Season 2, Episode 4: Healed Teachers Heal Students
We’re talking about building and sustaining communities of care so that teachers of color can thrive.
Host Jonathan Santos Silva speaks with Dr. Wenimo Okoya, Founder of Healing Schools Project. Based in Newark, NJ, the non-profit intentionally centers the experience of BIPOC educators, believing that when interventions are built around those furthest away from systemic privilege, educators, and students of all backgrounds benefit. Healed teachers heal students.
Healing Schools Project helps educators from around the country collectively address toxic school cultures that cause burnout and steer them out of the classroom. By creating school cultures that value community care over self-care, Healing Schools Project helps teachers and students thrive by building healthy and sustainable school environments.
Burnout. It's a word we've heard a lot these past few years, but what does it actually mean? Psychology today defines burnout as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. It often manifests as cynicism, chronic fatigue, low performance, and decreased motivation. A person is more likely to experience burnout when they're not in control of how their job is carried out, when they're working toward a goal that doesn't resonate when they're asked to complete tasks that conflict with their sense of self or when they lack support. Today's episode features a nonprofit that is keeping bipoc educators in the profession by addressing unsupportive school cultures that lead to burnout.
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Dr. Wenimo Okoya, Guest (00:48):
What we're trying to do is really shift school cultures to help administrators build systems that are supportive for the wholeness and the being of educators of color.
From Teach for America's One Day Studio, you're listening to Changing Course. I'm Jonathan Santo Silva, a 2010 Teach for America alum on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. And since leaving the classroom, I haven't stopped partnering with educators, students, and communities to reimagine education. This season we're talking to innovative nonprofits from across the country that are committed to attracting training and retaining bipoc educators and providing opportunities where they can flourish. We have so much to learn from leaders across America, moving education in a new direction and a change in courts will happen. One school at a Time,
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Healing School's Project was founded in 2020 and Newark, New Jersey during the height of the pandemic. This was a time when many teachers, especially teachers of color were on the brink of burnout. But rather than emphasizing individual solutions or self-care, Healing School's Project is building and sustaining communities of care so that teachers of color can thrive, grow, and be the best teachers for all students. Healing School's Project Centers, the experience of bipoc educators believing that when interventions are built around those furthest away from systemic privilege, educators of all backgrounds benefit. And when schools invest in educator healing and wellbeing, teachers feel supported and are more willing to stay in the classroom. Today we'll look at how Healing School's Project is preventing burnout by addressing toxic work cultures that steer bipoc teachers out of the classroom. Let's hear from our guests starting with Dr. Wenimo Okoya, founder of Healing Schools Project.
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Dr. Okoya (02:57):
I'm Wenimo Okoya used she/her pronouns. Whenever I think about the part of my identity that's most resonant being an auntie, and like I say that in like the recent social media sense that I like, don't wanna be out past 10 o'clock <laugh>, but also in the fact that I have five nephews and when I'm thinking about educational spaces, I often think about them. I am the founder of Healing Schools Project, which is an organization that seeks to support schools in increasing educator of color retention by supporting educator wellbeing so they can be well enough to support their student wellbeing.
Wenimo began her career in education in Newark, New Jersey as a 2009 T TFA court member at KIPP Rise Academy. Her work in schools laid a lot of the groundwork for what would emerge as Healing Schools project.
Dr. Okoya (03:46):
I loved my students, loved what I was able to do as an educator, but also really wanted to figure out how to address wellbeing in schools and went back to school to get a master's in public health to try to figure out how to do that and spent a lot of time figuring out how to build and implement and support schools in building programs that support overall student health, mental health, wellbeing, and create healing centers for students. And then found that we were actually not able to do this work without supporting educators. Right? So started running healing circles on Zoom with educators to work with students of color during the peak of the pandemic, just to respond to a need, not because I was trying to turn it into a concept or even thinking about bringing it to schools. And the demand for it really increased because folks were like, wow, there's no other space like this for us.
Demand for these informal healing circles grew and grew. Renamo developed the healing circles into the nonprofit known as Healing Schools Project or H S P for short. From her time in the classroom, she knew that teachers needed these resources in their schools and communities. So she called the principal. She worked with as a T FFA core member in Newark.
Dr. Okoya (05:00):
When I left the classroom, I always knew I'd come back to Newark. So they were our pilot school and they were willing to help us figure out how to try our model. And it's our second year working with them.
Wow. So that's a real full circle moment. Very cool.
