“Four women discuss how/why they entered the field of education, and how being a woman of color with natural hair influences their interactions with students and colleagues.”
Location: Brentwood, NY
Grade/subject Camille teaches: 2nd Grade
Number of years in education: 20 years
1. Describe your path to becoming an educator. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was play school. I used to play with my cousins and I always wanted to be the teacher. When they were not present my dolls became my students. I had a small chalkboard with chalk and an eraser. I have always enjoyed helping others so becoming a teacher was a career that I easily chose. I went to Hofstra University in Long Island, NY and achieved my BA in Literacy Studies; I also graduated from Hofstra with a Masters Degree in Elementary Education. I just began my 20th year as a teacher. I taught 5th grade for 6 years, 2nd grade for 6 years, 1st grade for 7 years and now I am back to teaching 2nd grade! I actually requested to return back to teaching 2nd grade because they are more mature than first graders and they generally love coming to school to learn new things each day.
2. How does being an educator who is a black woman with natural hair impact your experiences with students? My hair has been natural for 10 years. Everyday when the children walk into my classroom they never know what style my hair will be in because I wear it different daily. I have had children compliment my hair (while I am teaching lol) or at various times during the day. My hair at some points was dyed red and other times honey blond. Sometimes the children would compare me to their mom and say, "My mom has red hair too" or there would always be a student who would ask me why I chose that particular color. I would just say that I like color! In the school that I teach in most of the children are Hispanic. I sometimes have one or two black girls in my class. We talk about how unique we all are and how being or looking different is a GOOD thing. In terms of being a role model I give compliments to my students about their work ethic and appearance. When my little black girls come to school with their hair cornrowed or wearing an afro puff I let them know how great their hair looks. I even ask who did their hair and tell them to tell their stylist that they did a super job. In the past, sometimes the students have asked me what I use in my hair to "make it curly" or they will comment about the style of the day.
3. It is Monday morning and you are running late for work. You have fifteen minutes or less to style your hair; what is the plan of action? If I only had 15 minutes to do my hair that would be more than enough time for me. I would simply spritz it with water, apply a few hair products using the raking method, put a part on the side using my finger, brush one side and apply hair pins and let it air dry.
4. In an environment that often questions or demeans your natural hair, how do you endure pushback and continue to confidently rock your curls? I am blessed to be in a school that accepts my hair no matter what style I have chosen to wear it in. I have had coworkers who either compliment my hair or will even ask how I got my hair to look the way it is for that day. I walk with confidence down each hallway at my job with whatever hairstyle I choose.
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Grade/subject Ashlei teaches: English and Social Studies (grades 9th-12th)
Number of years in education: 4 years
Connect with Ashlei: Instagram
1. Describe your path to becoming an educator. I’ve known I wanted to be an educator since I was a young girl writing lesson plans for my younger siblings and cousins to sit through. They would get so annoyed, but little do they know they fed my dream of becoming an educator. Throughout my school years I didn’t have many teachers of color, but the ones I did have were full of passion and excitement- the same feeling that I had when I was teaching my family. In high school I had the opportunity to fuel my passion by completing my senior internship with a former teacher, and the connections I made with students was motivating. After college I knew that I wanted to teach, but I wasn’t sure if I had enough experience. I had never left my hometown of Philadelphia, so I was looking for opportunities to keep learning about what it means to be an educator. I decided to complete a year of service with City Year and proudly served in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I decided to continue my service in Milwaukee with Teach for America, and I have been with my partner school for the past four years. Through all of my service and journey through education I have not seen many people who look like me in the classroom for a significant amount of time. Having people who look like me in the classroom is why I became a teacher, and I want to ensure that black and brown faces continue to see that image.
