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Dedicated to Teachers

Dear Janelle: A Letter To An Overwhelmed Teacher



Dear Janelle,

This was your hardest year as an educator.

You were overjoyed to teach a class of all black or biracial third graders to love the diversity of their blackness through academic content. And, you were met with a majority of students who had already endured physical and emotional traumas and were processing those experiences in your classroom in unproductive ways. Most of them entered your classroom believing school was a jail. They believed school was not a safe space—physically for their personal safety, emotionally in sharing their opinions, or academically in making mistakes. Some viewed school as a playground, a place to play, turn up, and talk.

Your beliefs about kids, your patience, and your mental stamina were tested hourly. Instruction was consistently stopped due to students’ incessant arguing with you and their peers, physical aggression directed at their classmates and anything in their path, and refusal to follow directions, which left you drained at the end of the day. It made you doubt your effectiveness as an educator and if this was the profession for you too many times to count.

If you ever have another year like this year, which I pray you don’t, here are the things I hope for you.

You know EXACTLY who you are as an educator: an activist who uses her instruction to empower students through reading, writing, and math and to show black kids examples of black experiences of the past and present. You know what you believe: that all kids can learn. You believe you should look beyond behaviors to see what students actually need, that students need to be co-constructors of their learning and classroom environment. You know your content and when you don’t, you know how to ask for help and find resources. You know your students: their triggers, their areas of growth, how they’ve flourished, what they love. You know how to both challenge and inspire.

You know what resources ground you as an educator. King and Swartz’s The Afrocentric Praxis of Teaching for Freedom (2015) highlighted how you still centered whiteness in black narratives and showed you how to center black people in their own stories. Wright and Counsell’s The Brilliance of Black Boys (2018) helped you confront and address your own biases about teaching black boys. Peter Johnston’s Choice Words (2003) taught you intentionality in your language to affirm and inspire students. And Short, Harste, and Burke’s Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers (1995) showed you how to launch critical inquiries within your classroom and to use engagements to support meaningful interactions with texts. No matter what, trust that.

Find your joy both within and outside your classroom. This took many forms this year—don’t forget to build upon them. You started a book club for black boys featuring books by black male authors, illustrators, and/or protagonists in Black Boy Joy Book Club (BBJBC) and had honest conversations with attendees that grew your relationships with them, personally and as their teacher. You challenged your third graders and yourself in your math instruction, exploring how to grow their strong identities as mathematicians. You stopped in to a second-grade classroom daily during your planning, where you received hugs, recommended books, and had private conversations with students who needed it. You expanded your work in BBJBC by reading books with black male authors and protagonists to a kindergarten class weekly.

Personally, you amped up your self-care. You kept lifting, hiking, and doing yoga. You kept making jokes and checking in with the students who allow you to breathe life into them. You kept talking to your village, people who listened to your hardships, offered you feedback, and reminded you of your progress. The joy might look different daily, but continue seeking it out, even on the hardest days.

But, you must be aware of the daily challenges within your classroom and reflective enough to see what is within your control to change. You might not always be able to create the respectful, empathetic classroom climate you seek. You might not always be able to change your students’ attitudes.

You can focus on interventions aimed at creating a more joyful, less chaotic classroom. Anecdotal field notes of misbehavior and behavioral and instructional wins of the entire class and select students can help. Holding conferences with a child and their family can show that child you are all on a team, devoted to their success in your classroom. Additionally, asking the child what they need from you and putting those requests into action can show students that their opinion matters and begin changing a negative view they might have about you and/or school.

In The Brilliance of Black Boys (6), the authors pose two questions for educators to examine black boy joy and success within their classrooms:


  1. What would it mean for African American boys to thrive in early childhood classrooms?
  2. What would it look like for African American boys to thrive in early childhood classrooms?


You applied these questions to all your students, considering your routines, teaching style, class schedule, and what you believed your students needed. Then you sought your students’ feedback on how they perceived you, how they perceived their classroom and the routines, schedule, and, importantly, what they needed from you. Through several restorative chats, conversations where you posed questions to them and gave them an opportunity to speak freely to you, they shared: “We need more talk time.” “We need more consequences.” “We need to do math in the morning.” “We don’t feel like you get us, and we don’t feel like we know you.” You saw that you, even as someone who uses culturally responsive and reflective practices, were unintentionally triggering your students.

You triggered them with your schedule, doing their least favorite subject at the start of the day. You provided limited time for them to be sociable with their friends, leading to them talking out repeatedly during instruction. When behaviors escalated, you shared less and less about yourself and they didn’t feel like they knew about your life outside school, which they wanted to know more about. Making these minor adjustments allowed you to get closer to the democratic classroom you aspired to have this year—one where both your needs and theirs would be met—and demonstrated to students that you too could accept feedback.

Thankfully, you were FINALLY able to decide that success was for you and your class: teaching more than redirecting, students progressing academically and behaviorally, getting to teach small-group reading lessons, being able to inspire and affirm students within your classroom, and at the end of the day leaving happy instead of depleted. Reflecting on your own measures of success grounded you in seeing that your class’s progress was never going to look like another class and that was perfectly okay.

Continue rooting yourself in your measures of success by celebrating the small victories. Your students grew so much in math. You took a group who never perceived themselves as being good at math and provided a space where they THRIVED in math AND learned about black mathematicians of the past and present. They have a conceptual understanding of aspects of math, being able to identify their mental math strategies and visual models explicitly. You started TWO book clubs, which became a beacon of black liberation and joy. You figured out how to balance what your students needed with your needs as much as possible. You slowly built a sense of reading identity in a group of kids who came in HATING reading. Regardless of the challenges the previous day brought, you started each new day new.

At the end of the day, you chose this profession. You quit your good-paying job to fulfill your dream of educating elementary students. You love educating and using your instruction to show black kids they can do whatever they choose because they’ve seen examples of people in those jobs who look like them, both in the past and present. You are needed. Black kids need black teachers to affirm them and their experiences within their classrooms. Things won’t always be easy and may get worse before they get better. But you’re walking in your purpose. Never forget that.






Johnston, Peter H. 2004. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning.

Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

King, Joyce E., and Ellen E. Swartz. 2015. The Afrocentric Praxis of Teaching for Freedom:

Connecting Culture to Learning. New York: Routledge.

Short, Kathy G., Jerome C. Harste, and Carolyn Burke. 1996. Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers, Second Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wright, Brian L., and Shelly L. Counsell. 2018. The Brilliance of Black Boys: Cultivating School

Success in the Early Grades. New York: Teachers College Press.

image-5Janelle W. Henderson is an activist who uses her curriculum to expand students’ thoughts on identity and blackness through culturally sustaining critical inquiry. She cares about her students as learners, community members, and as people. She has a robust background in several professional cohorts, including the Professional Dyads and Culturally Relevant Teaching and the Kentucky Reading Project. Janelle is currently a 3rd grade teacher at Mill Creek Leadership Academy in Louisville, KY, where she launched a Black Boy Joy Book Club and Black Girl Magic Book Club for second and third graders.

Follow Janelle on Twitter @freeyourheart

Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Janelle Henderson, Anti-Racist Education

Date Published: 10/23/19

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