Dr. Okoya (05:14):
Speaking of circles, what exactly is a healing circle and where does it come from?
Dr. Okoya (05:21):
The concept of circle and ceremony comes from a number of indigenous communities, both here in North America, but also in South and Central America. And so the idea of gathering in a circle, having a conversation, using a talking piece and healing through connection and that the healing is, is in the center of that circle is something that we have borrowed from indigenous practices. We also do a lot of guided meditations and mindfulness, which come from like Buddhist practices, right? I write some of my own as well. And then coming from an Afro, both an African West African background and a Caribbean background. It's funny cuz like a couple years ago I took a cultural intelligence class in graduate class and my cultural intelligence, or my cultural inclination was much more collective than individual, which is very American or western. And so I, I've come to realize that a lot of my healing and a lot of my healing journey has been in laughing with my family and talking to my family and, and then the embrace and the healing that comes from community. And I really think that there's a lot to the fact that community is, that should not given the adversity that they've experienced and the commitment to erasing their identities be here, are still here because of those collective histories.
That's the beauty of this work. Caring for Bipoc folks with practices and traditions rooted in their own cultural experiences.
Dr. Okoya (06:53):
I think that bringing that into schools that were not built for educators of color or people of color or students of color in general, practices that ha we know have worked for us in the past is part of the beauty of what we're making work here and what we're able to bring and reminding people's bodies of what worked for their ancestors as well.
Here's a quick breakdown of what a healing circle actually entails. First, the facilitator ensures that participants are present in the space and with themselves. We were lucky enough to be recording with Wenimo right after a healing circle.
Dr. Okoya (07:28):
We start with some sort of grounding moment. Today we did a body grounding moment. So we had folks do like neck rolls and self massages on their hands and just become mindful of what they're feeling in their body and getting connected to their breath. Sometimes we'll do a guided meditation. Sometimes we'll play a sound bath, but the idea is really to just get folks grounded and get them connected with the current moment. Cause people, educators especially struggle with that coming from all the madness that they might be bringing into the space.
Next, they shift to an opener, like a quote or a reading that kicks off the conversation before they dive into the circle's theme for the day.
Dr. Okoya (08:07):
Today's circle was focused on storytelling and the stories that we tell ourselves. So we started off with a quote around what stories are, how our stories shape the what we think and our emotions. How do folks reflect on a story that they might be telling themselves? And then share that with each other and then then have them write a positive story about themselves. And then had a conversation around like what the stories we tell ourselves and how that connects to our emotions. They share, some folks cry, some folk, there's a lot of laughter, but the idea is that they're connecting with one another around personal things around how they feel. And that is, that process is healing in and of itself.
Here are some examples of themes that might be explored during a healing circle.
Dr. Okoya (08:52):
We did one on the power of the settled body, so having folks explore a conversation about what the settled body feels like, what's possible, when our body settled, what we think of ourselves when we're settled, and then exploring what conditions we would need in order to bring our settled bodies to work for students to bring their settled bodies to their classroom, et cetera. Another one we're doing in a little bit is on dreaming as liberation. So like having folks go through the exercise of dreaming together and what that feels like. Listening to each other's dreams rests as resistance. So like how we can build in moments of rest and different types of rest. One on self-preservation.
Each circle theme focuses on wellbeing and allows participants to explore these concepts and community before concluding with a shared commitment. Although the healing circle generally follows the same format, the themes and content change as they revisit the process over time. When you say we're gonna go into our settled body mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that's not like typical, uh, you know, teacher professional development PD talk, right? I could imagine some folks are like, Ugh, am I gonna do this in front of Mrs. So-and-so, you know, like <laugh>, how do you get them to feel okay with that?
Dr. Okoya (10:02):
We have 'em sit in a circle and that's, that's different from any other pd, right? And something about being in that formation really helps folks to be like, all right, this is a little bit of a different space, but you are right that sometimes people are uncomfortable with the process because it feels different. Is this something we should be doing in school? I don't know about this. Do I need this? And it does take some folks, especially the skeptics a little bit to settle into the process. We do have ground rules, so we, you know, that we uphold as a facilitators and we make sure that those are repeated and reiterated and we welcome people passing if they don't want to at first, at first if they settle into the process. And so usually our first time in a school we do have a number of skeptics, but over time, even the folks who have said to me, Hey, when I see your name on the PD calendar, I like dread it. <laugh>
Are the folks who are staying now staying after to be like, oh, thank God I actually needed that. Thank you for that prompt today. Like, all right, I, I get it now. And are jokingly like, you know, I used to hate this, but I didn't realize that I needed this. A quote that I often bring forward is that someone said, this is exactly what I never knew I needed. Hmm. Educators don't have the moments to stop and connect and they don't know that it's what they need. But all of us, especially coming out of the pandemic as we knew it really need to beef up on connection.
