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Dedicated to Teachers

Water for Teachers: The World and Us with guest Tara Benitez

Water For Teachers_EP2_Tara-BenitezWelcome to Water for Teachers, A Heinemann podcast focused on engaging with the hearts and humanity of those who teach. One thing we know for sure is that teachers are human. They have fears. They've experienced tragedy. They struggle. They are affected by crises and pandemics. And like everyone else, they deserve to lead lives full of peace, joy, and love. Join host Shamari Reid and other educators as they move from logic to emotion, from the head to the heart, from thinking to feeling, and from the ego to love.

This week, Shamari is joined by Tara Benitez, a 2nd Grade Special Education ICT Teacher in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn as they talk about our complicated identities as humans in education, and the oft-misunderstood and overused term intersectionality.

They ask, how do we build resilience to keep our focus and energy on the kids without letting stress affect our well-being? How do teachers deal with trauma? 

Listen to last week's episode here!


Below is a full transcript of this episode.

Shamari: Episode two. Yo, I'm so excited and I have this funny story. I don't know if you all saw those of your listening, two or three years ago, Adele accepted, I think it was a Grammy for album of the year or song of the year, I don't know, but she was so shocked.

And so, when she got up there, she kept saying, "Hi, hi, hi." And that's what I feel in my head as we get into episode two. I want to say it to all the listeners out there. Hi, hi, hi. Thank you for joining us. I feel so lucky and I can really only express gratitude because yet again, here I am getting to engage with the heart and the humanity of a brilliant human who teaches, Tara. But before I invite Tara to engage with me in some dialogue, I want to start off today's episode as I do every episode with a letter. And after the letter, I'll invite Tara to explore any and everything the letter brings up for us both. The letter I'm going to read today is from a high school student to their U.S. history teacher.


"Dear, Ms. G, most of my life, I have never been able to be inspired by any of my teachers. I lacked connections with all of my educators until I met you last year and I was so grateful. I lacked connections because there was no one who looked like me, a young Black woman. Black girls have so little representation everywhere. And sometimes schools reinforce the belief of what the movies, the news and TV shows tell us about who Black girls can become. So for you to have been my teacher and one who taught me U.S. history, a subject I used to not care for meant more to me than any teaching I've received over the last years. Your zest for spirituality and your power, even when you had so little made me want to learn. You gave me the motivation to pass the U.S. history regions. And you showed me that I could be someone other than a stereotype."


So let's talk to Tara. Tara is a second grade special education ICT teacher in Brooklyn, originally from Staten Island, New York, and a former NYC teaching fellow, Tara graduated with a master's in urban special education. She says her mission is to educate and inspire lifelong learners as a former yoga teacher and meditation enthusiast, she believes the life we lead is the lesson we teach. Welcome, welcome Tara. Thank you for sharing this space with us.

Tara: Thank you so much. I'm so excited.

Shamari: I almost said it again. I almost said, "Hi, hi, hi." We'll put that in the description notes, so you all can do that video, but Tara what's on your mind after listening to that letter?

Tara: Oh, I mean, okay, so a couple things. Well first, there's a quote, the life we lead is a lesson we teach and that quote has really driven me throughout my last almost a decade teaching in the DOE. So when I hear that letter, I mean, it clicks for me. This is the purpose. This is the drive. This is why we're here. But moreover, I mean, this is talking about a teacher who was able to be vulnerable enough with themselves to not only bring up these topics. Teachers, I think we like to teach what we're confident in and that may not be every subject, so if you have this type of teacher that can bring that vulnerability and connect, bypass the curriculum.

Yes, the curriculum's there, but how can we take this to a deeper layer into the onion? I mean, this is why we're here. I thought of one of my former students who had messaged me over the summer and I was thinking, I was like, "Oh my gosh, this student Daniel, I haven't heard from him in years. He's in high school now. I can't believe he's still thinking about me." And I still think about my teachers. So I think this is a really big part of the heart of teaching.

