“Over the years, my hair has changed a lot. I’ve done wigs, weaves and pony tails. Because it changed every week, it got to the point where my coworkers didn’t know if my hair was real or fake.”
This is how Teresa Schribner, an award-winning media teacher at Cleveland High School in Seattle started her 5-minute, 20-slide talk at Ignite Education Lab last week. Schribner was one the eleven speakers who participated in “Unexpected adventures in learning,” a special edition of Seattle Town Hall’s Ignite series hosted by The Seattle Times Education Lab.
But what does Schribner’s hair have to do with inspiring ideas in education? It turns out it was a critical part of her personal journey from trying to build a reputation as a hard teacher to building real relationships with her students.
Schribner said that like many African American women, for years, she treated her hair with toxic chemicals to assimilate to the culture around her. It had become part of her professional outfit.
“When I became a teacher,” she said, “it became about respect and I decided to grow out my natural hair.” The result was not quite what she had expected. “Instead of a big beautiful head of hair, I discovered that I had incredibly thick, comb-breaking hair. The rain was not my friend.”
As the process of growing her hair out progressed, Schribner continued to wear wigs and weaves. Eventually, once she realized that her hair was wearing her out, she nervously decided to wear her hair in all its natural glory.
Black hair matters
On her way into school on that first day, Schribner ran into a student who saw her and exclaimed “Miss Schribner!” before running off. “I was preparing myself for the worst but then later that day, she came to my classroom to tell me that she loved my natural hair and asked if I would be wearing it natural for graduation – which was many months and many potential new hairstyles away.”
When Schribner asked the student why she was required to wearing her hair as an afro, the student replied, “Us black women need to stuck together.” That’s when Schribner realized that her black hair mattered to the student.
“That conversation changed my whole teaching practice because I realized that I was being admired for something that I felt vulnerable about,” she said. Schribner said she is much more relaxed in the classroom now.
“I don’t know what happened that day, but the moment I decided to let my hair down was the moment I decided to let students in,” she said. “I know the way I look matters to them and they matter to me.”
From bad student to badass teacher
The importance of relationships as a force for learning was a key theme for many of the speakers. Rachel Wiley, secondary English teacher in the Puyallup School District shared her story about how she transitioned from ”bad kid to badass teacher.”
“The irony of the fact that I am an English teacher who failed my 9th grade English glass is not lost on me,” said Wiley. Wiley’s life as a “bad” kid changed course when she switched to an alternative high school rather than dropping out of school all together. There she met Rachel Johnson. “Ms Johnson was the first adult who believed in me. She cared about me and supported me and is still doing it 12 years later,” she said.
At college, Wiley decided she wanted to be a teacher, just like Ms Johnson. “I knew I could be a badass teacher who breaks down walls for kids.”
Now Wiley gets to give and receive new life-giving messages and can tell students that they are enough exactly the way they are.
“Where we change lives for the better, we change the world for the better and that is pretty badass,” she concluded.