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ON THE PODCAST: Centering Love, Justice and Liberation in Schools with Shamari Reid

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What does getting to know your students and who they are and their community really look like in practice? And in a time of so much burnout, how do we do this in a way that helps us be the best version of ourselves when we teach?

Today on the podcast, author Shamari Reid talks about how he's exploring these topics and more in his new book, Humans Who Teach: A Guide for Centering Love, Justice and Liberation in Schools. Shamari writes that the ways in which we have been socialized can hold us back. This book is an invitation to examine those social lessons so we can show up in more loving ways for ourselves as teachers and for our students. He lays out a path for this work by honoring our own humanity and choosing love over fear.


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Below is a full transcript of the episode:

 

Brett:

What does getting to know your students and who they are and their community really look like in practice? And in a time of so much burnout, how do we do this in a way that helps us be the best version of ourselves when we teach? I'm Brett from Heinemann, and today on the podcast, author Shamari talks about how he's exploring these topics and more in his new book, Humans Who Teach: A Guide for Centering Love, Justice and Liberation in Schools. Shamari writes that the ways in which we have been socialized can hold us back. This book is an invitation to examine those social lessons so we can show up in more loving ways for ourselves as teachers and for our students. He lays out a path for this work by honoring our own humanity and choosing love over fear. We started our conversation by how this work found him.

Shamari Reid:

I had this wonderful idea maybe five years ago about this book that I wanted to write, but I just couldn't do it. For whatever reason, the words just weren't flowing. I had the idea, but I couldn't produce anything. And so I let it go for a little bit, did the podcast Water for Teachers, and then in that moment where I'm getting that decent sleep, and in REM sleep, the book was like, "And now it's my turn. Now you can write me." Now you have the experiences you need, you have the words you need, you have the intentions you need to create this book. And so I think it had to come now, and I was really upset with myself for a while because I felt like I was delaying something that the world so desperately needed, but I can now say, this is the time. This has always been the right time. I just had to surrender to it and let go of what I wanted for it, and allow it, the book I mean, to lead me.

Brett:

And that is sort of a, you have to surrender to the process a little bit.

Shamari:

Oh, for sure.

Brett:

That's just good writing. And you're right that you wanted to get into the sticky parts of being human.

Shamari:

Yeah, sure. The complicated parts. I think I have heard the word human and humanity and humanizing, my whole life, but especially in the last five or six years in education, in the field. People are talking about a humanizing pedagogy, humanizing curriculum. But I feel like we miss the sticky parts. We miss the complicated parts, and we focus on the good and the beautiful, and I think that's important. But what about the complicated stuff? Because being human for me is very layered, and if we can continue to miss the sticky parts or the complicated parts, then we don't address some of the things that keep us from the most beautiful parts about ourselves like love. If we're not addressing the source, if you will, then we start to, we teach and we live from a place that is frustrated, from a place that we are annoyed, we are angry, et cetera, as humans.

And I just think there's another way to be. I think that source could be joy. I think it can be love and peace only when we have attended to those sticky parts and those things that are uncomfortable and really hard to talk about like oppression and like marginalization and isolation and exclusion, and all the other things we know too about the world and not just the things that are joyful and are beautiful.

But our history is layered as humans. And I think it's important for us to always engage with the fullness of our humanity.

Brett:

Well, and you go on to say that obviously being a teacher is very layered. The identities that we bring to being a teacher is layered. And you say that sometimes we can be dehumanized as a teacher. How do we find our way back from that?

Shamari:

So I think the hard answer to your question to connect to the one that I just answered, was through the sticky parts. I think that so much about, for me, being human and being a human who teaches, a lot of it lives in the sticky, the complicated, the multilayered, the contradicting, the imperfect, the messy. It lives there. And so I would say to anyone who's thinking about trying to find their way to that or find their way back to that, is don't be afraid to go through the sticky stuff. Because on the other side of the sticky stuff or the hard stuff or the uncomfortable stuff, is I think, a more nuanced to understand of your humanity.

Brett:

So what does it mean in 2024 to be a human who teaches?

Shamari:

Those are the questions.

Brett:

That's the big question.

