Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My ‘Tribe’

A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life
By Reba Y. Hodge — April 12, 2021 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In 2020, I often asked myself: At what cost am I carrying on?

I am amazed sometimes that I am still at my job as a school administrator. I have wondered how I even survived the year—a Black woman in a politically volatile country twisted by racism, a school leader during a pandemic that for months shuttered my school and so many across the nation.

Just 14 months ago, I was planning a formal party for my birthday. Then I got sick—sicker than I ever remember being before. After doctor visits and when I felt a little better, I returned to my job as the assistant principal of Van Duyn Elementary in Syracuse, N.Y.—only to suffer a setback.

Nonetheless, I held the birthday celebration. I didn’t want to disappoint the family, friends, and colleagues, some up from New York City, who had been looking forward to it. Eventually, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I had COVID-19.

A few weeks after that, school buildings closed. Teachers and students began to teach and learn remotely because of the pandemic. At the same time, Black Americans were struggling through an epidemic of violence inflicted by state authorities. The epidemic was hardly new to us, but it was highlighted and amplified by the slayings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in February, March, and May, respectively.

I did not feel like smiling. I felt like screaming.

The isolation and stillness caused by the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders allowed folks who were never really concerned with the racist history of this country to reckon with the fact that from their silence came complicity. Privileged people who are able to enter and exit conversations pertaining to race at will, who never had to grapple with the harsh reality of racism, were paying attention. For me, the toll from the brutal instances of racialized violence—the weight of trauma heaped on my mind, body, and spirit—was heavy.

Many of us Black women leaders persisted in our duties while navigating our own tensions and hurt. We are afraid and we ache because we understand this reality: The world will use the intellect and effort of Black women even as our people are murdered taking a walk, going to the park, sleeping in their beds at home, even as colleagues amongst us keep silent about the racism.

There were times this past spring when the identities I hold most dear crashed into one another. I drove around handing out teacher-appreciation signs or as part of a car parade for students and their families, tears in my eyes. But at each destination, I smiled. Smiled, because that is what my staff needed. I did not feel like smiling. I felt like screaming.

Then, on May 28, came a districtwide workshop on trauma-informed education. The Zoom meeting began with one “mindful” minute—an exercise for participants to clear their minds of anything they may have been feeling or holding so that they could be present in the moment. That was my undoing. Sixty seconds could not erase all the anger, rage, and sadness I had been carrying. The tears began to fall, and they kept falling.

I reached out to my principal and texted, “This was all just too much” and removed myself from the Zoom call. She understood. Then my teachers began pinging me, their own anger and frustration evident in their calls and texts.
Many of my teachers were experiencing compounded trauma as they recalled months of carnage, death, wrenching changes, and enough violence against Black bodies to last a lifetime. Some were dealing with isolation and feelings of despair. Uncertainty about the future was taking a toll. And then there was the complicit silence from white colleagues who didn’t get that racism was real. Black teachers, teachers of color, white teachers were feeling emotions ranging from disappointment to rage. These were not feelings that could be “cleared” in a moment.

I remember saying to them, “You can get off the call.” But I also contacted the district person in charge of the Zoom meeting and expressed my frustration at the lack of concern that we all were exposed to that morning. How could they think that a season of loss and, for some of us, a lifetime of racism could be put behind us just like that?There were apologies both vocal and written as well as concrete promises to do better.

See Also

Hand writing the word racism on blackboard. Stop hate. Against prejudice and violence. Lecture about discrimination in school.
Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Ed. Leaders: Discuss Race, Call Out White Supremacy
John B. Diamond & Jennifer Cheatham, March 31, 2021
5 min read

Now more than a year from that birthday, I want to believe that I am no longer staggering. For the most part, I feel solid on my feet, and that has a lot to do with my professional “tribe.”

Finding your “tribe” in your professional setting is just as critical as it is in your personal life. I am quite selective about that group. The teachers are Black, of color, and white. The commonality among them is that they are committed to improving their own teaching practices as they work to create conditions where Black and brown students can thrive. My only essential is that these folks prioritize the health and overall well-being of our young people.

I trust these teachers and am encouraged by their willingness to become more responsive and effective educators. Our shared work has been key to renewing my sense of purpose and urgency.

I do not take for granted that I am here in all of these spaces that I belong—as a mom, educator, leader, sister, aunt, friend. I know that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to heal. I am still here to locate all those instances of joy necessary to live a thriving life. I am still here to show up for my students and teachers even during those times when it seems the battles never stop.

This is part of my healing—cultivating teacher leaders who work to condemn and disrupt the ways racism operates in classrooms, schools, and districts. For them and for our students and their families, I will continue to unapologetically confront silence and call out inequity.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us in 1963 that there is such a thing as being too late, he could have been talking about today. “This is no time for apathy or complacency,” he declared. “This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My ‘Tribe’


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Some Teachers Won't Get Vaccinated, Even With a Mandate. What Should Schools Do About It?
Vaccine requirements for teachers are gaining traction, but the logistics of upholding them are complicated.
9 min read
Illustration of a vaccine, medical equipment, a clock and a calendar with a date marked in red.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management A Vaccine for Kids Is Coming. 6 Tips for Administering the Shot in Your School
Start planning now, get help, and build enthusiasm. It's harder than it looks.
11 min read
Cole Rodriguez, a 15-year-old student at Topeka West, gets a COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Aug. 9, 2021 at Topeka High School's vaccine clinic.
Cole Rodriguez, a 15-year-old student, gets a COVID-19 vaccine at Topeka High School's vaccine clinic.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
School & District Management Letter to the Editor School Mask Mandates: Pandemic, ‘Panicdemic,’ or Personal?
"A pandemic is based on facts. A 'panicdemic' is based on fears. Today, we have both," writes a professor.
1 min read
School & District Management How 'Vaccine Discrimination' Laws Make It Harder for Schools to Limit COVID Spread
In Montana and Ohio, the unvaccinated are a protected class, making it tough to track and contain outbreaks, school leaders say.
4 min read
Principal and District Superintendent Bonnie Lower takes the temperature of a student at Willow Creek School as the school reopened, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Willow Creek, Mont.
Bonnie Lower, a principal and district superintendent in Willow Creek, Mont., checks the temperature of a student as Willow Creek School reopened for in-person instruction in the spring.
Ryan Berry/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP