Whose Work Is It?

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By Porscha Henson, MA, LCPC, NCC, RPT, Middle School and Upper School Counselor at The Park School of Baltimore (MD)

This article is dedicated to all those educators who regularly do “work” that is beyond their paper job description.

As I sat down to write this article, I reflected on a time when I was trying to find the “perfect card” for my godparents to tell them how much I appreciated them. I wanted to express to them how much I loved them, admired their marriage, and how much I wondered why they chose to love me when I wasn’t “their given child.” So, I did what most people do: I got a card that best fit the message I was trying to say and then wrote a personal message within the card. I remember my godmother tearing up and saying to me the personal message I wrote meant more to her than what the actual card writer wrote. I remember writing in the card that I couldn’t find the “perfect card,” so I was just going to do my best to express what I wanted to say in my own words.

This story is illustrative of two key points.  One, I will not be able to say everything I need and want to say to educators in this one article. Two, I share this story because I want to show a representation of how people are called to do “work” that goes beyond their job description or what those around them think they should do. Just as my godparents chose to help me and make a difference, the teaching profession makes a difference and helps to build community. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely said, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” 

Whose “work” is it? Some examples of “work” are going the extra mile; buying lunch for a student; taking a parent phone call on a Saturday; listening to emotional stories and finding resources to help a student, family, or colleague; leaning into the resistant student; planting seeds of wisdom; and standing up for those who haven’t found their voice in an unjust world. We are also called to do “work” that gives us pause and we ask, “Is this necessary? Why am I doing this in my role?” I can, with candor, say that my husband, friends, and others in my circle often question, “Why do you have to do that?” As an educator of color, these questions hold a deeper weight because we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and want to ensure that we instill generational truths. If we don’t do the “work,” who will? 

I have been called in the past to speak at various family members’ memorial services. This could include thanking loved ones for showing acts of kindness during our family’s bereavement or the highest honor of speaking about the family member. I count these opportunities as a privilege. Earlier this year, I asked a student about their report card and how they thought they did…were there any surprises; did they think it was fair? The student was surprised that I read report cards in my role as a school counselor. They said, “Wow, what a privilege.” I validated the student and said, it is a privilege and it is one that I don’t take lightly. I used this as a teachable moment to build rapport with the student to show them that I care about their personal well-being, their school experience, and that I would advocate for them if they felt there was something in that report card that wasn’t fair. 

As a school counselor, I often have students, parents, and colleagues come to me to tell me about the positives and the not-so-positives of their school experience. I recently had the honor to present at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference along with two other colleagues, Christina Kim and Malika DeLancey. Our topic was on Racial Trauma and The Path Towards Healing. We shared some student scenarios that unfortunately told the stories of students going through an unjust experience in their school community. In each of these scenarios, the question was asked by the person who sat at the receiving end of hearing the student’s story, “am I going to take this on” and take action? As Christina, Malika, and I prepared for our presentation, we determined that the answer for us as educators of color is a resounding YES! We as educators of color often do more than our job description calls for us to do because no one else will take it on. 

I have asked over twenty educators of color who currently work in independent schools or who previously worked in independent schools this question: why do you stay? These educators represent over five different schools and hold various positions across the United States. Some responses from these educators include: “representation matters; there is a communal responsibility to stay; we all can’t leave; we have arrived at this phenomenal school and we were chosen as one of the few to be in this space; autonomy in lesson planning; if we leave, some parents will no longer enroll their children at the school; compared to a previous place of employment, the mistreatment could be worse; to alleviate stereotypes of women of color; the belief that they will be a part of transformative change and that no one else will do it; we take on battles so kids can be kids; alumni pride; hope for change; comfort; feels indebted to students as they were once in their shoes; to pass on wisdom from their lived experience; because someone stayed for them; because they wished they had someone who looked like them when they were a student; because they had one educator of color for their primary-12 school experience; the students are amazing; and because we make a difference everyday.”

These statements are reminders of why having a diverse group of people in your school community is so important. It also reminds us of the importance of knowing the “why” behind the reason we show up everyday. 

This is a call to action for all educators. The work is all of ours. Remember why you went into teaching. Be intentional about showing up for those who need you. What can you do when you see an injustice happen? This question makes me reflect on what I do when someone comes to me to share a story of an injustice. Here are some practical steps that I follow after I have thanked them for trusting me with their story: 1. I move close to the person and put down all distractions and listen without judgment and with empathy (It is important to create a space where they know they can speak frankly); 2. I validate the person’s experience and respond with compassion; 3. I help them identify their best self and build them up and help them explore some of their positive qualities; 4. I help them to develop a self-care plan and talk with them about the importance of having a sub-community within the school community; and 5. I help them come up with a plan to respond to the injustice. One of the most important things to remember is that the person should not be dismissed, interrogated, or further made to feel like they did something wrong. It takes a high level of vulnerability for people to share their story. When people are hurting, it’s not the time to reflect on what they could have done differently. Gloria Tesch wisely said, “there is a time and place for everything, you just have to wait for the right moment. Once it comes it will be the most beautiful and perfect thing possible.”

It is important for people in schools to work together to create an inclusive and affirming community. What does this look like? This includes validating community members’ experiences, being culturally responsive, being trauma-informed, being accepting, examining your power structure, leaning into discomfort, ensuring that EVERY student in the building has at least one trusted adult they can rely on, examining your institution’s systemic racist practices/policies, hosting affinity groups, stopping name-calling and labeling of children, stopping micro-aggressing and assaulting people of color, being willing to stand up for those around you even if it means you stand alone, ensuring there is a grievance reporting system in place, ensuring employees have time for self-care, and holding people accountable. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good start. It is time for schools to put their words into action and ensure that EVERY person in the community feels like they are a part of the community and that they are not mistreated. Remember, healing happens in relationships. 

Porscha Henson, MA, LCPC, NCC, RPT currently serves as one of the Middle School and Upper School Counselors at the Park School of Baltimore. Mrs. Henson also teaches social-emotional classes, a wellness class, and a leadership class. She has trained at schools and other community organizations on topics including self-esteem development, child abuse, and neglect, and family issues. She has also trained at national conferences. Mrs. Henson has an extensive background in working with students who have experienced neglect and other family-related issues. Because of this background, she is passionate about helping students find their voice. Mrs. Henson and one of her former colleagues created a leadership class at The Park School of Baltimore to help students develop their leadership skills. Outside of advocating for students, meeting with students, and visiting student clubs, teaching this class is truly one of Mrs. Henson’s highlights of the week.  When Mrs. Henson is not supporting her students, she enjoys spending time with her husband and four-year-old daughter. She enjoys playing games with her daughter, reading to her daughter, and having her daughter read to her. Mrs. Henson also enjoys traveling and spending time with her extended family and friends. She also enjoys cooking and baking.