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EP 43 – Alexis Shepard: Advocating for Teachers

In this episode, I interview Alexis Shepard, a ninth year educator. Alexis is no stranger to burnout. But she had a desire to take steps towards bettering herself and her career and it led to the creation of her brand, The Afro Educator. In her work, Alexis seeks to create solutions to help improve teacher outlook and sustainability in the profession. Listen in as Alexis and I have a deep chat about how notions of being a “good teacher” can cause limiting beliefs that can stunt our potential for growth.

Recap and BIG Ideas:

✨ Teaching is not seen as a a sustainable career and Alexis is hoping to make a change in that.

✨Teachers need to feel valued through receiving respect and having autonomy.

✨ There are ways you can advocate for yourself, especially if you do not have a teacher’s union, but be ready to justify your choices in order to move the needle forward toward change.

✨Self-care is not self-indulgence. Self-care involves looking deeper to determine how the choices you make can impact your work and your life in the long run.

Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

Making Systemic Changes Within Education

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Hi Alexis! Thank you so much for joining us here today. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Hi. I’m so excited to be joining you and to be having this conversation. Thanks so much for having me. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I’m so happy we connected I’ve been following you on your Instagram, The Afro Educator, for a while and one thing that I love about you is you’re really passionate about teaching, but you’re, I feel like, very similar to me where you’re a very outspoken truth teller. That is something that I really, I feel like connected with you and wanted to make sure that I brought you in and told and shared your story. 

So, for anybody who’s just finding out about you for the first time, who are you and what are you passionate about? 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Yeah, so my name is Alexis Shepard, also known as The Afro Educator and I have been teaching for about 10 years. This is technically you’re not for me, but how round up. I’m elementary certified in the state of South Carolina, which means that I can teach grades two through six. I have literally taught grades two, four, and sixth grade. I’m currently teaching Middle School ELA full time, but with all of my other time, I used that to just exercise my passion about teaching and how passionately I feel about the systemic change that needs to happen in our profession. Mostly that looks like curating community on Instagram and on Facebook. It looks like me taking any opportunity that I can to be outspoken about this topic.

This conversation and so many others that I’ve had to… I don’t know, try to create some sort of impact and change around because teaching wasn’t something I saw myself doing growing up, right? I wasn’t one of those people who taught their stuffed animals and just knew that I was going to teach. I kind of came into the profession haphazardly right before college.

It’s funny that I got into this work and have been so passionate about working with and motivating and connecting with students, but in doing that for the last 10 years, I’ve also discovered that I’m really passionate about the teachers who are doing this work and how much it is burning us out, how overwhelming it is, and how it seems that more and more it’s not sustainable. People don’t view it as sustainable.

So, not only are people leaving in droves, but then there’s also a lot of data that says that people don’t even want to be teachers. There are fewer people who are going into the education space. I feel really passionately about doing something to change that and about calling out not just the systemic issues, but also the other things that we just kind of accept in teacher or school culture and are afraid to call out. Making those conversations that we have in our classrooms behind closed doors public.  

We Need to Stop Gaslighting Teachers

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah. What are a couple of those topics that you’re the most passionate about? 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Yeah, absolutely. One would probably be… the top one would be the gaslighting that occurs with educators. I think about things like jeans day, right? This has been my new thing to get on because I have been in several situations, several. Almost all the schools that I’ve worked at where it’s like, “You’ve worked really hard. This has been really challenging. How about Let’s wear jeans?”

For the first few years of my career, it was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s awesome. This is great. We get to wear jeans!” Then as I’ve really settled into the work of teacher wellness and teacher self care, and really evaluating what it means to teach well and comparing that with what “they” quote-unquote are telling me it tastes to teach well, I just started asking myself, “Why is this something that I’m being rewarded with?” First of all, why are we still ascribing to the notion that jeans are unprofessional? Especially when we’re in a profession where we’re trying to relate to students and where it’s hands on.

We’re coming alongside our students to motivate and encourage them, etc, etc. So anyway, I just started asking why is this something that my administration, or in some cases the district, is using to try to motivate me? I just don’t understand it. It just seems like such a pity reward for all of the things that we struggle with, deal with, that we accomplish. That’s one of the conversations one of the ones I’ve been having recently is this whole thing about jeans day. Honestly, some of the most comfortable things I have in my closet aren’t jeans and I’m wearing those things to work anyway. I love skirts, so I wear flowy skirts to work and those are just as comfortable, if not more than my jeans. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah. I really wanted to add to that, because that’s something that I hear all the time from teachers who get their brand-new positions and then they come back to me and they say, “Oh, my gosh, Daphne, within a week or two I realized how valued I am. I realize how respected I am.”

I felt the exact same thing when I left the classroom as well. I have seen what respect looks like and from this role, with this audience, I have well-meaning administrators reach out to me and say, “What can I do to support my teachers? There are people who listen to this just hear what they can take away and it seems like it’s so obvious. We’ll respect them, but it’s just become part of the norms. Jean day or, “Oh, yeah, I appreciate you. Here’s a candy bar or some stickers.” That’s not how you show me. That’s not how you show me that you’re valued.

It seems like it’s so clear from teachers, but I think that we’re making the inference that they know that. Sometimes I think giving them the benefit of the doubt of like, if you’re listening right now, Principal so-and-so, jeans day is not the answer. The answer is giving me more time. The answer is respecting me and understanding that I need to have autonomy. I need to be able to own my own decisions in my classroom and if you have any sort of pull, let’s push for some actual pay increases. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Absolutely. I completely agree with that. I also think it’s this whole notion of even thinking about jeans, right? The whole thing. Earlier in the school year, I had a scenario where Principal comes over the intercom and is like, “You guys have done such a great job this week. Teachers, you’ve been so well behaved and we’re going to reward you with jeans. We all kind of looked at each other like, “I mean, okay?” When you talk about autonomy, I think extends to all of that.

Why aren’t teachers trusted and regarded enough as professionals to be able to pick out our own professional attire? Then if someone’s attire is somehow distracting, or quote-unquote “inappropriate” in some way, addressing those on a case-by-case basis. That’s one of those areas where I’m talking about gaslighting where it’s like, I’m going to make this a thing. I’m going to reward you with this notion of being able to wear jeans because really when I think about it, Daphne, I can’t even make sense of it. It’s just this the whole idea of control and the way that I’m supposed to be thankful and grateful that I’m allowed to wear jeans is just insane to me. I think it skirts around the real ways that our administrators can be supporting us. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I think a lot of it— and I am one that hates to generalize. I really want to be very cautious of making generalizations or assumptions— but I do think that one thing that I have noticed working in education for the past seven years and multiple types of roles, whether it was in teaching in multiple school districts or outside of the classroom working with school districts, a large majority of principals are those that identify as males.

That is not what the actual demographic of the majority of educators will like. It’s always been kind of a strange disconnect of why are these the people that seem to be lifted up in positions of power to tell other people what to do? What makes it about this specific demographic that they’re the ones? Maybe they were in the classroom for a year, maybe they never were in the classroom at all, and never want to generalize but I feel like that is a pattern that I’ve seen across so many schools and districts that it does feel like it is something 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: It does and you said something that reminded me. To add to that I’m a black teacher. I’m a teacher of color. When you combine that with the context of the idea that black women in this country is our bodies have never been our own. Then, you add to that that you’re dictating to me what I wear and you’re telling me what is and isn’t professional.

I think it’s a little tone deaf and I don’t think it’s intentionally tone deaf. I think it’s one of those… we’re not seeking to have that kind of information or to really explore why we have these policies and how these policies are really impacting us. We’re just kind of going with it because it’s what we’ve always done or because we have some rigid belief that this is what professionalism looks like.

I remember at the beginning of our school year back in 2019, I believe it was, we were having our whole faculty get together in the cafeteria the first day for staff to return. One of the things that was mentioned was that there was a district meeting where our superintendent said the most casual that we ever needed to be was like khakis and a polo. But why? I don’t think that people ask those questions. I don’t think that there are a lot of administrators to ask those questions to superintendents.

I think it’s because it’s less uncomfortable not to ask that question, right? Then I don’t have to worry about looking like that person. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I seem compliant. I’m going with whatever my leaders tell me to do. That’s kind of the position that I’m in is I’m at the point in my career and in what I want for my life and for teachers everywhere where I want to ask those questions that are pushing back against these norms and against the status quo that exists. Oftentimes, for reasons that you know administrators and district officials can’t even give us. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Also, to kind of add to what we were talking about a little bit earlier is thinking about the fact that we’ve been put as teachers and helper positions, we’ve voluntarily put into this type of position and it’s kind of meant to be always giving, always giving, kind of like a submissive role. Then it feels like if we have valid concerns or complaints, like you said, we’re either scared to actually voice them for the first times because that’s not what we’ve been kind of conditioned to do.

We’ve been conditioned to kind of take on everybody else’s issues and we are the ones who are going to solve those issues in these positions and that’s why you know what we do, but if we do have genuine concerns and genuine complaints, is often when you get gaslit. Or you’re kind of fed toxic positivity of like, “Why don’t we come in this with a good attitude?” I am having a good attitude. However, I have concerns about my health. You can have valid concerns and also still be saying, “Let’s make an action plan to move forward and solve this,” without saying you can’t have concerns. That’s the big difference. 

What Can Administrators Do?

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Yeah, it really is. So, it reminds me of this situation. Back around November of 2020, I was really, really feeling it. I was super…. I don’t think I was burned out, but I was really just exhausted and at my wit’s end. I was teaching virtually and face-to-face.

So, I had a couple classes that were face-to-face and one class that was virtual. I really went into it with this kind of chip on my shoulder taking teaching virtually as a challenge. I really had the best intentions. I had a system in place that I felt like was not only going to be helpful with my virtual students, but also there were a lot of pieces of that I can employ with my face-to-face kids to create some continuity. So, if kids switched between platforms, I mean, I was so confident about this and I was really confident in my ability to connect with the kids and to be flexible and to essentially be everything that they needed during that time. 

After first quarter, like most virtual teachers, motivation is really low, and kids aren’t turning things in. In my district, I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere, but there are certain grade minimums that we have to submit by the end of each quarter. By the end of each quarter, you need to have this many minor grades and this many major grades. Well, when I started the school year, my intent was really to focus primarily on my kids social-emotional wellbeing. How were they doing? Getting them adjusted to just logging in virtually. 

For the first three weeks, I didn’t assess anything because I was just trying to… we were just kind of trying to figure it out. I wanted to give me and my kids space to just do this whole virtual thing really simply. Let’s log in, let’s have a conversation, maybe let’s throw some academic stuff in there. Let’s ease into this. I wasn’t concerned about just giving grades just to be able to meet those minimums. I knew that. 

So, when the end of the quarter came and I didn’t meet the minimum, we received a blanket email that reminded us, “Hey, you need to make sure that you’re meeting the marks for these minimums.” I was really stressed about it because even though the email wasn’t addressed directly towards me, and even though I’m sure there may have been other people in the building, who maybe fell into a similar situation, I felt like, “Okay, if I’m a part of a group of people who are not meeting the minimum requirements and this is some attempt to motivate them to do so, I’m going to need some support.” 

So, I went to my assistant principal and asked if we could have a meeting so that I can discuss some concerns because it was at a point where I was like my toolbox is all tapped out. If these are the expectations that that you have, and these are the expectations that you’re expecting me to uphold, then we’re going to need to combine toolboxes. I’m out of tools. I’m going to need to see what tools you have or what tools you think you can acquire so that we can collaborate and figure out how I can come up to standard if me not being up to standard is an issue.

That meeting never happened long story short and there was also never any attempt for that meeting to be rescheduled. It just kind of made me feel like that my concerns weren’t valid because there was not any follow up behind that. It was really frustrating because on the one hand I’m being told these are the standards that you need to live up to, but on the other hand, then I feel like I’m not receiving that support. So, you’re right, there’s an inconsistency there. There’s a discrepancy there. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I think that what administrators really need to understand and be empathetic towards is if you are asking for support, that is your last resort because that’s humbling in itself to say I am a professional. You are giving me something that is seemingly impossible for me to do with my own resources and I think you handled that in a very professional way of like, let’s figure out a solution together that we can both come to terms with.

I don’t know anything about your school. I just am empathetic that everything has been a dumpster fire for everybody. Everybody is just figuring out how to not drown in whatever industry they are in for the last year, but I do feel like this is the year that opened up a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that they felt like they were giving and giving and giving and giving and giving for years. Then, this was the year that they asked for support and they did not feel like it was there for them. 

That’s unfortunate and I’m hopeful that this is the year that because so many administrators are noticing like, “Oh. This might be when all the teachers leave. We have to take them serious,” because before it was this blanket threat and maybe one or two Daphne Williams’s left every year, but it wasn’t in the same numbers that it is now.

I’m hopeful that this is the year that they start to take more notice of these people will leave, there are other options for them. and they’re more aware of that than ever before. They’re thinking of it more than ever before. So, what can we do to help them feel supported, to help them feel respected, and to move the needle and the other direction for once? I’m hopeful. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: That is the hope, but I also wonder how many administrators to have those thoughts of, “Well, everybody is experiencing this. So essentially, no one is special. You’ve got to kind of put your head down and get through it.”  I have, in a way, I’ve had that experience. Even in offering strategies for mitigation, like, “Hey, how can we manage this? I feel really strongly that there’s going to be a mass exodus of teachers from classrooms and I want to help. I want to be a part of some sort of strategic planning where we can find a way to support the faculty and staff here in ways that maybe our school won’t be as much a part of the mass exodus.” 

Even though I had nothing at the time. I didn’t have numbers, I didn’t have data. I just had a strong feeling because I know what it’s like to be in this position. I know already why teachers were leaving classrooms and how much COVID exacerbated that. So, to kind of have that pushed off, it definitely makes me think because I thought I just really had this confidence that I’m going in here with solutions— I won’t even say solutions— with strategies for mitigation and I’m hoping that we can at least dialogue about this. I’m not saying my strategies are the best or that they’ll be the most effective, but I am saying that I have at least a starting point and something that we can talk back and forth about.

Essentially the responses like, “Oh. Those sound like good, maybe even evidence-based responses.” And that was kind of that and it was everybody’s experiencing hardships. Everybody is going through this. Sort of minimizing— or at least what it felt like to me was that my concerns were being minimized. Essentially, we had this meeting and it was more of maybe a favor to me and maybe even curiosity on the administrator’s part to hear what I had to say.

Certainly, I appreciate that, but it is frustrating because it’s like you said, Daphne. You would think that maybe at this point admin would begin to take teachers more seriously because we are in such a dire situation.

We had, in South Carolina, 600 mid-year vacancies. Here, if you leave mid-year, then the State Department of Education can suspend your teaching license for up to a year. They have been suspending licenses left and right, but what it says is that people, teachers are so eager to kind of be anywhere else that they’d be willing to risk their credentials in order to do so. I think we have to stop and take note of that, but nobody’s talking about that. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: It also is an indication of I would be willing to bet that not all of those teachers left because I found human resources jobs or they wanted to become corporate trainers or they just have been wanting to find different jobs and they did. A large majority of them may have not felt like their school was capable of keeping them safe and healthy and were willing to take that risk, or whatever hardships, that meant financially just to keep them and their families safe this year. That’s a sad, sad truth as well.  

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Yeah, absolutely.  