Shamari: Yeah. So let's go back to the beginning. You've been teaching for over a decade and I have a rather interesting question. Some might call it abstract, but I'm only got to ask it and I'm going to encourage you to take it wherever you want to. Where does your story begin?

Tara: My story does not begin in a classroom. I wanted to be so many different things other than a teacher, but what led me to become a teacher is I was a yoga teacher, okay? So I was teaching all ages, mostly adults, Vinyasa yoga in Manhattan, loving it. And I had an opportunity to actually join up with a not-for-profit called Fan For Kids, which basically fights childhood obesity in low-income neighborhoods. So I taught yoga at a school. I was an independent contractor at the school and once I was teaching yoga to kids, I saw that like adults, we can go and take a yoga class, or we're aware that we can go pop a YouTube video on, but kids, this is really where we need to start planting the seed. I started yoga when I was 15 in order to combat stress at home.

But to be able to introduce health and wellness and how to eat right to kindergartners, first graders, second graders. I mean, that's really where my story starts. Once I was there, I became a teaching fellow. And now as a special educator, this is always infused into my teaching. I'm always asking my students, even in a transition between remote learning, okay, we're going to take a deep breath. We're going to blow out our birthday candles. We are going to get in touch with our body before we move into math. There are all these little ways, especially now that we're remote and everyone is in their heads, a lot of overthinking, this is a way to get back into our body even though we're inside.

Shamari: Yeah, yeah. Have you found that you're able to do some of those things now and also, let me ask you, are you teaching, is it remote for you? Is it a combination? Are you in the classroom?

Tara: Yeah, so actually, for the last two years, I was out of the classroom as a literacy coach at my school. And this year I really had no clue what I was going into. I remember walking in the first day that we were allowed back in the building, it was 8 o'clock and I went back to my office, I was like, "Oh, I might not be here this year. I might not be in this position." So actually currently I'm teaching both in-person two days a week and alternating Mondays and remote. So I'm working with two different cohorts switching my brain.

Shamari: Yeah, yeah. And so, today, we're talking about identity, but before we go any further, I want to ask you for our listeners who don't know you, how would you identify yourself?

Tara: Yeah, so I'm a New Yorker. I was thinking about, of course I'm Asian American. I was born and raised here, but my family is Filipino, but I'm a born and bred New Yorker, K to 12 I went through the New York City public school system. And I'm really happy that I can share my experience in the public school system now as an educator in the public school system.

Shamari: And how would you say your identity has informed the way that the world has interacted with you and the way that you have interacted with the world?

Tara: So a couple things, yeah. In terms of identity, it's like as a learner, for me, I gravitated towards my teachers. I think when I grew up in a home of domestic violence, my parents got divorced at a young age. We didn't have a lot of the family supports that my other friends did growing up. So for me, my school was really my family.

My friends at school became my family, the teachers became replacement dads it was a really organic way to build these relationships that were missing at home for me. So I think for me as a teacher and as an educator, I really think about each one of my 31 kids and where are the gaps? Where are the gaps that I can fill for them? Where can I provide all these forms of love? I know the last time we talked, we talked about the five love languages of children, the physical part, the verbal praise, the gifts, how do I understand my students a little bit more so I can give them any missing pieces that they feel they have.

Shamari: Yeah, yeah. And I guess, do you make any connections or draw on your identities at all when you think about your approach to teaching and what it meant for you to go through life as someone who grew up in New York as a woman being Filipino being Asian-American?

Tara: Oh, definitely. I mean, I grew up in Staten Island, which is a predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood. I was normally the only Asian person and one of the very few Asian people in my grade up until I went to a more diverse high school. So, I think about how exposure is really in the hands of the teacher, how do we touch upon and it's our responsibility to really touch upon all of these diverse cultures so that when our students go out there in the world, that they're ready and prepared and they have some basic understanding of all types of people.

