Guest Writer: Brielle Stevens
Brielle is a high school English teacher who enjoys writing, running, and traveling the world, pre-COVID.
By now, we’ve all watched the viral video of Amy Cooper in Central Park, NY, threatening to call the police and saying “that an African-American man is threatening my life” before dialing 911. The video has received over 40 million page views and has set off a heated discourse of the weaponizing of 911 against black people-especially black men. While this video has continued the discussions of race and privilege, one aspect that has been lost is the reality for many African-American teachers.
There are tons of “Karens” working in K-12 schools across America, making life for teachers like me hell.
I know this because, for the last eight years, I’ve worked in a school where I have had many encounters with co-workers who have tried to police what I do, I believe, and how I teach my subject.
Example 1: During my first year of teaching at my current school, I decided to opt not to teach the Great Gatsby and opted instead to teach Their Eyes Were Watching God. One morning at the copier one of my colleagues, *Susan, decided to pick up one of my study packets and berate me in front of other staff members on why I was not teaching the chosen grade level novel for American Literature. Appalled, I calmly had to explain to Susan that she was not my supervisor, and I was more than qualified to teach students a novel I deemed fit. I continued to remind Susan that I had a Master’s in Teaching from Brown Unversity and that if my other colleagues could pick and choose, so could I for my students. I remember leaving the copier room, enraged that I had been spoken to like a child and that b.) not one staff member came to my defense when Susan* was clearly out of line.
After the confrontation, I sent an email to our Assistant Principal to make a complaint, but when confronted, Susan started crying and accused me of being aggressive and that she was trying to help. My co-workers who witnessed her behavior decided that they didn’t want to feel the wrath of Susan* and her buddies and declined to comment. It took me months to even muster up the courage to enter the Copier room again for fear that I’d have another ‘confrontation’ with Susan* and cooler heads may not prevail.
But my situation with Susan* isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed the far-reaching consequences of white women who feel like they have power over the black teachers in our building.
For the last eight years that I’ve been at my current school, I’ve been one of about twenty teachers who are African American. Out of the twenty, there are seven black women and 13 black men. I teach high school Math while the others are scattered throughout the different departments in the building. Knowing that there are few teachers of color, have forced us to have a close-knit bond where we can seek solace when issues of race come about-which is often. Our school is in a diverse community on the outskirts of Atlanta, but the majority of the staff are white, middle-aged women who grew up in the community. A stark contrast to our student population, where 65% of our students are African-American/Hispanic, 20% are Caucasian, and 15% are Asian. To an outsider, we are a tight-knit staff that goes to football games and embodies what our community stands for, but behind that, our team is deeply divided by many times by ethnicity, color, and beliefs.
When I watched the confrontation between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, I was reminded that race and privilege is one that isn’t confined to Central Park but permeates what we do in schools daily. From who gets into IB/Advanced Placement Classes to who’s elected as PTA President, to who is promoted many things are done in our school that are beneficial to ones who have the privilege of power not what’s best for students. At our school, we seem to tiptoe around issues that we encounter, and instead of confronting them head-on and looking for solutions, we hide them and our school suffers.
Example 2: Last year, I worked closely with our Assistant Principal to hire teachers who reflected our student population. We decided to go to a job fair in the middle of Atlanta to widen our pool of applicants. One of the applicants they were excited about was a College graduate from Somali who happened to wear a hijab. On her follow up interview at our school, our IB Coordinator, LeeAnn*, asked the girl if she’d be willing not to wear it because some staff may feel like it’s a distraction. Appalled, I interrupted her and asked could we focus on the interview. Afterward, I was called into a meeting where I was called unprofessional and LeeAnn* threatening to go to HR. Frustrated on how I had become the villain, it was not until it threatened to report her comments to HR as being insensitive, that she backed down and half apologized for her behavior.
In the video of Amy Cooper turning on the tears and asserting that Christian was hurting her, there are people in our school buildings who use their privilege to get what they want, and it’s exhausting for my colleagues of color and me. It seems as, before every staff or PLC meeting, we have to strategize on how to get what students need- even if we have enemies. We’re fortunate to have allies in the building who help have outback, but we are always fighting for what’s right and trying to advocate for our students.
Just this year we have:
Advocated for ALL students to take home their electronic devices before this, only the IB kids were able to bring their devices home.
Created an equity committee and worked to have some training around our grading practices that are inequitable.
Worked on advocating for implicit bias training for our entire staff and how we view kids-especially black boys.
While these are great initiatives, we’ve teetered on having productive conversations with colleagues who refuse to see us, our students, and staff. There have been tears, anger, and lots of eye rolls in this work, but we realize that there are staff members in our building who gain power from their privilege. Every time we go against the institution of what’s always been done, we face more obstacles that threaten to make us weary.
Example 3: Just last year, we had a school-wide staff meeting on gang violence, and our local municipality brought in a PowerPoint with pictures of kids (all black boys from our school ) who were suspected ‘gang members’. The proof, they had orchestrated a YouTube rap video that had crude lyrics. Shocked, the teachers of color and our allies in the building were furious and demanded a meeting with our principal and the head of the police force immediately following. We stayed after for two hours voicing our concerns and left weary for our students. The next morning, we had teachers (mostly white women who have had several run-ins with teachers in the building) who wore Blue Lives Matter shirts during the school day. The reaction was so visceral from staff and students that by mid-day, we had parents at the school demanding the removal of those teachers citing a hostile school environment. In the end, the teachers who wore the shirts were given a ‘slap on the hand’ and I know of two who currently in training to be a leader.
The truth that the Karens in education are a very specific type of teacher. Almost always, they have a superior complex where they feel as if they are everyone’s supervisor in the school. They usually have a hard time teaching students who aren’t focused, and kids who are deemed as trouble are targeted on a daily basis. In staff meetings, they like to throw co-workers under the bus for their own gain, and they are antagonistic to anyone who is not a part of their clique. In my school, they hold fast that they were there ‘first’, so that deems that they know more than any teacher-ever. In addition, they like to antagonize other teachers in an attempt that they hold all knowledge.
As I kept rewatching the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, it triggered me to a dark place where we are on race, not on in America but in schools. I know the history of white feminism and black feminism is complicated, but when living it in a building on an everyday basis, it’s even worse. There are so many conversations that must be had, but I am exhausted. I am thankful for co-workers (both black and white) who check up on me when I get weary and remind me that the work of social justice is not one that can be ‘won’ by working a vacuum.
I couldn’t muster up the energy to hashtag a response on social media or even listen to late-night pundits debate what should happen to Amy. All I could do is reach out to friends who understand how I felt and ask how we can move forward in the age of hashtags and Karens.
Note: There will be people who are offended by the term ‘Karen’. That’s okay because I want these same people to be as outraged for people of color when we’re reduced to a hashtag.
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