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: That’s something that I hope never happens again. It comes with parts of that you have to understand that I’m a professional when it comes to even school districts and schools that forced teachers to go into school to work in a virtual classroom from eight o’clock to four o’clock on a computer even if it was an empty classroom just because I didn’t trust them to do their jobs at home like every other like professional’s done in every other industry during this time. You know? 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: It’s insane.  

Advocating for Yourself

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I wanted to talk a little bit more about advocating for yourself and I wanted to kind of hear some of your top things that you and other teachers are prioritizing saying no to for the following year. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Oh man, this is this is tough because every year it shifts for me. The top, I mean really and truly, the top thing that I’m saying no to is— How do I say this and be specfic?— Is the expectations of what I will do if I’m quote-unquote “being a good teacher.” 

That phrase for me is so problematic, which is why I say “quote-unquote,” but I’ll give an example. I feel like that’s my best course of action for explaining this. So for example, with the grade minimums that I mentioned earlier in this conversation, even though I understand that that’s a minimum that my district has, and that though those are the standards that they have set forth for what it means for me to be doing my job, I also feel like any decisions that I make in my classroom that I can justify with student data and with my own data with anecdotal observations then I’m doing my job well. So, for me that means quality over quantity.

Every single quarter of this school year I have struggled to barely meet the grade minimums that have been set forth by my district, but I’m also, to be honest, not necessarily trying to meet them. I’m giving assessments when I feel like it’s necessary for my students. When I feel like it’s truly moving the needle forward in terms of identifying their progress, identifying what they know, or allowing them to show what they know. 

That’s the first thing that I’m saying no to because it’s very easy to get wrapped up in to meeting these minimums and creating work for yourself and creating additional work for the kids to be able to meet those minimums.

It’s not necessarily moving the needle forward. It’s maybe even perpetuating the idea that not giving quality items to grade. Kids start looking at assignments and assessments differently when they know that you’re just grading every little thing and it creates an environment that I don’t particularly care for my classroom. 

I’ve really worked hard to establish and cultivate a culture of wellness in my room where my first priority for my relationship with my students is to know that I care about them as people and I care about their development as people first and foremost.

So, that first thing for me includes saying no to really anything that I feel I can justify my actions for. So, if that means that I’m not following a certain order of the curriculum, well I have a justification for that, right? It goes back to that autonomy. So, anything that really undermines that, I really have to take a look at and reassess. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I really picked up on one word that you said that I want to really touch on. Justify. Justify. It’s such a strong point and something that I really want to hit home here. If you are advocating for yourself, if you are pushing back, you do need to have a justification and you still need to be able to, with confidence, speak to your ability to teach your students and what you are doing to move the needle forward. That’s one of the biggest parts of advocating for yourself and speaking up is making sure that you are confident with what you are going to push back on and how you’re going to push back on it.

You said you’re South Carolina based. I wanted to ask real quick, do you have a union a the school that you’re working with? 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: No. So, I am in that lovely part of the country where unions aren’t really a thing. We have advocacy groups that in some ways function— and I say function like unions in the sense that they have the primary interactions with our general assembly and pushing back when it comes to like lawmakers and policies, but they have no power. So, when it comes to…. So for example, my school has been face-to-face since day one, five days a week. We don’t have anyone to step in and intercede on our behalf that can sort of be a liaison between us and the district. It’s us and it’s them. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: In Episode 15 of the Teacher Career Coach podcast, I interviewed Brian Rippet. He’s the Union President from Nevada and we talked all about what people can do if they don’t have a union. A lot of it is creating groups of people with the same focus with the same…. It’s almost kind of building your own mini union because the more voices you have with the same concern and with an organized concern, the more power you can actually have.  
 
ALEXIS SHEPARD: Yeah, absolutely.  
 
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: We also covered quite a bit in that about reading contracts, like how you said your state was able to take away there’s potentially depending on the specific verbiage in the contract. There’s potentially ways that if you went on FMLA or any sorts of like medical leaves usually school districts, once it gets to a certain point, don’t want to mess around with that being something that they would take way. It’s dependent on every district.

