About Kelly Wickham Hurst
Kelly Wickham Hurst is a former teacher and assistant principal and guidance dean for a public school in Springfield, IL. She is the founder and CEO of Being Black at School, an initiative to help parents raising Black children navigate the systemic racism inherent in school systems. She’s the married mother of 6.
When I go down the list of things that I have had to endure as a Black woman in the classroom as a teacher as well as in an office as an administrator I think the offenses are fairly common.
Has a parent or teacher called me a racist? Check.
Has a colleague told me my curly hair didn’t look as ‘professional’ as when it was straightened? Check.
Have I been summarily dismissed when I try to bring up race as connected to discipline or lack of representation? Check.
School culture can, however, be far more nefarious than those obvious and jarring examples. It took me a long time to notice that how we talk about work ethics and what makes a ‘good’ educator are actually damaging parts of the cog in the institutionally racist school systems. To tell that story, I have to go back a good decade.
When I began working at a middle school that was mostly white and middle class I was teaching 8th grade Language Arts on a team of teachers who had common planning times and we met regularly to do themed units in order to connect our learning. Our school had two guidance deans in charge of schedules: one was white, and one was Black. Both were lovely women with whom I enjoyed working, but the way the staff discussed the two of them was starkly contrasted.
Mrs. White (for ease of names, okay?) ran the master schedule for the building which I later learned how to do and it’s like playing a game of Jenga with student and teacher names. Actually, it’s more like chess with calculated moves and, I would later learn, it’s a system that many people like to keep secret. When I became a dean and had to learn it I found that many of the white leaders who were to instruct me on how to use it kept a lot hidden from me and another Black dean who was trying to learn. Mrs. Black, everyone said, never took part in the scheduling. Whether or not that is true isn’t up for debate. It’s the manner in which staff talked about her that showed me the nefarious racism lurking in our culture.
She’s so lazy. She never does any work.
No one knows where she is in the summer. She leaves all the work for Mrs. White.
She doesn’t even know how to do this job. How did she even GET this job? Oh. Affirmative action.
These were standard things I’d hear around the copier or the teacher’s lounge and, to my shame, I even began to repeat them. I didn’t know if any of it was true. I simply wanted to fit in with my peers and believed this as truth, not seeing how damaging this was to her reputation.
Nearly 10 years later I was a guidance dean myself. Sadly, it took hearing these things about my work ethic that made me realize how awful it was of me to get caught up in gossip that simply circulated without anyone challenging it.
Here’s how I learned what staff were saying about me: after our state assessment one year I was boxing up tests to return to our warehouse when the delivery guy stopped by to pick it up. We were told to be ready over the course of a week for them to come and get the boxes, but we didn’t know what day it would be. (Kind of like the cable company saying they’ll be at your house between 10am and 5pm.) Since I wasn’t ready and had about 3 more boxes to label he told me he was instructed not to wait. That wasn’t a big deal so I said I would load up my own SUV with them and drop them off myself.
The night janitor, who arrived around 2:30, felt bad for me and helped me take them out to my car. I got them to the warehouse that same day and didn’t think anything of it.
Now, fast forward a whole year. The warehouse is dropping off the newest assessments and my boss has them taken to her office instead of mine. I don’t understand what’s going on, but she calls me that evening with a panic in her voice.
“I heard you were wondering about the tests being in my office,” she started.
“Yeah, I just don’t know why you would get them when this is part of my job,” I responded.
She tripped over her words but eventually told me that she got in trouble the previous year for my being late with assessments being boxed up. Yes, that she got in trouble. After I had taken them to turn in we had never spoken of it until this moment. I questioned this because it seemed suspicious to me that I wouldn’t get disciplined for it formally but that she would suffer the consequences. It felt like a lame excuse to me but I let it go and thought that if she wanted to give herself more work then she could surely have it.
But, that’s not the way it got around the building. A teacher I trusted came to tell me the scuttlebutt in the lounge. It sounded like this:
Kelly’s lazy and doesn’t even do her job. She’s not doing testing anymore.
She’s incompetent and can’t do it so the principal has to do it.
Why does she even have this job? Oh. Affirmative action.
See how that came around to bite me? I hadn’t considered how, previously, I was contributing to the systemic racism that downplays the professionalism of people of color in mostly white institutions. It was a lesson I wasn’t fond of learning in my present position, but it did teach me to heavily question those who would smear someone else’s reputation, especially when that person isn’t white. The system protects them and, sadly, is all too eager to assign affirmative action policies to Black school personnel when we know the greatest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are white women.
That has been one of the greatest catalysts for me to begin the work of Being Black at School. If I, an adult, felt this marginalized and treated unfairly as a school employee, then how much worse is it for Black students? I know the answer to that rhetorical question. I know how bad it is, systemically, for Black students. I know what this work will look like. I know that the system doesn’t want to change so my trusted voice as an insider is necessary.
It’s simply necessary from an outside position now.