Shamari:

That is the big question. I think, everything. I think it's everything. I think it's complicated and nuanced and extremely individual, which is why throughout the book, I invite the reader and the teachers who are reading, to share their stories. Because I think that in order to answer your question about what it means to be a human who teaches in 2024, we have to survey and engage with all the humans who teach. And so you have to take my story and add it with their story and then his story and then her story. And only once we have done that, can we say we have arrived at a more nuanced and more complete picture of what it means to be a human who teaches.

And so I can't answer the question alone. I would have to have all the other humans who teach, join me, add their narratives to mine, and then we could collectively look at our stories and say, this is what it means to be a human who teaches in 2024. Because I think so often teachers, and we talk about teachers and teaching from this very individual or sort of sole lens. And I think not only is it inaccurate, it's also just not our most powerful state. I think we're more powerful together as a collective of humans who teach. And so really the book, it might feel like I'm saying one human who teaches, but I'm talking about all of us. It's a collective.

Brett:

In that collective frame, society and pop culture tend to put narratives on teaching. You write specifically about the teacher as hero narrative, and that we have to find our way to unlearning these things as we find our way back to our humanity.

Shamari:

I mean, I think the first thing that I would advise anyone is to begin to see yourself as a social being and as a human who has been socialized. And so I've met tons of people throughout my life who in talking to me, it's the first time they think of themselves as having any kind of identity. They're like, "Well, I know you are who you are and you're Black, and I'm just here." And I'm like, "No, we all have these social identities, especially if you were socialized in the United States." And so we share them. And so I would sort of start there to think about your identities. What is your racial identity? What is your age, gender, social class? All those kinds of things, to think through what your identities are and then ask yourself, what have I learned about my identities and those of others?

And that is the way into your social lessons. It's in there you're going to understand, oh, I learned a lot about what I think it means to be this kind of person or that kind of person. Or as a woman, I learned a lot about myself and women in this way. Those are what I mean by social lessons. It's the kind of beliefs and ideas that we attach to identities that really make it a thing, because otherwise it's really nothing. Black could be nothing but Black in the United States in 2024 means a thing. There are ideas attached to it, there are thoughts attached to it, there are beliefs attached. Those are social lessons. And so only when you see yourself as someone who has identities and you think about what you've learned about them, can you choose which ones you want to hold onto? Not all of them are bad. And then which ones you really might want to let go of as we think about what it means to teach and live in a way that's loving and honoring the humanity you have, of course, and the inherent humanity and everybody else.

Brett:

You do a beautiful thing in the book as you work us through this lesson, you talk us through how when we go through that discovery process of our identities, how we then need to bring those identities to the classroom so that we can see our students better, see their realities better. I wonder if you could talk through a little bit of that process.

Shamari:

Sure. I really think at its core, it is an exercise in self-compassion. It is an exercise in self empathy. And once you have begun to understand yourself as a complicated human with identities and imperfections, it becomes impossible to not see that at anybody else, including young people. Once I understand that I have learned things about myself as a Black person, as a queer person, as a person who grew up in this kind of household with a single mother, once I understand how complicated I am, it then becomes really hard to look at a young person and not see their stories too, and not practice empathy and compassion for them. And so we must, I say, start that with ourselves. Start thinking about what it means to understand who you are and extending grace to yourself to say, "Oh, I did make a mistake. I did hold a view or an opinion that I don't necessarily find helpful, but I'm human. And now that I've identified it, I can unlearn it and be kinder to myself and everybody else around me."

And I think so often with teachers, I think society sort of talks about us as if we don't have these parts of ourselves, these sticky parts we talked about earlier. And we're supposed to go into schools and help young people navigate these things. However, many of us have never been invited to navigate them for ourselves. And so we are not robots. I am not AI, I'm not ChatGPT. I am a human with my own history and my own social lessons. And if I don't attend to those, they are going to filter everything I do and make it really, really hard to understand how complicated young people are.

Brett:

And not just their own identities, but then the identities of the communities that they come from as well.