Shamari: Yeah. And also, I want to just stop and just share, as we're thinking about identity that we really get clear about some terms, because I'm going to use a term in just a moment, intersectionality. And I don't want to really spout theory, but I do want to share this, that when I'm using it, I'm thinking about intersectionality as a tool for analysis. And so, I think a pair of glasses that allow me to see something, and what intersectionality allows me to see is how the lives of certain people are informed by the reality of living within multiple systems of oppression. And so, I always go back to Kimberlé Crenshaw and the story she tells of Emma, a Black woman who was seeking employment at a manufacturing plant and she wasn't hired and Emma  believed she wasn't hired because of race and gender discrimination.

They get to court, and the manufacturing plant was able to prove that they hire black people, and they hire women. However, what no one talked about, but that Emma knew, was that all the black people who were hired were men, because they were doing sort of manual labor and all the women who were working at the front desk and doing clerical work were white. It wasn't that she needed two swings at the bat, she didn't have a chance at all. And so intersectionality then allows me to see how the experiences of, for example, black women, or Asian American women are different, and it's not a worse or a better, or I'm not playing the oppression Olympics. But I think it's important that as we talk today, we really think about how multiple identities can greatly change the experience. I know as a proud Black Gay man, my experience is very unique, and it's not like some of my cis-gender heterosexual Black brothers, or like my Black trans friends, it's mine.

And I have to sort of navigate different challenges. And so, yeah, I just wanted to throw that out there before we continue, because I do think it's important that if we're going to talk about what it means to understand our students' identities, that we come back to ourselves and we humanize ourselves, and we understand that we too are human, and not without identity. We are not just teachers. We are trans, we are Korean, we are Muslim. We are immigrants, and so much more. And our identities certainly shape how we move through the world.

And so in thinking about identities, I want to go back to a conversation that you and I had when we talked about how our identities might lead to certain kinds of trauma, and experiences. And you and I started talking, but I paused because I wanted to have the conversation on air, but what does it mean to teach while navigating trauma? And so I want to ask you, what have you learned about teaching with trauma, and what helps you cope?

Tara: Oh, so this year has been the hardest in my teaching career. And you would think, oh, it just gets easier as it goes on. But no, I don't think anyone could ever have predicted or prepared for anything like this. Moreover, this was the first year that my mother got very ill. It actually happened right before the pandemic started. She was a nurse. She's been a working nurse for the last 30 years. She was working in January. And I got a call in February that she wasn't picking up the phone, that she hadn't really been responsive for the last 24 hours or so. So when I went to the house as a check, I found her on the floor. She had been very sick. She was actually diagnosed. They found out that she had MRSA in her brain. So my mother spent about seven to eight months in the hospital this year. I've been kind of juggling being a teacher, dealing with the trauma of seeing my mother. And also this is during COVID. So there were times, a month where I wouldn't be able to visit her.

I knew she was alone, not being in control, but then having to go kind of like teach your class and keep it separate from the kids. This year has been survival, Shamari, for me specifically, but I know that all of us are dealing with our own forms of trauma, even if it's a low-level form of it, or whatever form. So what I've been seeing and what I think, and when I talk to my colleagues, because that's really where the healing comes for me, from this, is speaking to my fellow teachers. But there is a resilience in this job to be a teacher for this long, in the DOE, there is so much teacher turnover. What do they say? Special educators leave after five years.

And in my mind, when I became a special educator, I said, "I need to make it to that five-year mark. I'm going to prove it to myself that I can do this no matter what email, what phone call, what you get this is my purpose. This is my mission." And this year has definitely turned it all upside down. But to deal with that trauma, I had built a well for myself, through yoga, through meditation, all those years of being this really go-getter 20-year-old, wanting to take care of myself, kind of do all of those things, build your well, traveling and all that, those things that fill your cup, I think that's how I was able to get through what I saw, and what I've seen this year.

