended to resign from my position as a school leader, especially not in the middle of the year. The weight of my combined experiences, however, was ultimately too much. The pressure to shrink and silence myself so that I would not be criticized for being a tireless advocate for equity—a truthteller—and for engaging in self-care was extremely draining.
Similar to the experiences of Black women in other workspaces, I was deemed difficult, negative, bitter and angry when I sought to advocate for myself and our students. My efforts to center racial equity and social justice by holding other leaders and those in higher positions accountable were deemed problematic. My refusal to be silent ultimately cost me.
I have amplified the tremendous impact that Black women have in and on schools and the ways in which we see, understand and advocate for Black children. And at the same time, I have become increasingly aware that the intersectional inequities of oppressive systems like racism, patriarchy, sexism and capitalism can make Black women’s experiences in the United States nearly impossible. These intersections create and reinforce predicaments that lead to sustained harm.
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.— Toni Morrison
As educators and leaders seek to create equitable school spaces, including equity for staff and students, we must also consider the ways that Black women are uniquely harmed. Black women can and do experience oppression based on racism and sexism, and some also experience homophobia, classism or transphobia. Because schools are institutions that are rooted in white supremacist culture and uphold white and Eurocentric ideas of success, Black women face particularly destructive challenges. Our society has long demanded Black women’s silence and submission.
It must be understood that if the adults who are serving our young people are not well, then young people cannot be served well.
Black women are expected to endure all things, to be all things and to be excellent at all things, especially as it relates to Black children. While Black women are gifted, powerful and beautiful; we are also human. Failure to see the humanity of Black women in schools often leads to overburdening Black women with responsibilities, expecting Black women always to be “on” and hold space for others.
Many Black women educators will admit that to attain promotions or become leaders—despite their expertise and knowledge about Black children—they had to become less of themselves to be respected. This looks like agreeing with policies that are harmful to avoid being labeled “difficult,” choosing not to speak up in meetings on behalf of children, or agreeing to demonize other Black staff, including other Black women, to get ahead. These, too, are measures of white supremacist culture and racism in schools.
Particularly in schools where the student body is predominantly Black and Brown, there exists a deep and toxic burnout culture tied to both racism and capitalism. There is a resounding belief that to “save” children (which is also deeply problematic and racist) everyone must work harder and longer.
Capitalism demands that staff work extra hard to repair systems of inequity, which of course are perpetuated by capitalism, racism and white supremacy. When or if many BIPOC students leave poor, under-resourced schools, they often work in spaces run by rich white people where they are underpaid.
Schools play a role in this vicious cycle and sustain practices that are harmful to the health and well-being of students and staff alike. Upholding toxic burnout culture is the belief that self-care, wellness and setting boundaries are selfish acts.
Schools can normalize wellness and self-care for the entire school culture, including for Black women. As an administrator, I often sought to set boundaries to preserve my physical, mental and emotional health. In doing so, I was told that my “wellness had to look different because I was a leader” and that I was not “a team player.”
My experiences ultimately took a toll on my physical, mental and emotional health. After working for nearly a decade in the public school system, I wasn’t able to best serve my staff and students. I had to leave to be well.
Situations like mine do not have to happen. The harm against Black women in schools is so nuanced and intentional that our approaches to restoring and creating spaces for all people to be well must also be intentional. In that spirit, schools must honor Black women who say no and move away from disparaging a woman who seeks to value herself and, ultimately, her students in this way.
Those in charge of leadership pathways can encourage leaders to understand that they can lead and serve well while also caring for themselves. Schools can create space for mindfulness, art, movement, joy and celebration—inside and outside the classroom.
If schools truly love and care for Black children in the ways that many claim to, they must also care for Black women. Black women are powerful educators. It’s my belief that no one sees Black children in the ways that Black women do, and, therefore, our healing and wellness must be centered.
There exists an adage that to educate a woman, essentially, is to educate an entire generation. When Black women are well, cared for and set free, then by the virtue of our power, everyone is liberated in the process.