Remo has ensured that everything she does at H S P is research-based. The research she's collected demonstrates that healing circles and this type of engagement isn't a short-term experience seeing the improvement in mental health and quality of life comes with longer programmatic engagement.
Dr. Okoya (11:38):
We ask schools to do a minimum of four circles over the course of a school year, and then we work with their school leaders in between to make sure there are opportunities for folks to practice. So they're like building in these micro moments of healing into their school day and helping administrators operationalize what a culture of community care could look like. We don't do short term engagements because we're not just here to like offer a moment of healing. We're trying to create a culture of healing and a culture of community care. And in order to do that, you have to have admin engage. You have to change the culture and, and support administrators in doing that.
Another central belief of healing school's project is that healing happens in communities where there has been collective harm. There must also be collective healing.
Dr. Okoya (12:24):
During the pandemic, everyone was saying like, self-care, take care of yourself, take care of yourself. We know you stress take care of yourself. And people were getting really frustrated with that, rightfully so. But this idea of self-care puts a lot of onus on the individual to take care of their own healing. But if the wound is at a collective level, right? If we're experiencing this massive collective trauma, the healing also needs to be at a collective level. So one of the outcomes that we actually try to drive towards, in addition to self-efficacy, right? Self-efficacy is important. I need to believe in my ability, I need to believe in what I can do. But collective efficacy is our teacher's belief in their ability of what the school can do.
Plus research supports this collective approach.
Dr. Okoya (13:10):
Collective efficacy is a three times greater predictor of student academic achievement than parental involvement or socioeconomic status. Hmm. So why are we investing person to person? Why are we doing more of that than investing in the collective? That's a question I have for the field actually is like this research has been there.
Well, you know, what's powerful to me is, I mean, I'm a big believer in family engagement. I think that's so, uh, important. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's beautiful, you know, especially in, in the work that I've been a part of lately with indigenous communities mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's healing because so many families have, you know, it was part of the design to keep kids away from families. Yeah. So I I I believe in the importance of it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, when you say collective efficacy is three times
Dr. Okoya (13:57):
Predictor, more impactful, it's three times, three times a greater, you know, predictor. It, it, it's not only like mind blowing cuz I believe so much in family engagement, but it also kind of gives me the power to short circuit some of the negative narrative that happens on the flip side of that belief in parent engagement, where it's like, well, the parents aren't involved. I don't know what I can do with these kids, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> parents don't care, blah, blah, blah. Which is a lot of that we know is not true. But like, what it says to me is in, uh, although I would love every family to be engaged, even if they're not, if we believe in our collective ability as a staff to move kids mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we have all the power we need, right? We can continue to do our efforts because we want families there, but we have way more power than we give ourselves credit for. That's, that's dope. While Dr. Okoya and her team's work is relatively new, its impact is already apparent In 2021 a year often described as one of the most challenging in education. Wenimo and her team surveyed teachers who had gone through their program and discovered that almost 74% of teachers would be willing to stay in the classroom if they had more opportunities to participate in healing circle work.
Dr. Okoya (15:04):
So teachers, the thing that we hear over and over and over again is that they wanna feel seen, heard, valued. And if we can make people feel as though we see them, we value them, we hear what they're saying and respond to that as best as we can, then, then folks feel at least like, okay, I'm not just a part of this machine, but they see my humanity, they see who I am and they see what I'm bringing to this work. Which is, I think something that is missing. And even in systems where that might be true, if you're not communicating that, you're not improving teacher's perception in what this system can do together. So I think the gap that needs to be closed is in the efforts that are being made, communication and opportunity for teachers to be genuinely appreciated for the work that they do to be heard, to be seen for the work that they're doing.
Sometimes even if people in leadership feel that there's a communication gap. Hmm. And so some of, one of the things that we help our school leaders do is say, all right, here's what's coming up in your circles that folks need. Here are the conditions they need for community care. How can we operationalize those with rituals that support community care? And then communicate to your team which ones you're doing, why? And the ones that you can't do that might be a longer shot. Like, it's a lot about communicating that because without the information, people fill in the gaps.