Shamari: Yeah. I really wish I had you nine years ago, or whenever I started my career, because I think I may be shared with you before, at the beginning of my career, I was a Spanish teacher, by the way, I taught high school Spanish. And I lost my sister in a tragic incident. My sister was murdered. And what I just did, which is unhealthy, and I'm saying this not to get any pity, but to share with all of you listening. I used to use my work and my teaching as an escape. And I thought that it was therapy and it was healing me. But what I found out that I was doing is I was actually pouring myself into work so that I didn't have to deal with other things. And so when I lost my sister, I took one day off, one day, and that was the day I gave myself to heal. And then I went to teach the very next day. And I thought that I could do it, and I wasn't vulnerable if I didn't really share with my students.

And so they were buying my performance because I was so happy and I was teaching Spanish. And that was the day about family. And I don't think I even connected all of these things. And one of the students asked me very simply, "Oh my gosh, how do you say sister in Spanish?" And I had to turn to the board, and I started crying. But I was hiding it. And I could've just cried and we could have had a conversation, but again, this was the beginning of my career. And I was like, I have to be a super teacher. And so I turned to the board, and I just started drawing random stuff to sort of take up time so that I could finish crying, and then turn back around and say, "Oh, here's the word for sister," and we could move on.

And so I wish I had you saying talk to people, talk to your colleagues. It's okay to be vulnerable, because I tried to just ignore it. And it only got worse, until the students finally found out, and the next day that after they found out I came and there was a card on my desk from an anonymous student saying, "I'm keeping you in my thoughts and in my prayers," and there were flowers, and I was like, I should have shared this sooner. I should have been vulnerable sooner.

But I didn't know. We don't know. And so I'm happy that I learned it, but I wish I had someone like you sort of inviting me to share, and to understand that I'm not alone. And that as teachers who are humans, we do all experience trauma, and we're navigating all kinds of things more than just the math lesson or the science lesson. We're caring so much. And I just needed someone to say that I could let it out.

Tara: And when I'm hearing you talk, it just makes me think about the things that we do to avoid not feeling. For me, it was just, my favorite Buddhist teacher, her name is Tara Brach. She says, "We distract ourselves in order not to feel." So what is it that you don't want to feel? And of course we're on this survival mode, we really have to compartmentalize it. I think about okay, I have to take this feeling and put it in a box and put it away. And through your teaching career, there are breakups, there are mean texts that come in, that you shouldn't have read during your lunch period.

There are these random things that take you off your game and you really have to like, okay, you splash some water in your face and you get back out there. But what if there was an environment where we're all learning from each other? Because if I hide this trauma. And granted, it's never going to be the whole lesson or anything like that.

But these pockets of moments, if I can be honest and vulnerable with them, then they can be honest and vulnerable with us. But I have to create that space, that learning environment where that's okay, you're coming in, you're having a rough day, rather than us getting a back and forth about you doing your writing, share. Let's air it out. And that's something I think the teachers at my school do really well, actually, with the social emotional learning, just having this clearing, a morning clearing, an afternoon clearing of let's just say how we feel, but without even responding to it, because I think this is a second part to it.

When we go to our fellow educators, when we're in our relationships, our friends, when we're sharing how we feel, sometimes we don't really want it to be fixed. Sometimes we just want somebody to just listen. And that is so hard to do, because I've been trying to just, I'm just going to listen. I'm not going to offer my judgements yet. I'm just going to be a safe container. And I'm like, wow, if I'm having a hard time in it, we're all having a hard time creating that. But I mean, this is it, these conversations are what is going to get it going to change it and to try it and take that risk.

Shamari: Yeah. And that's why I think it's so important for us to be able to have these spaces where we can admit these things, and not feel like we have to be on all the time. Something you just said, though, I found very powerful. When you talked about sort of modeling, being a role model for the humanity that invites students to do the same thing. Again, I learned that after, but after I began sort of looking at my own stuff and my own trauma and my vices, and how I was using my vices to sort of cover up hurt. Once I saw my own humanity, it made it impossible to not see the humanity in my students. And so once I accepted that, wow, if I'm carrying trauma, and I'm carrying these things because of who I am, and how I move through the world, they must be also.