There are districts that will fine you $3,000. There’s principals that will threaten you with a fine, but they never really can follow through with it or that districts not really known to follow through with it, right? I get these messages all the time from people who say, “I feel like I am suicidal. I need out, but if I leave right now it is going to cost me $3,000.” I can’t read all the contracts, but if it is that bad mentally, just go to a doctor, try and get that mental health note, try and figure out what your contracts. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Absolutely and what’s really unfortunate when you say that I need to talk about teachers literally being at the end of their rope, what’s also unfortunate about being in that space is that I know a lot of teachers, and I was one of these, where they actually don’t feel like they even have any power. You have a system that also makes you feel that way as well, so you talked about the empty threats that some administrators will make and they make them knowing that as soon as the threat is made, I’m not going to question it. I’m not going to push back against it. I’m just going to try to put my head down and get through it and figure it out, so to speak.

So many of us, again, I was one of these people, feel like, “Well what can I do?” You know that you need the job, you know that you need the paycheck, and even more than that so many of us love the work specifically. We love the connections with students and impact that we can make there, but we don’t have any confidence or, in some cases, even any knowledge of how much capacity that we have to influence our situations.

That’s not to say, right, that’s not to say that like, “Oh, if we just think positively everything will change.” That’s not at all what I’m advocating, but what I am saying is that there are ways that you can have agency.

So, for example, with me having a meeting with my principal several months ago, even though nothing specifically changed, I do feel that the way in which we interact has shifted, right? Because he knows that I’m that person that’s going to ask certain types of questions. Then if I have certain types of concerns, I’m going to come to him and be very frank. Professional, but very frank about my concerns. 

He also knows that if I come, I’m not just going to come with concerns. I’m not just going to come with the hard questions, but I will also likely come with some strategies for mitigation, right? So even though that doesn’t seem like a huge change, it is because what it has done is it has informed him on ways that he can and cannot address me or approach me or expect from me. 

Self-Care is Not Self-Indulgence

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: There has to be some room for compromise. There has to be room for growth and what you can bring to the table as well. I know that I’m on team teacher every day. All day every day. But you do have to be able to work for solutions together and if you are finding yourself in a situation where that collaboration just is not a natural fit, and you love teaching you love everything, try and find a school where you’re a better culture fit, right?

That’s my very first piece of advice. Just going back to touch if anybody who’s listening that happens to feel rock bottom, please seek mental help. That’s why I always constantly am shouting from the mountaintops “Please go see a therapist, please.” There’s tons of support because there are so many people who feel completely stuck and backed into a corner and they don’t…. It has been a very overwhelming year and it is it can be a very overwhelming profession. 

Types of things that you can do to feel better and to start to love teaching again. People are sick of saying self-care. Practice self-care because a lot of it’s put it into professional developments but without actionable steps or time to get practice self-care at the bottom of this list of 20 things.

I know that self-care is something that you’re really passionate about and you have a couple of strategies for self-care and like mottos for self-care that I think are really interesting. One of them specifically being self-care is not self indulgence. I wanted to hear you talk a little bit. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Of course. So, self-care. I discovered sometime around 2018, that I was really passionate about teacher self-care and the more that I dove into doing that work, it also just so happened that self-care was becoming really, really popular in media and in social media. Everybody’s writing books and self-care is becoming this buzzword. I love when things hit mainstream media and become a regular part of pop culture because it means that there’s an increased awareness. However, it also means that the concepts and the identity of self-care, in this case, is cheapened and sort of watered down.

So, let me first define what self-care is for me because I think people hear self-care and they’re so put out with the word because anytime we hear it you think bath bombs, chocolate, wine, massages, manicures, and those are luxuries. Those are things that we enjoy, things that provide. Maybe even a temporary relief from whatever it is that we are experiencing, right? Like I have my ice cream, I’m indulging in that ice cream, and I can kind of escape and be in my little bubble with me and my ice cream for 30 minutes or however long that is.