2. How does being an educator who is a black woman with natural hair impact your experiences with students? Ha! This is a great question because I became natural my first year of teaching. It was a rough journey. The wonderful thing about kids is that they will tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so I have always had critiques on what I should be doing with my hair. I also have an advisory of 8 girls who I’ve been with the entire time I’ve been natural, and we share different hair tricks and styles that look good! There is one student who has been on this journey with me as well, and we talk a lot about the struggles of having natural hair and how many times we always think about going back to the creamy crack! It has opened up many real conversations for my girls and I, and I am grateful we have each other to motivate and love through this journey.
3. It is Monday morning and you are running late for work. You have fifteen minutes or less to style your hair; what is the plan of action? Isn’t this every Monday? My go to quick style is the halo braid. It’s quick and all I need is some grease and water.
4. In an environment that often questions or demeans your natural hair, how do you endure pushback and continue to confidently rock your curls? Honestly, it took me a while to own my natural hair. There are so many times I get comments about my rough edges or 4c “nappy” hair, but I always go back to the conversations that I get to share with my girls every day. I think about how I get to be a reminder for our young girls, that your hair, no matter what style, is good enough. No matter what, we are all good enough! <3
Location: Carthage, North Carolina
Grade/subject Alicia teaches: ELA and Social Studies (7th and 8th grade)
Number of years in education: 5 years
1. Describe your path to becoming an educator. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007 with a B.A. in English Literature. I came home with plans to pursue a career in public relations, but wound up landing an assistant director position at our local Boys and Girls Club, which was my first introduction to working with at risk youth. I went on to work with Communities In Schools in their drop out prevention program, and that position placed me in a school setting, where I saw that the real relationships that caused lasting change in kids' lives were with their teachers. I had already begun a Masters in Human services, and received that degree while working in dropout prevention. After that I was given the opportunity to work at the county's alternative school with transitioning students into and out of the alternative setting. The principal at the time became a great mentor to me, and when the school wound up with an opening to teach High School English I agreed to fill it. I had always thought of teaching as a calling but never really saw myself in a classroom, so the challenge both thrilled and frightened me. I taught high school for 4 years, and am now changing gears to middle school in my fifth year. Through the years I have been able to initiate change in so many situations that I would have never even been privy to if I had not been a classroom teacher. I was chosen as teacher of the year for my school last year, and I also received the district's Growing to Greatness Award the same year. I enjoy working with the teen population because they are dealing with so many new things in their lives, even if they are in the best home situation. Having one more person to guide them and support them through this challenging period in their lives is so impactful.
2. How does being an educator who is a black woman with natural hair impact your experiences with students? There is a high African American population at my school, so a lot of the interactions I have had with students have surrounded hair and general appearance. They feel comfortable approaching a teacher who looks like them to get feedback on how they should present themselves. It gives them confidence to know that they can wear the hair that naturally grows from their head and not be judged negatively because they see someone else working in a professional capacity with the same hair. Especially given the stigma that usually surrounds locs, they are surprised to see that their teacher has locs. I have given out countless tips on how to start and maintain locs, especially to the boys. That is unique to me because if I had a relaxer or any other traditional female hairstyle I would not be able to connect with my male students on that level. I have had locs for 4 years, and a statement that I am sure to hear when a student is starting locs is "I'm going to catch Mrs. Gatling soon!" The number one question I get is how long have I been growing them, and once I tell them that they have an idea of what level of commitment it takes; having locs is more than a hairstyle, it is a process. I also see girls who once thought that weaves and relaxers were the only standard of beauty realize that they can wear their natural hair and be just as stunning. I've been able to break down misconceptions about locs, such as the thought that locs are unclean or can not be styled to look neat and professional/classy.
3. It is Monday morning and you are running late for work. You have fifteen minutes or less to style your hair; what is the plan of action? My go to hairstyle since school is in full swing is to put my hair up in a high ponytail, double it over, and secure it with a wrap called a "loc soc." They come in a ton of colors and patterns so they are easy to coordinate with my outfits, and they really secure my hair in place. My other quick style is to put one braid on the sides of my head, then pull them back to meet at the back of my head and secure the rest of my hair back so that it does not get in my face during the day. Honestly one of the main reasons that I went natural is because I am terrible at styling my hair! So the ease of the locs makes me feel more confident in trying new styles.