And so once I started sharing and getting vulnerable with them, they slowly, in their work is where I saw at first, honestly, in their writing, and in their assignments. And then we started having these discussions. And so I just love that you mentioned, we can also model that, we can model what it is like to be a human who feels, and a human who has things going on, and we can collectively heal.

Tara: And to what you said to that about our vices, I'm thinking about, I used to be a drinker. I've been four years sober now, but something that I used to do early back in the day, you have a hard day of teaching. I would go get my Trader Joe's wine, and that's what I would use to cope, and trust me, I love those Friday happy hours. They are still awesome for healing, but once I became sober, I realized I was using that to escape resting. I was using that to escape just giving my body the silence it needed, because I think, especially when you're a teacher that's getting ready for tenure, you are the yes man. You are going to do everything and anything. There's only so much of that that you can do before you burn out. It was just interesting that you said that.

Shamari: Think about being a yes person, I also think about me and so my first school was a Catholic school and I was an openly Black Gay man. There was a part of me that was so grateful to be there that I became a yes person too, "Oh, we need someone to go and work the soccer game on the weekends." I didn't have the time. I was figuring things out. I was a new teacher. I was also waiting tables at night because of teacher pay, which we talk about later. I was exhausted, but I felt like I had to say yes to everything. There's an imposter syndrome that sort of sets in sometimes. That goes back to my identities.

Now I can sort of reflect nine years later and say, "That's what that was." But while I was in it, I felt paralyzed and that I had to say yes to everything because I should be grateful just to be allowed in the space as a Black Gay man.

Tara: It just makes me think about as we get older, being able to not only set boundaries in our personal life. I think as we get older and our relationships get better, we choose the friends that are really feeding us and not taking from us. It correlates to how we're doing in our job.

I mean, I think about my myself, how I used to be a yes person, especially somebody out of the classroom. You just really, you want to prove yourself, like I deserve this position so I'm just going to do everything and everything. Then you start to realize, "No, I have 30 more years to go, Shamari. I have a long time before Ms. Benitez can retire." If I'm going to last the next 30 years, this year has been actually the first time where I have to say, I'm going to say no, and I'm scared. I don't know if I'll be retaliated against. I don't know if I'm allowed to say no. That's not healthy for teachers. We should be able to enter into a job where we can feel confident enough to be able to say no to things that are too much. In the situation that we're in right now, it's utterly hard because everyone is just so strapped.

Shamari: Do you remember one of the first times you said no and how that felt?

Tara: Oh wow. It was this year. It was just a few months ago actually.

Shamari: Now wait, so 10 years?

Tara: Yes. Yes. I will give a little background on that. My mother's been a nurse her whole life. Our first teachers are our parents, our guardians, and most nurses are co-dependent. You're giving, giving and not giving to yourself. That was something that I saw. Although I learned utter generosity, my mom was always giving things, she was giving of herself, her time and her energy, but I realized, especially this year in being able to spend time with her while she was in a hospital bed. This year she was supposed to retire. There was no party. She had worked her whole life. I'm sorry. She worked her whole life. I just imagined this ending for her and she didn't get to have that ending.

I think about myself. I don't want to run myself into the ground to the point where there's nothing left. This year I said no, and I felt it in my body. Now it feels like this eruption where it's like, "No, no, no, you can't do that." The first thing you think is like, "You're going to lose your job. What's going to happen?" It's like, "No," we can't do that to ourselves. If you have a job where you feel like you can't say no, that's not healthy. I did say no, and it was okay. No, but it was okay.

It's kind of like, it falls on us to really make those changes, and I said, no again and I'm still saying no, and the kids are still happy and the parents still seem really happy. I have to kind of take away this habitual thinking of like, "If I don't do it, then they're going to think I'm not a team player or ABCD." But I think what's going to happen is there's a respect that's earned by saying no, by, oh, she's taking care of herself. She knows her limits and I respect that more than someone who says yes, and then does a bad job or does isn't present. It's this year.