Changing a community's culture involves intentionally operationalizing and introducing new rituals into that culture. Rituals that respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in the community. This is key for collective healing as a leader. When I hear you say, you know, the team feels unheard, I immediately default to I need to get time with everybody. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which is not always possible. And I'm wondering if part of what you're saying is that healing circles and other practices like that can still fulfill that need, even though it's more mm-hmm. <affirmative> communal listening and not like I have the number one chief decision maker that that can still be powerful in, in terms of making a team feel more heard and engaged.
Dr. Okoya (17:17):
Exactly. Yeah. Sometimes folks shift in what they're sharing with one another too, right? And like also they get to see if the leader is engaged in the, in the conversation, they get to see the leader being vulnerable. And there's something that opens up in people when they see their leader opening up and being vulnerable about what it is that they're experiencing too.
During our conversation, Wemo shared an analogy that really drives home why creating healthy workspaces for educators has the power to completely transform our schools.
Dr. Okoya (17:53):
There's this allegory that we use in, in public health of, so there was a village that was inundated with all these babies landing in the river where they collected water. So they're like trying to catch all the babies and save all these babies. And it took a lot of time and resources. People are all day manning this part of the river to try to catch babies and save them from the river. And I would say that that's, that's like our approach right now to filling educators of color into our system because we've got a teacher shortage is we're like, all right, let's, let's just like catch, catch 'em where we can. Let's get it where we can. And we know that that's impacting our education system. But then someone said, well, well where are the babies coming from? Like, why are there babies in the river in the first place?
And so the question analogous in this situation would be like, why are educators of color not staying in the classroom and why are educators of color not wanting to come into the classroom? So we went further up the stream. The answer to that question would be, these buildings are not safe for my whole, my wholeness, for my humanity. I'm stressed out when I'm in this building as an educator of color. Like this is not a sustainable profession for me as a teacher of color. Schools are not places where my black body is welcome, where my heart is welcome, where I, my approach is welcome as a black woman, unless I can fit into this narrative. So if we're gonna go further upstream, what we're trying to do is really shift school cultures to help administrators build systems that are supportive for the wholeness and the being of educators of color so that we're not, you know, doing all this work to go one to one.
Making people feel better about their experience or counseling them into just thugging it out and pushing through their experience, which is what we've heard a lot. Like if you care about the kids, you'll just stay, you'll just stay, you'll push through. It's supposed to be hard and trying to keep people in the classroom and trying to work to retain people in the classroom. Then folks, eventually as a system changes, will we begin to hear actually, you know, this is, this school is a place where I, I do feel welcome. I do feel seen, I do feel heard because you know, community care is a priority here. Hmm. So that's really, I think the approach that we take to doing this work and one that we need to consider is asking like, why don't educators of color wanna stay in the classroom? Why is it hard to recruit folks into this education system right now and and change that rather than trying to hurry up and fill seats or get people to stay.
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Healing School's Project recognizes the need to build and sustain communities of care so that teachers of color can thrive, grow, and be the best teachers for all students. Heal teachers Heal students. We have to address the culture that Bipoc teachers are experiencing daily. If we want to make education a safe space for our students, it all starts from the top. After the break, we'll continue our conversation with an educator who has experienced the work of Healing School's Project. But first we wanted to ensure you hear from students across the country who are being impacted by teachers who share aspects of their identities Throughout this season. We'll be lifting up the voices of students of color as they reflect on their experiences. Here are some words from Theo Stewart from Newark Collegiate Academy. A school Doctor Okoya has recently worked with in Newark, New Jersey.
Theo Stewart, Featured Student (21:20):
I didn't really have that many African American teachers, but it was one teacher. He was my English teacher. His name was Mr. Holly. He was the first person that I know that came from my city that came back to teach. He was the only one that was real with me. He always said, don't settle for less, don't be mediocre, always you for the best. Because he believed in me at first. I always really take his school as a joke, like I thought as though like I can make it without school. But then he told me that education is the way to go. Mr. Holly reminds me of a great person in African-American history. His name is w e b Dev Voice. He wanted African-American to shoot for higher education so that they can have the upper higher jobs and they won't try for mediocre. They can strive for black success.
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Let's meet our next guest, Sharmaine Lewis. She's the school leader at Newark Collegiate Academy. KIPP New Jersey's High School, which participates in healing school projects, healing circles.