Self-care, though, really, ultimately, is the work of being self-aware enough, such that you can make choices and choose behaviors that reflect that you are your highest priority. So when I talk about how self-care is not self-indulgent, I want to be very clear with people that when I use my platform for wellness and self-care, I’m not really talking about the self-indulgences. I’m talking about the hard work of looking at yourself and saying, “Okay, these are my proclivities. This is what I’m inclined to.” 

For example, I know that I tend to have these really like negative and spiraling pessimistic thoughts. One negative thing leads to the next negative thing leads to the next negative thing. So, because I know that I have that propensity, I know that when something stressful or something obnoxious comes up, I’m going to be more likely to fall into that. So then how can I, as those scenarios occur, make choices that will impact that in some way so that I’m not spiraling? Because to me, what that does is it shows that I am my highest priority because I’m taking care to ensure or to try to mitigate the fact that I’m having all of these negative or pessimistic thoughts.

So for me, self-care is really about the inner work and it’s about the awareness that will lead me to do things for myself that show that I’m my highest priority. Now, some people might say, “Well, for me, that’s taking care of my nails or that’s looking really nice.” But I challenge anyone that has those thoughts to think about self-care on a deeper level and think, “Okay, what can I do that’s really going to impact not just how I feel about my work, but also how I feel about myself and how I feel about my life? How can I make choices that are really going to impact those things on a longer term, as opposed to something that’s just going to make me feel good for a few minutes or a few hours?” 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I love that so much. I have been working with a health coach because I struggle a little bit with, I would say, pandemic emotional eating and like maybe some like binge wine drinking. And a lot of that type of work that I’m doing with a health coach is not like her telling me like, “Girl, you can only have spinach for lunch,” or something like that. It’s mostly like, let’s just stop and pull back and what emotions were you feeling during that time?

What a lot of people don’t realize what self-care is they’re just getting in a bubble bath, or they’re just having that glass of wine, or they’re having that chocolate, but it’s just masking the actual emotions that they’re feeling. They’re not building a foundation for dealing with those emotions or how to actually move forward and not feel those emotions so much, right? They’re just kind of like masking it up with something that feels good in that one little moment and not addressing the root of the problem. This is not anything I would have been able to tell you about myself three months ago. I thought I was doing okay. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Right. But that work, Daphne, is so important because ultimately that’s going to have those long-term effects where you’re going to be able to really prioritize you in a way that is most impactful. To me, that’s what it’s all about.

When I’m talking with teachers or like when I’ve done sessions before like one of the sessions that I’ve done in the past is related to having teachers think about why they enter teaching and what their beliefs are around what it takes to teach well because I found that a lot of teachers have these sort of adopted these toxic narratives about what it means to teach well, right? If I’m a good teacher, then these are the things that I’ll do, right? All of these beliefs that, some of them come from our own personal experiences. Some of them come from our college experiences and our clinical experiences as student teachers. 

Then some of them come from just what we see on social media. A viral video that maybe we see on social media or something that a principal tells us in a staff meeting or something… some mantra that our district or Superintendent wants us to abide by or to ascribe to. Even reassessing and evaluating those beliefs and getting to the root of who are you? What is it that you value most about teaching? What is the most important thing for you? For me, the most important thing for my relationship with my students is for them to know that they are cared about on a human level, so then every decision I make is through that lens.

So, when I talk about self-care, it’s almost like this concept of putting on a different set of glasses and allowing what I see through those to help me make my choices when I do that day after day after day. When you’re talking about like, even your situation with the possible pandemic eating and binge wine drinking— which, hey, okay, I’m right over here with you— it’s about, okay, so you know that about yourself. That’s going to inform your choices and your decisions from here on out which are going to have this more significant impact where you are going to be better because of it. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I mean, I want to talk a little bit about even what you said just about like viral videos because I do think that that’s part of where teachers struggle is…. I’m going to make up a situation. Miss So-And- So water paints every students portrait, every single year. She does six portraits per year and at the very last day of school she drives all their houses and she shows them how they’ve grown through water portraits It’s like a mash up video and it’s beautiful and she figured out where all they live. She took six years of her life to do it. 