Shamari: Did that sort of tendency to sort of say yes and go along with things, show up anywhere else in your life, or was that only at work?

Tara: Of course, of course, in relationships you settle for less than you have because it's like, "Oh great. I met somebody that wasn't on online. I really have to make this work." It's just so interesting because my relationship in present day is so much better because I'm taking care of myself in other realms, in other places. It's not that scary teachers. If can say no, try it.

Shamari: I think one of the things I worked on the most with my therapist and I've been seeing my therapist, not my current therapist, I've been in therapy for, I don't know, 15 years. I went to therapy as a young child because of my sexuality and so I just stayed. I was like, "Hey, I like this." Something that took me a really long time to learn though, was to be able to articulate my boundaries and to articulate my needs. It sounds so simple now. I can look and say, "Oh my gosh, what were you doing?" But I was unable, Tara, to say to someone, "I need this or I would like you to show up in this way." I couldn't do it. My therapist helped me discover it was because I didn't feel like I deserved it. That's why I wasn't really asking for it.

I had to go do some self work and some healing, all those things. But I feel like when I started saying no, it made me a better teacher because I took that to my classroom. I told my students, "I know I used to be the guy who would grade in 24 hours. I'm not doing that anymore. I'm not foregoing to sleep anymore." They understood. They were like, "You were doing that. Why were you doing that? Aren't you the guy all about self care and self love?" I was like, "Yeah." They were like, "You should have been taking time for you." It sounds so simple. Just say no and say what you need, but wow. It took me forever to learn that.

Tara: Right. If we're not engaging in these conversations with family or friends, where are we going to learn this? What class can we take in college that's like boundaries 101, that can at least provide us with those tools. When we're talking, I'm wondering how do I provide and equip my second graders with that? How do we teach children to advocate for themselves because of what they're feeling or not feeling?

Shamari: These days we're on this pandemic and a lot of things are happening. Where do you go for peace?

Tara: Right now, my dog. When I'm home, I feel really fortunate that I have my dog, but where I go for peace, my colleagues, number one. I have a morning group chat of teachers. It has saved me in many ways, just being able to, whether it's somebody sent a group message that, "Good morning, we're going to have a great day." Just starting the day positive, those same ways that we build community in the classroom, teachers, I think, find their own little ways of doing that with each other, of just the check-ins, the, "Okay, I just want to vent this frustration. I just want to let it out into the air. Thank you guys for being that space," and then moving on. I think that is one of my primary resources. But the meditation and yoga, it looks a lot different than it did 10 years ago, but in the small spaces that I can grab onto it, it anchors me.

Shamari: What do you love most about teaching?

Tara: Today, just seeing the children's smiling faces. I know it's such a simple thing, but being able to connect with these kids as they're also undergoing a trauma, they're figuring out the world as it is. I mean, they are some resilient bunch to be learning from, to log on with them and just the good mornings, they're ready. Some of them are saying they love school, which is really weird, and some of them are really can't wait to come back next week into the building. But it's them. I mean, this is all for a greater purpose to ensure that the next cohort of children that are growing up that are going to be voters are equipped with every tool that they have to be the best that they can be.

I just taught a social studies unit all on the election. I felt like that was the greatest opportunity I had in the world to be able to present something that they'll be reading in the history books to them. They're six and seven years old. For them to be having conversations about the election and just their world, I mean, this is the part that was missing for me.

Tara: I didn't become politically motivated until the last four years, until literally the last four years. I got very comfortable in our democracy, so the fact that we can start to teach civics as a necessity, what does it mean to be an American? Let's go back to these values and ideals that we truly believe in. This is important to me.

Shamari: I love that. The next sort of set of questions, I try to ask all my guests, the first is as a human who teaches, what do you wish others knew about you and your work?