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Sharmaine Lewis, Guest (22:37):
I am Sharmaine Lewis and I am a mother of two children. I have a son and I have a daughter. I am also a wife. I am married to a black man who I adore. And my career has led me to being a school leader at an urban district in North Jersey. I started out as a math teacher, which is still what I do at my heart. I like to tell everybody that we are all math people because that is who we are. We can do hard things and we can do hard things. Well,
As a former math teacher myself, a TFA alum, I love that. I love that. Like Wenimo, Sharmaine works in Newark, New Jersey, a city she says is often underestimated and misrepresented in the media.
I am not personally from the city of Newark, but I like to tell everybody that I am for the city of Newark. I started working here through Teach for America. I'm cohort 2008 and I started my career here then. And we know that there's a lot of sometimes on perceptions of teacher America candidates that come and then leave after a short amount of time. But as you can see, I'm still here and in my school, I also have several other core members that have been here for over a decade and continue, continue to give back to this city, move to this city, live in the city and love the city, the students and the families. Newark is a city that's filled with what I like to say, vibrant talents from artists with a keen eye for nuance poets that sometimes will touch your spirit to emerging engineers who can see things that others cannot. A lot of my students are dealing with things like poverty that they are rising above. And the thing that I've learned about everybody that is from Newark is that no matter what situations they're dealing with, they always rise above it. Some of our students travel over two miles to get to school and they still come in here with big smiles all the time, whether they're taking the bus or needing to walk.
Like Sharmaine said, Newark is home to the indomitable students and educators who are rising above the obstacles they face. However, constantly coming up against challenges has a certain impact.
One of the biggest things that we have been combating at our school is the idea around secondary trauma. Because so many of our staff members are teachers of color, that a lot of times the situations and stories that our students share with us are very close to our own experiences when we were students. And as a result, we have to figure out how to deal with both of those things to be able to show up for our students, also show up for ourselves. And so many of the teachers on my team, they teach and build relationships with over 125, sometimes up to 300 to 400 students on a daily basis. And as we know, I already mentioned how beautiful my students are and we know that all of them have a story in their own journey that makes them special and what got them here.
And sometimes our teachers that are on the front lines of helping our students, we want them to help carry that burden to lessen it for them. Um, but it also has a real impact on the work being sustainable unless there is specific and targeted support. And that's something we've been really working on this school year. When we came back to in-person learning, after being virtual for a year, our students and staff came back as different people and our families. We were all really different. We didn't know how that experience changed us. What I do know, what we did learn is our social graces changed in the way that we did school had not. And so originally our focus was on responding to the academic gaps. We knew that our students were gonna have, because of the virtual learning situation, we did not have a large enough focus on how to respond to students missing a whole year of what was normal and what that meant for their development. As a result, we also did not help to equip our teachers and leaders to support our kids in an effective way.
When Sharmaine realized her students and staff needed a different kind of support coming out of the pandemic, she got right to work along with her leadership team. She hosted table talks, one-on-one meetings, conducted surveys, all things that gave teachers the space to share what they needed. She discovered that what they needed most was to reignite their love for teaching and learning.
I actually found healing circles on LinkedIn <laugh> from Dr. Okoya because I was looking for ways to help get to the root of how can I help my teachers that are saying that they really love teaching, they they dedicated their lives and their careers to this, but they're in a place right now where they don't know that they wanna keep doing this and that it's feeling too hard and how can they keep going and trying to make that decision. And so one way that the Healing Circle really helps us get to the root is that they focus on community care and not just self-care. And self-care was a really big word last year where a lot of times it was, you know, if, if you're really struggling with that, do some more self-care. Like get into taking care of yourself in a better way. What that led to was, you know, get a manicure, go on a spa, get a vacation, different things like that. But if you do all those things for yourself and then you come back to the community and things haven't shifted, you're just back right into the same place that you already were in and nothing has changed and you find yourself needing to do more and more of that self-care.
For those still wondering why an investment in healing and recovery is so important. You have to start with a teacher's day to day experience while they're working hard to create an environment where kids feel safe enough to learn and thrive. It's the role of the school leader to ensure that all teachers bring their best self to the classroom.
During that year when we returned back from the pandemic, yes we need to get them to learn, but if our teachers are struggling and can I show their best selves, just asking them to go into that classroom and execute that lesson to the best of their ability is not going to get us the results that we wanted. And so I did actually have to change my schedule. I had to shut some things down, things that were of the norm I had to pause on for a bit. So there was about two week span of time where I was not doing walkthroughs in my school. I allowed other people on my leadership team to do it. I asked for regional support. Someone could make sure that they were staying on top of what's happening in hallways, help check in with parents and different things like that so that I could hear the voices of teachers.
