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Black History Month Series: Inquire, Listen and Inspire. Becoming the Educator You Needed

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    Cherisse Campbell

Traditionally, Black History Month is a time to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor Black leaders who significantly changed and influenced America’s history. Just as it is important to honor those who came before us, it is just as necessary to acknowledge and spotlight those who are leaders today. During Black History Month, and throughout the year, we will profile a few of the many Black leaders and EL partners who are making waves in education.

This blog post is a part of a series. Read the second and third blog in this series.

I grew up intrigued by my teachers. Most of them were white and middle class and their lives were as magical and mysterious to me as some of the characters in my favorite books. As a little brown girl with working-class parents, I was captivated by the nonchalant way they spoke of their world that was filled with two-car garages, multiple bathrooms in a single house, central air conditioning and in-home washing machines. It wasn’t with bravado that they did this, they were just different. I knew it, but I don’t think they did. Most tried to be “colorblind” and “classblind” which just isn’t possible, but many of my teachers did (and still do) a lot of kind and wonderful things for me. Given what most of America’s students of color experience in school, I consider myself very lucky.

One of my teachers, Mr. Wilkinson, “Wilk”, as we called him, was my calculus teacher and also my track coach. He was a heavy-set white man that was larger than life in every sense of the word. His loud bellow could beckon you back to the practice fields from a mile away. He was the type of coach that kids would call when they were put out on the streets or didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. He got to know his students’ stories. I mean, really know them.  I was very fortunate to have a loving two-parent household and never needed to call on Wilk in a meaningful way, but I knew that I could. For that security, I would have run through a wall if he asked me to.

"This magical power that Wilk possessed, the power to listen and use what he learned to inspire his students to do more than they thought possible, was the reason I wanted to become an educator." Cherisse Campbell, Principal at Amana Academy

But I didn’t. As a first-generation college student, I earned full academic scholarships to every college I applied to, spent my summers doing research for NASA, and graduated with honors with degrees in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. I was set on my path to have not only an indoor washing machine (it was my first purchase out of college) but expense accounts, international travel, and skybox seats. Although my days were filled with meaningful and innovative work, I could not resist the call to move souls. As an engineer, I would volunteer whenever possible to mentor students in the community or do science experiment demonstrations at struggling schools. When that wasn’t enough, I knew it was time to move on. I became a full-time graduate student in secondary science, a teacher, a coach for various sports/activities and eventually a school leader. I was drawn to EL Education and its vision to empower students and adults to do more than they think possible.

"It was there, in a school building while investing in the power of all my students that I had found the magic I was searching for." Cherisse Campbell, Principal at Amana Academy

And this is where the work gets real.  As crew members in EL Education schools, we believe that “academic success is built on strong character qualities of collaboration, perseverance, responsibility, and compassion.”  We do our best to build school communities that balance a “culture of care with academic press,” (Murphy, J., & Torre, D.,2014) because for some students their fate depends on us doing these things well. We endeavor to find the right words and craft the right programs to set our students up to do more than they think possible. However, in navigating this balancing act of care and press, sometimes the best of intentions can translate to the worst of outcomes. We can all think of a time our words to a student or colleague did not quite land how we meant it or a program we designed did not produce the learning outcomes for which we had hoped. Caring and press are complicated constructs with intersectionalities impacted by race, power, privilege, worldview, and skill.

This work isn’t easy and I do not claim to have all of the answers. If anyone tells you that they have all the answers for your specific context, run the other direction. It’s just not true. You are perfectly situated within your school community to get the answers you need to move the work forward. And that’s all we really can ask, just keep moving forward with an open heart and as Schein (2013) calls it, a  “spirit of humble inquiry.” When we inquire without judgment we open ourselves to receive the answers that are already within the minds and hearts in our school buildings. So, if you read this post looking for more answers, the advice I give you is to ask more questions. I am not sure if I have yet risen to my former track coach’s skill level of humble inquiry, but I am trying and I hope that you are too. There are some amazingly rich and beautiful stories within our schools that are waiting to be told. So go forth and inquire, listen and inspire. I can’t wait to see the magic that you help create!

Cherisse Campbell is currently the Principal at Amana Academy in Georgia, an EL Education Credentialed School. As a credentialed school, Amana Academy has implemented the EL model with fidelity and achieved corresponding gains across all three dimensions of EL’s expanded definition of student achievement.

Murphy, J., & Torre, D. (2014). Creating productive cultures in schools: For students, teachers, and parents. Corwin Press.

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.