Tara: I wish others knew that no matter what, teachers want to feel prepared in front of children. Teachers want to feel confident in front of their children that they're teaching, and we don't always do. We don't. It can mean we're about to teach a lesson and then we get a phone call or we have had something happen at home or we didn't get sleep the night before, or we're just forgetting to do those self-care routines, but our hearts and minds are there for them.

And I hope, I just hope others know that, no matter what. Sometimes you read things about teachers, especially nowadays, not every broadcast broadcasts teachers in the best light. And that can feel really hard. It can make you not want to stay in the profession when your profession is viewed in a certain light. But I believe after this pandemic, that there will be a new and fresh outlook on how teachers are treated and what we believe teachers should be equipped with for our kids.

Shamari: Yeah. And so along those same lines, as we think about all of the beautiful people who are listening and those who teach, what would you say to other educators right now?

Tara: I've been trying to post some inspirational things of just like, "We got this." After kind of being through different schools, working with new teachers and veteran teachers, you never know who you're going to reach with what you say, especially on social media and things like that. A little ounce of motivation like that can really push a teacher, but stay, keep on the path, stay focused on your mission, and let the noise, let the chatter kind of fall away. One thing one of my favorite yoga teachers said was, "Focus on what's real and leave out what's not real."

And some thoughts that we have, aren't real, aren't facts, so just stay on the path. Do what you have to do, but take care of yourself always, drink water, go to the bathroom, those little things, that seems so silly to talk about. But one little thing that I'll share that has really changed me this year was I took the work email off my phone. It's there, but it's silenced. But I will say, not getting a flash email on the weekend has completely alleviated my mind, and I'm still caught up on work. You know what I mean? Nothing has gone awry. The world has not collapsed because I didn't check the email every... You what I mean, every 20 minutes. So that's one thing I will say that was advised to me that has worked.

Shamari: I need to take that advice. I have two separate emails, but I have both apps on my phone. I have the Gmail and the Microsoft, but it is there, but it doesn't pop up. And so there is something to be said about having things not flash in front of you. But I love, "Focus on what's real and leave out what's not real." It's the simple stuff, really. When we're going through, what do I need? What advice do I have? How do I... It's just the simple stuff, like smile, love, focus on what's real, take care of yourself, drink water.

I have two more questions. The first I ask to all of my guests, and the second one is just for you. And so here's the first. And so this podcast is called Water for Teachers. And water, for me, it makes me just think about healing and restoring and, honestly, sleep and growth and all these wonderful things about nourishing our bodies. And so I'm going to ask you, and I have asked all of my guests and they take it wherever they want, but what is your water?

Tara: So there is a few things when I think about water. On a funny note, I think about keeping my head above water, in terms of how reflexive and responsive we have had to be, how educators have had to operate this year. But my students are my water. My yoga is my water. Meditation is my water. I think about water as washing off the day, being able to connect physically with water. I'm fortunate enough to live by the FDR East River Park, and being able to go and take a little walk, a 10-minute walk to see water, to know that we're not the static people.

The feeling that we have now, is not going to be the same feeling as that we have in a year or in 20 minutes. To remember that we are constantly changing, our cells are regenerating. There's a possibility to choose something different. And you know, that goes with all of our relationships too. I mean, we can't look at our families as this stuck certain way. They're also changing and evolving. Our kids are not who they were in kindergarten, so when we get them in second grade, they're these different and new beings. So I think about water as that flow, that change, that flux, and going with the flow.

Shamari: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. My final question will feel a lot like the question I asked at the top of our conversation. So I'll sort of go back to the beginning and go back to our conversation on identity, and I want to end with this. What have you learned about all of your identities and how they inform what you do in the classroom?

Tara: All of our identities. When you speak about identity, I think a lot about the moments I spent with my mom in the hospital. I think when we're able to connect with our primary caregivers, whoever that is, whoever raised us, for me, my mom, I never really saw her as... she was always mom, but as like, "Oh, she's a human too." Until I was sitting next to her, holding her hand, she was just like me and I didn't know that. It's kind of like when you're younger, you want your mom so much. And then in your twenties, you push them away, you travel all over the world to just find yourself and find this identity for yourself.