And so that was some of the key things and teachers were really appreciative of that. Sometimes what we learned is that we will ask teachers for their voice and thank you for sharing your opinion and then do nothing with it. And so I wanted my teachers to know that that's not why I'm asking. I'm literally planning for next school year and I need you all to tell me what you need. Otherwise I can only go from my experience from when I was in the classroom or just things that I'm hearing. But I really needed it to be for them. In addition to that, I allowed the teachers to choose the way they wanted to best give the feedback. Some people rather write and give it to me in a um, survey. Some people like to send me a voice memo and then sometimes I offered the table talks after school and not just during the day for different people.
So there were different, a bunch of different options that people could opt into. For me as the leader though, it was a a heavy lift for those two weeks because I was still, you know, I had my responsibilities here. But that to me was really important, especially if I was being honest and saying, I truly want to retain these teachers by supporting them and I recognize that they needed support. And so if I'm gonna truly support, I have to know what they need. And it can't be on the surface level of just like self-care and doing something like that. It's deep. It had to be deeper than that.
Since you've started having healing circles in the school, how have those circles affected the morale of teachers as a collective and you know, what trickle down impact has that had on students?
So during our very first launch, and I wrote this quote down because I wanted to share it, but Dr. Okoya shared why it was important for us to engage in this work. The acknowledgement of the wound is how you begin to heal. And because the trauma was done at a collective level, the healing must also be done at a collective level. And when we heard that, we did have to pause sometimes because being vulnerable in a space with your colleagues is a really uncomfortable space to be in. And the work that we are doing requires us to lean on our village to be able to support us. And so that has been a really big morale shift for our teachers. In addition to us being honest, if a teacher tells me they need space or they need time, my job as the school leaders is to figure out how I can make that happen. And what I've learned is that being able to support teachers in that way, they come to work and show up as their best selves and they come more often. We have a lot less teachers calling out of work and needing to take mental health days and things like that because we are building those systems within our school.
Sharmaine says healing has translated to larger school-wide solutions. For example, teachers have a common planning period with other teachers instructing similar material so they can work collaboratively rather than struggling in isolation. Collective healing has helped teachers approach interactions with students differently too. I wonder if there's a specific story that you could share where you observed a teacher and a student interact and you thought this is a direct result of the healing circles of the work that we're doing to heal ourselves and recover the culture that that was damaged by a year away.
I had a teacher who was really frustrated with a student who consistently came late to their class. And ideally when things like that happen, we want to give students feedback kind of one-on-one. But after this happening so many times, you know, sometimes our frustrations get the best of us. And this teacher addressed the student in front of the whole class. And then after observing the student's response in the response from their peers, as you know, teenagers often like to hype things up sometimes when when they see something like that happen. <laugh>. Yep. The teacher did circle back with the student though to inquire more about their story and listen to their concerns, number one about why they were late and also about how that feedback, how they received that feedback of hearing that in front of the whole class. After that, the teacher then circled back and brought that situation back up to the whole class and apologized and said that this was not the way that I want our class to operate.
The reason that highlights what we were doing with the healing circles is because one of the key things we learned is to listen, number one, take ownership and then go back to that collective to think about what was the impact on the community and how can we respond as a community. And I can share like historically, that's not the way things would have always gone, even if our teachers do apologize to students, it may not always include like that circling back and coming back to the whole class to share about how that may have been a breach in the classroom culture and how the teacher can also make sure that she doesn't do it again. And that also built more trust in her students to be able to do that. So I thought that was a really powerful move. And we're not perfect. Sometimes we make mistakes, but being able to show that and demonstrate that for our students definitely showed me that this is work that we're moving forward in my direction.
Yeah, no, we're not perfect. And sometimes making those mistakes lead us to a place where we wouldn't have gotten had we been perfect. Right? That's right. Had she never had the chance to be vulnerable, she may have missed that opportunity to build that trust That's right. For them to see her ability to, you know, be transparent. And so then I think that's powerful. As you'll recall from earlier, the process of a healing circle encourages feedback from members of the community before bringing this professional development experience to her staff. Sharmaine ensured she had buy-in and that this work would resonate at the end of a healing circle. Staff create commitment sheets reflecting the changes they envision for their schools. But Sharmaine says that the work doesn't end there for school leadership, it's where the work begins.
