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Perspective | Shaping Black futures today and for years to come

On a given weekday, you can find me at my kitchen table struggling to persuade my two teenage children that the hours they spend slogging through online classes are going to prepare them for their futures. 

Lately, convincing them has felt nearly impossible. 

When going through the motions of daily tasks, it’s easy to long for the comfort of kids being back in school. But when I’ve adopted a more reflective, thoughtful frame of mind, it’s easier to acknowledge that with everything happening in the world today, I’m sometimes not sure if my own Black children are better off at home with me.

You see, I remember my teaching years — my students were like my own children. I used the same “mom look” to remind them to give their best, I ate lunch with them and found out what was on their minds, and I taught them the same lessons that I wanted my children to learn as they grew up. As a Black educator teaching Black students, I made sure that they knew that they were my kids until they went home to their own mom. I hope that I’m sending my children to teachers who will do the same for them; and I believe that is even more likely the case when that teacher looks into their Black face and sees themselves.  

When a parent sends their child into a school building, they are trusting others to care for their well-being as much as they would. And in a time such as this, when children are struggling to make meaning of school in new and different ways and the world is showing us that the things that we’ve put our trust in are more fragile than we’ve known, I choose to ground in the belief that right here in North Carolina, our community is working to help secure for our children a future filled with possibility. A future that can be seen in the faces of educators looking back at them when those faces are Black like their own. 

In my career, I’ve been privileged to connect with many educators who faithfully prioritize the needs of students on a daily basis. On my path to reconnect with Black educators and see how they were caring for their own Black students at such an unprecedented moment in time, I spoke with three who are living and working in Guilford County: Gregsha Lee, a teacher a Dudley High School (where my own daughter attends), Jonathan Moore, assistant principal at Northern Guilford Middle School, and Roger Michael, former assistant principal at Gate City Charter Academy. I was eager to gather insight as I help my own two children navigate home-learning. 

“The kids keep me here,” Lee shared with me right off the bat. She feels empowered to be in this moment with her students, providing them not only with direct instruction, but also customizing learning to meet their unique individual needs. 

“My students are overwhelmed,” Lee tells me. Her message resonates, as I watch my children fight to balance school at home and deadlines that see no boundaries and continually bleed into weekends and holidays.  

Stories like these are not limited to Dudley High School. Moore confirms that students and parents have repeatedly told him that “this isn’t working.” Likewise, Michael says that even his teachers feel unable to address these challenges with the limited resources they have. 

The pandemic is unearthing cracks in our education system — a system that’s never worked for many of our students. These difficult days are also straining the mental health of those privileged students who previously felt successful in school. In my own house, this has taken the form of grades declining and my children screaming out that no one cares whether or not they’re okay. I’ve found myself looking so far into the future and what might happen that I miss what’s happening to my children every day as they struggle through this new way of learning while attempting not to let their own bar for success be lowered.

In our conversation, Michael points out the tremendous social-emotional burden that students are shouldering while being isolated from their teachers and peers: “This is new, with both teachers and students learning to exist in this space while attempting to continue to meet outcomes and external expectations.” 

Michael also points out a shift we need to make in the language we use when talking about schooling in this moment. “The rhetoric that schools need to open needs to stop,” he insists. “Schools were never closed. We’ve been open the entire time. We just haven’t been face-to-face in a building.” 

Indeed, teachers are working countless hours in service of students and it’s critical that those of us outside of the classroom acknowledge that. The hours that teachers are dedicating to students, while they have never taken the form of a typical 40-hour work week, have been stretched as demands and needs multiply. 

But this is not a message of despair, and I find Michael’s perspective reassuring: “With [this hard work] comes love and ensuring that we do whatever it takes to equip students with what they need and what they deserve.”

All three of these educators express a deep sense of hope — hope found in connections made with students and their families. “Being able to see my students continually trying … when they’re frustrated with AP classes … their resilience is really what’s inspiring to me,” shares Lee. “Students haven’t lost sight of their goals and to see that they see enough in themselves not to give up makes me smile.” 

As we close out Black History Month during a time when many students and teachers in our community approach a full year of virtual instruction, it’s important to remember all that the educators in our state are doing to ensure that teaching, learning, and growth continues. And it’s important to celebrate the fact that it is all done with immense love and painstaking care. 

Karyn Pleasant

Karyn Pleasant is the proud mother of 16-year-old Amaya and 13-year-old Isaiah and has been working in education for 15 years. Previously a classroom teacher and teacher coach, she currently manages Network Strategy for Teach For America in Guilford and Mecklenburg counties. Her commitment to educational equity and uplifting marginalized voices drives her continued commitment to students in North Carolina.