Shamari:

That's right. And I think that's maybe even a harder thing for some folks, because when we talk about socialization, the question then becomes, well, who socializes us and who socialized you? And for many of us, it's someone maybe close to us, a parent, a guardian, a teacher, our family doctor, or someone who works in, maybe if you're part of some kind of religious or spiritual group, it's the leader of that group or leaders of that group. And it's hard to say, "Oh, I learned this thing I no longer want to hold onto, and I learned it from this person who I cherish and I love and I admire." And I say, you should still do those things and understand that just as you have these sort of complicated things, so do they. And so it just allows us, I think, to be more compassionate.

Brett:

You write specifically about how this impacted your teaching, where you had a student that came in one morning that was just exhausted, just absolutely tired. I wonder if you could talk about that story and how it changed your approach to teaching.

Shamari:

Sure. Yeah. That's Eli. I remember it very well how it felt, because the first feeling, just to give people context with the story is I had this student, Eli. I was teaching middle school Spanish at this time, and when I think about my early teaching days, I was an over-everything-er. Forget overachievement, I overdid everything. I had vocabulary quizzes every Monday. I had pop quizzes all the time. I gave homework every day. I was constantly pushing stuff and pushing stuff and pushing stuff, and the grades were fine. The students seemed fine. I was like, okay, they're keeping up. And so I would just keep going on and on and on. And so then Eli walks in and he's just exhausted and he sort of plops his head down and I'm like, okay, just having a bad day. And he does it for five days straight.

And I'm like, okay, now what's going on here? Not thinking it's my class. I'm thinking, oh, some new sport he's doing, some new activity. He should really get more sleep. He really should think about what it means to take care of himself, but it's not going to be my class. And so I ask him and he tells me it's the class. It is too much. And in order to keep up and impress you, which is what he was saying, because I respect you so much, I have to spend hours every single night studying for the pop quiz we know you're going to have, the vocabulary quiz we know you're going to have, the homework you've given us, the activities that have about two weeks in between, and so there's a huge assignment, but we're going to do it. And so my first feeling to answer your question was pride.

I felt like yes, I'm the teacher that they respect. They're working really hard for me. Wow, look at this. That was the ego. I was the ego telling me that my ego lives in a constant state of never enough. It's always too much, too little. And I was just like, this is really, really good. I want to do more of this. And then the humanity part kicked in and I thought about it and I was like, wait a minute here. If I'm looking at Eli as a human with needs, with very real physical needs, I have just heard him say he is not able to get sleep because of my class. I felt I was embarrassed a little bit at first. I felt disappointed in myself, and then I said, let's check in with yourself and everybody else.

And so I took that conversation back to the whole class, didn't name him of course, and I just said, "Is anyone feeling like this is too much? Is anyone feeling like they're foregoing sleep or what have you?" Everybody said Yes. Everybody said yes. The whole class said, we're all tired. We all feel overworked, and we respect and love you so much, and we want to impress you. That's why we do it. And so I said, "That's not okay. I appreciate the respect and the admiration, but I don't think it's healthy for me to invite you to neglect your humanity and neglect your physical needs for my class. I can make changes in which we can still learn stuff, we can still develop skills, we can become better at speaking Spanish," although it was a middle Spanish class, "And we can make sure we're taking care of our physical bodies."

Brett:

As you bring us through this work, the second half of the book, you have a section called Question Work, where you are really helping us focus on our practice, how we can show up in that work, and how we're responding to the actual and not assumed situations of our students.

Shamari:

Sure. Fun fact, this used to be one really long chapter. It was all one thing. I got in and I stayed in, and then I looked up and like a thousand pages later, I was still in this chapter. And so I said, we have to divide it. But really what I'm doing is I'm taking all the content from the previous chapter around love, and I'm giving it back to the reader as a question. Because so often I think that we engage with love and we define it and then leave it there, but I'm like, how do we know if we're showing up? And so when we think about what it means to love someone, help them navigate their challenges, I think many of us would say that yeah, that's important. I have my loved ones and I show up for them. They can call me for things.

And so I just ask, are you working with students to navigate their actual challenges and not the ones you assume based on prejudice, bias and stereotypes, meaning you have to get to know them. Sure you can take the notes from the teacher that had them last year, and teachers often share, "Hey, you're going to have Shamari in your class next year. He loves Mariah Carey." Sure, that's going to work. But I also want you to take some time to get to know Shamari and learn more about the challenges he's navigating now that may not be the same ones he navigated last year, or the ones you learned about when watching documentaries or reading history of communities that he's from where you're like, "Shamari is from this place. People in this place have these challenges." What if it's not Shamari's? And so the actual, I assume, is just inviting teachers to say, first, get to know who they are. Get to know the actual things that they have surfaced and articulated as challenges, and now work with them to be able to do those things.