So after the smaller groups created those commitment sheets, they brought it all back to me and to my leadership team and we look at those things and figure out like how can we integrate that into the work that we are doing. So with the healing circles, there is pre-work on the leadership side and there's also post-work. What Dr. Okoya does is that she follows up back with the leadership team. She also does small circles with us before we even look at what our staff has brought to us to make sure that we are in a vulnerable space and we are willing to listen, put our egos aside, put what is traditional aside and really open up to do that. And so the Healing Circle goes from a full staff situation to also being a leadership space that she caters to that. And then on top of that she does one-on-ones with me as the school leader to make sure that I am also okay to be listening to all those things and carrying it and making sure that I can actually implement it and that she follows up, which I personally find very helpful that she follows up to make sure, because you know, we have a lot of things going on.
So, and because she was an educator, she understands all those different things and she does it without judgment. And so I appreciate that from her too.
That sounds really like a powerful experience and a lot of work. Mm-hmm.
<affirmative>, one of the reasons why I I joined school leadership is that I wanted to be who I needed period is the same reason I became a teacher. I wanted to be who I needed and that has stuck with me. And so one thing that I know is that I am not currently in the classroom right now even though I was for a decade. And so when I hear teachers sharing about things that are working for them and things that are not working for them that I was not aware of, I'm like, oh, I needed this because I was making a plan operating from one set of beliefs and realized that I was missing the mark in these other sets of beliefs. That's actually happened in every single healing circle. And these are my staff members that I talk to every day, but based on the the environment of the space and things that they're hearing from other people, they're bringing up things.
And so that will be the key thing because then it makes me know it, it affirms the plans that I did make that were on the mark. And then it also lets me like, oh, I need to make some shifts in this. And when I'm being specific about those shifts, it might be the way that I'm communicating key information on our school, the way that a decision was made about a family event that's coming up or something that we're gonna do for report card conferences or the way that teachers are planning their lessons and the type of development that they need in order to move forward.
When asked what makes a Healing Circle different than a professional development series about burnout, Sharmaine confirmed that it's simple. Healing circles are unique because they're not one size fits all.
I think it's the focus on teachers of color and just naming that their voice matters and that their experience is a unique experience and that there are people in the circles that are invited and welcomed even if they're not people of color, but that they are also being charged with listening to their colleagues of color and experiencing what they're going through because the majority of our students are students of color. And like putting that as a framing to launch the healing circles has made a big difference. When Dr. Okoya meets with us, she makes sure that she has a specific focus on just the school leader, then the school leadership team, then the full staff as a whole. And then she has the follow up also as a part of the healing circle. So I'm looking at like concentric circles happening in my, my math brain, but it's not just like a one size fits all set up.
I also know we have another school that is also engaging in healing circles with Dr. A Koya and the way that they do it is for their school community and the gaps that they specifically had. So it is a very personalized experience. Even right before we went to winter break, they just came to our school just to check in like how are teachers doing? Is there anybody that we can speak to? Um, we just wanna see how they're going as they go into this break to see if there's anybody that needs any additional support and they offer that as a service. So I do think that's a little bit different than what I've seen in other PD series.
Perhaps the thing that makes the Healing Circle so unique and powerful is that they require you to listen to the needs of your staff. When it is clear what's needed, it's much easier to equip teachers with the resources to address those needs. There are many obstacles out there that make it difficult for bipoc educators to either enter or remain in the classroom, but while there's likely not just one thing that will change it, we pushed our guests today to dream big anyway. We asked them to tell us what is one thing they would address if they had a magic wand. Here are Dr. Okoya and Sharmaine with some final thoughts.
I would provide teachers with more time and money. Well, I know for a fact that the work that teachers are doing are generally underfunded in general. And there are many teachers across our country, specifically black teachers, who can't solely focus on the heavy work that is required to be an effective educator because of finances. And sometimes they're having to pick up second jobs and different things like that even after going to college, earning this degree that teachers are underpaid in ways that I'm sure we've dug into for a while. And then the time that is required to really do this job well in many schools is not given to teachers. So like what does it take to actually plan and give students the feedback that they need to really make a change that requires time. And many people see the teacher's job is just what they're doing when they're standing in front of the kid, executing that lesson and not recognizing that there's so much more that goes on behind the scenes to actually do that. Well,
Dr. Okoya (39:20):
I changed the ruler. I think our ruler is wrong. The way we measure things is wrong. And then until we start measuring things against a different metric of success, like what success look like, looks like one that's aligned with wellbeing and a whole life and thriving for black teachers, for indigenous teachers, for students that look like us, that share identities, then nothing significant is gonna change. But if we could do that, if we could change the ruler, if it wasn't all about test scores and butts and seats and meetings standards that you know we know are biased, then I think that we could really reimagine our education system.