4. In an environment that often questions or demeans your natural hair, how do you endure pushback and continue to confidently rock your curls? For me it just comes down to having a positive self-image. I have had people say things like "why don't you change up your hairstyle?" if I wear the same style more than a few days in a row, but my white coworkers who wear their hair down and never style it don't get the same questions. The main reason I decided to go natural is because I have a daughter, and I never wanted her to think she had to chemically process her hair to achieve a certain standard of beauty; I try not to impose those standards on myself either. If someone doesn't like my hair, it is a bigger reflection on them than me. In our district, kids don't get to see many educators who look like them so I am proud to be one who presents my authentic self to them every day both inside and out. That gratification is enough to counter any negative energy that might arise from the professional realm, because at the end of the day I know what my impact is on my students.
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Grade/Subject Candace teaches: 2nd grade
Number of years in education: 6 years
Connect with Candace: Instagram
1. Describe your path to becoming an educator. As a child I had those moments when you line up all your dolls into nice neat rows and pretend to play school. However, the older I became the more I was drawn to the sciences. I entered college at Temple University in Philadelphia as a Biology major and knew for certain I would go into obstetrics and gynecology. The universe had other plans. No matter where I found myself during my college career I always ended up volunteering and working with children. I became heavily involved in a medical student organization on campus and set up an opportunity for my college friends and I to volunteer in the surrounding North Philadelphia community mentoring children. During that time, a major shift happened inside of me. I began to ask myself, "could I make this type of work my career?" I struggled for some time with changing my major and losing the "prestige" that came with becoming a doctor. There were times when tears where shed and I questioned everything that led me up to that point. After all, I was working towards this life goal but then seeing first hand how education or a lack thereof was greatly affecting people's social and economic lives. Eventually, I knew education and teaching the youth was what I needed to do. I walked into my college's admission office and requested a change. I haven't looked back since.
2. How does being an educator who is a black woman with natural hair impact your experiences with students? I firmly believe being a black female educator with natural hair has shifted the thinking of some of my students especially my young girls. Growing up as a child who never had a perm or saw female teachers wear natural hairstyles, I was ready to show my students it's ok to wear your hair how it grows out of your head. In recent years natural hair is becoming more and more "acceptable" and being seen as a form of beauty. Little girls that I've taught have asked with a confused face, "Why do you wear your hair like that? Why don't you straighten your hair?" To these questions, I always reply, "I love how my hair grows. I love me and my natural hair is a part of me." One specific moment sticks out to me. I had a student ask the same hair question, took in what I said, and the next day came in with her hair in the cutest fro ponytail. She ran in during morning arrival and yelled, " I told my mom I wanted my hair to be like yours." That moment was magical. She absolutely loved having her hair out for all to see. I also had a young man tell me I should shave my head or wear my hair straight because it looks better. I can only think these thoughts come from what children see every day in the media rather it be beauty magazines or their favorite TV show. Until just recently, natural hair was not the norm or even considered beautiful. As an educator, I am responsible for shaping every aspect of my student's lives rather it be literacy, how to solve an addition problem or teach them that everything about themselves including their hair is beautiful.
3. It is Monday morning and you are running late for work. You have fifteen minutes or less to style your hair; what is the plan of action? If I'm running late and only have 15 minutes to style my hair I usually go for head wraps, buns, or twists (which I can later take out for a twist-out). I always go for something that is super simple and quick.
4. In an environment that often questions or demeans your natural hair, how do you endure pushback and continue to confidently rock your curls? Luckily, I've had my entire life to fall in love with my hair. As I stated before, I've never had a perm. As this point; take it or leave it. This is all I know. I’ve had instances where I was questioned about my hair texture and regimen by white colleagues. When asked these questions, which I know are out of curiosity, I answer them confidently in hopes of enlightening and exposing them to something they would not have known otherwise. But, in the words of queen Solange Knowles, "Don't touch my hair."