And so the questions really just come from the definitions that I shared right before around what love looks like to me and how love is an action, and it invites us to do a thing. That those things are nurturing the growth in other people and in ourselves and protecting that growth and that protection could look like helping someone navigate a challenge, for example.

Brett:

Well, you even go one step further into that and say that you had this "Aha!" moment where you realized love is always an action I can choose. How did you get to that point?

Shamari:

Sure. The examples ... I had to see it in real life. It was one thing to read about it in a book. It's one thing to intellectualize a thing and scholars and authors and writers, we love to do that. I love to give you all this theory and talk and talk and talk. And so I felt like after reading a lot of Toni Morrison and a lot of bell hooks, I felt like, I get this. I understand what they're saying to me about love. I understand what it looks like. And then I would close the books and then say, "What does it look like?" I actually don't understand what it looks like in real life, off the pages. And so I began looking for it in the world, and I found the wonderful women that I talk about in Chapter Three who were a part of ballroom culture.

These are Black trans women, and I learned so much about love from them. And through watching them after having read all this material, I had the "Aha!," This is what it looks like in real life. This is what love looks like as practice, and it's always an action that they are choosing to do day in and day out. And I think that we can learn a lot. I think I learned a lot. I know I learned a lot from them about how to show up in love, and a lot of it had to do with the area that I point out in that chapter and the questions that I then present in the next chapter.

Brett:

We hear a lot both in the communities that we work with all the time, about teacher burnout and the incredible need for self-care, and it's very easy to fall into that as another trope of some kind. But this book really truly is looking to give tangible work, tangible help, to teachers who are suffering through that. You write specifically "Start with this book." Wonder if you could tell me why we need to start with this book?

Shamari:

It's a great question. Why start with this book? Because I believe in the world we all deserve. I know it's possible. People that I look up to from my own mother, to my older sister, Toni Morrison, have talked about having hopes and dreams for this world that ought to be. This world that one day we will be able to experience. But rarely do we talk about how to get there. And so this book for me is a bridge, and it moves us beyond just having a hope and a dream, and it moves us into acting. To say that, yes, I know a better world is possible. We know a more loving world is possible, and I say, start with this book so that we can understand how we actually get there. And we get there by starting with ourselves. This book is an invitation to think about our own humanity, the most beautiful parts of that, the most challenging parts of that, so that we can show up in more loving ways for ourselves, for our students, and for other people.

And I believe that once we are all doing that, not only humans who teach, but just humans, that is how we get to this world we deserve. That world that's more just, more loving. There's more kindness, there's more nurture, there's more growth, all those things. But we have to begin doing those things for ourselves and doing that work within ourselves.

Brett:

I hope you enjoyed our conversation today. You can learn more about Shamari and his new book, Humans Who Teach as well as Shamari's podcast with Heinemann called "Water for Teachers", on the Heinemann website at blog.heinemann.com. Also there, we have linked to the video conversation of our podcast today, which you can also find on the Heinemann YouTube channel. In the coming weeks, you'll also be able to hear Shamari read Humans who Teach in his forthcoming audiobook due out later this spring.

Before you go, I'd also like to invite you to sign up for the Heinemann newsletter so you never miss a blog or a podcast from Heinemann. You'll also be able to learn about all of our latest events from our newsletter and find out what our professional book authors are up to as well. Thanks for listening.

 

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Shamari is the author of the new book Humans Who Teach: A Guide for Centering Love, Justice, and Liberation in Schools

 

 

 


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Shamari Reid (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at NYU. He has taught Spanish, English as a new language,  and ELA at the elementary, secondary, and post secondary levels in Oklahoma, New York, Uruguay, and Spain. As a scholar-educator, Shamari’s work centers love as a moral imperative in social justice education, and as a path toward culturally sustaining school communities.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Shamari Reid, Humans Who Teach, podcasts

Date Published: 03/28/24

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