The opposite of burnout is engagement. A study conducted in 1997 showed that engagement is characterized by three dimensions that stand in stark contrast to burnout, where burnout leads to exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness engagement supports energy involvement and efficacy. The work of Healing School's project gets to the root of burnout by engaging leaders in a communal journey toward healing. When schools involve teachers in the creation of the culture, they live and work within and create spaces where their voices are heard and their needs are met, it impacts their energy and their efficacy or effectiveness in the classroom. We cannot pour from an empty cup now more than ever. It's important that we invest in holistic care for our educators because healed teachers heal students. That's it for this week. Thank you so much for listening to Changing Course. From Teach For America's one day studio. I'm Jonathan Santo Silva. Peace. Next time on changing course, we're taking you to Boston, Massachusetts where we'll be looking at increasing opportunities for Latino educators.
Amanda Fernandez, Guest (41:25):
There were so many amazing Latinos <laugh> that were defying their families and saying, gonna go teach in the classroom. <laugh> and their families saying [inaudible] like, what are you thinking? Because you went to college and you need to be literally the traditional jobs that our families only know, which is a doctor or lawyer or in business. Right? Right. <laugh> and I encountered so many Latinos within Teach for America on staff, and then more broadly teachers who were in the core. And I was just so inspired by those decisions that they made to really ensure that students behind them would have the same opportunities that they did. And that by standing in front of the classroom, our students could be what they could see.
That's next time on Changing Course. And if you loved the podcast, be sure to rate, review, and follow Changing Course on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Changing course is produced by Teach For America's one day studio in partnership with pod people. Special thanks to my main man, Michael Krees, Georgia Davis, Stephanie Garcia, and the Akande Simons from Teach for America and the production team at Pod People. Rachel King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, my brother from another mother, Bryan Rivers, Danielle Roth. Shout out to the homies Chris Jacobs and Shaneez Tyndall and Carter Wogahn. Last but certainly not least, thank you to Theo Stewart and the leaders in Newark, New Jersey and at Healing Schools Project who shared their time and experience. To help us make this episode, Sharmaine Lewis and Dr. Wenimo Okoya, I'm Jonathan Santo Silva. Peace.
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About The Show
Host Jonathan Santos Silva (South Dakota ‘10) will sit down with innovative nonprofits from across the country that are committed to attracting, training, and retaining BIPOC educators. Each episode will feature thoughtful conversations about how organizations are investing in and providing careers where BIPOC staff can flourish.
Jonathan Santos Silva (South Dakota ‘10)
Jonathan Santos Silva is the Founding Executive Director of The Liber Institute and creator and host of The Bored of Ed, a podcast that amplifies the voices of inspiring BIPOC educators who are changing the face of education. He has provided technical support to South Dakota’s Native American Achievement Schools and has served as a school founder and principal, instructional coach, and education consultant.
Wenimo Okoya (she/her) (New Jersey ‘09), EdD, MPH, Founder and Executive Director of Healing Schools Project
Dr. Okoya is an advocate for building bridges between the health and education sectors. Her career began as a classroom teacher in Newark, NJ and it was through her students that she learned that upward mobility for people of color can only be achieved by changing the way systems operate. She has linked research and practice to build programs that promote well-being in school systems and holds affiliations with NYU Steinhardt, Teachers College Columbia University, and Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. While her experiences since leaving the classroom run wide and deep, her sweet spot is working with schools, organizations, and individuals to enhance their adoption of anti-racist, healing-centered practices.
Sharmaine Lewis (New Jersey ‘08), Principal
After attending high school in a small town in New Jersey & graduating 3rd in her class, Sharmaine was admitted into the Honors Program in college. She majored in Statistics & Mathematics and discovered that she was indeed unprepared for college. She pushed through to earn her bachelor’s degree and this struggle propelled her into doing her part to close the opportunity/achievement gap. Sharmaine joined Teach For America, earned a Master’s in Secondary Math Education and a second master’s degree in Educational Leadership.