But really, I found myself in that hospital room, looking at her and seeing myself. And through that, my identity has changed because there were things that I wasn't accepting in myself because I wasn't accepting them from her. I couldn't accept certain... I think, even if we love our parents so much, there's always that one thing. "Oh, well, I wish you would've done that." And that starts to fall away when you see, we try the best with what we have, with what we're given at the time.

So after that experience and now being back in the classroom, I feel like I see my kids for everything that they are, the wiggles, the this, the that, the... I see them as these full spectrum beings now, but I couldn't see them that way before, because I couldn't see that in myself. So for me, what that's brought is a presence that I didn't have before.

I knew I was present in class, but I think I was more important about, "I got to get this lesson out perfect," as opposed to, "How am I landing with these kids? How am I making that mark so that when they leave this classroom today, they feel that they really took away something." Maybe they didn't learn math, but maybe they learned that something about their teacher that really, "Oh, I didn't know she does that too." Or like, "Oh, she went here, and that's really cool. I want to travel there one day." So yes, that's the humanity that 2020 has brought to me.

Shamari: And for those of you at home listening, I'd like to invite you to join the conversation. What have you learned about your identities, and how they inform what you do in the classroom? If it helps, you might start by taking a moment to reflect on your identities. I often think about the ones that are most salient to me, or the ones I think about most. For example, I am always conscious of my race as a Black person, and as my sexuality as a Black Gay man. And so I want you to sit with you identities and write them down. Free write about how you think they show up in your classroom, and how they inform how you interact with the young people you serve. How might they contribute to blind spots that we all have, which make it harder for us to see our students' identities and their ways of living and loving, and the barriers they might face. And finally, how might, after this reflection, you move, live, and teach differently?

And so what have you learned about your identities, and how they inform what you do in the classroom? And if you feel so moved, share your reflections and explorations with us. I'd love to engage with you and your humanity. You can share your responses on Twitter using the hashtag #WaterForTeachers, or tag us using our Twitter handle @Water4Teachers, that the number four. 

Thank you. Thank you so much Tara. And thank you, all of you at home, for sharing this space with us. Until next time, peace and love. Bye.

Shamari Reid headshotShamari K. Reid I often refer to myself as an ordinary Black Gay cisgender man from Oklahoma with extraordinary dreams. Currently, that dream involves completing my doctoral work at Teachers College, Columbia University in the department of Curriculum & Teaching where I focus on urban education and teacher education. Before starting my doctoral program, I completed a B.A. in Spanish Education at Oklahoma City University and an M.A in Spanish and TESOL at New York University. I've taught Spanish and ESL at the elementary, secondary, and post secondary levels in Oklahoma, New York, Uruguay, and Spain. In addition to my doctoral work, I have spent the last few years as an instructor at Hunter College- CUNY offering courses on the teaching of reading, urban education, and language, literacy, and culture. I have also been engaged in work as a consultant for the New York City Department of Education’s initiative to combat the discrimination students of color face. My research interests include Black youth agency, advocacy, and activism and transformative teacher education. I am currently in the process of completing my dissertation on the agency of Black LGBTQ+ youth in NYC. Oh, and I have small addiction to chocolate chip cookies.


Benitez, Tara Headshot

Tara Benitez is a 2nd Grade Special Education ICT Teacher in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn. Originally from Staten Island, NY, and former NYC Teaching Fellow, I graduated from LIU Brooklyn with a Masters in Urban Special Education. My mission is to educate and inspire lifelong learners. As a former yoga teacher and meditation enthusiast, I believe the life we lead is the lesson we teach. 



Topics: Podcast, Burnout, Community, Heinemann Podcast, Social-Emotional Learning, Social Justice, Shamari Reid, Water for Teachers, Tara Benitez

Date Published: 02/11/21

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