Then there’s the teacher who sits down and just has an authentic connection with author’s students, but like, did not do all of those other things. That teacher maybe went on a hike with their loved ones, right? Maybe spent that maybe spent their birthday sleeping in. Whatever they do, those teachers are still both gray teachers. I saw all these… you see all these videos, or you have those teachers at your school that go above and beyond, but like that’s their heart and because their heart leads them to do that doesn’t mean your heart is yucky for not doing that. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Absolutely and I would even stretch and say I wouldn’t even necessarily categorize it as above and beyond. I mean, it’s easy for us to perceive it that way because that’s based on what our construct is of what it looks like to teach well and to be great. I think it’s about how we identify greatness in the context of what is best for us. That’s something I’ve talked to my kids about is that like, best for you may look like an A. Best for this person may look like a B. And that’s okay. It’s not that one is better or worse, it’s about thinking about it to the context of who you are.

When I was in school when I was in college, and I was going through school, Ron Clark Academy became a really popular [to see] in the media. We saw videos from the school everywhere. I even had the opportunity to go and tour and it was this incredible, amazing experience.

But what I found, and I’m included in this group of people, is that I went back to my classroom and I tried to replicate all of the things that I saw. For me, it wasn’t sustainable. Number one, it just wasn’t a part of who I was. I’m not that person. Like, I don’t mind trying new things and I love a challenge, but I’m not that teacher that’s going to stand on a desk, and that engages with my kids in that way.

I am that teacher — it’s so funny because the one that you the hypothetical teacher that you described, like, I am her and she is me. I will take my teacher chair to the front of the classroom. In fact, this happened today, I’ll cross my legs and I have a conversation with my kids about the concept of credit, right? Or the concept of debt. Or, some of my students were sharing with me conversations that they were having with their families about college and whether or not it was affordable and how they were intending to go. Just sitting and having those live talks and having those authentic connections.

For me, it looks like sitting with my kids and talking to them about how I disagree with the notion of standardized testing and what toxic ideals I think it perpetuates. It’s about knowing essentially like staying in your lane. Knowing what, well first of all, knowing what your lane is and then staying there and recognizing that greatness, in my opinion, is your capacity to stay true to what is most valuable and what’s most important to you.

I think that we get so far outside of that when we see these viral videos and we’re trying to be like this teacher over here or that teacher over there, is for some people that work but ultimately it’s about asking is this authentic to number one, who you are? Is this authentic to what your belief is around good teaching?

I don’t mean your belief based on what everybody else thinks, but when you really look at your heart when you reflect when you’re introspective, and you think, okay, this is the number one most important thing to me about what I do in my classroom. Then asking yourself if the choices and the decisions you make reflect that? And if you can say yes, then in my mind, that’s greatness. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I think we get caught up with the ego and it doesn’t happen as much in other industries if it doesn’t come with some sort of pay increase or salary bump. Teaching, it comes with who’s changing the most lives and we have to do it on like a public platform for us to feel that motivation. Whether it’s intrinsic motivation because we’re not getting that extrinsic motivator like financially that you get in other industries. Alexis, I wish that we could talk all day every day. This has been the funnest conversation, but I do have to wrap it up. But before we say goodbye, where can everybody find you? 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Yes, I hope you all will join my community. So I am over on Instagram @theafroeducator. You can also visit my website at www.theafroeducator.com. I’ve got a couple of freebies on there if you’re trying to establish or cultivate a culture of wellness in your classroom, as well as for yourself. Also, you can opt in and subscribe so you don’t miss any of the really amazing stuff that I have coming. 

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: And I will link all of that in this episode’s show notes, so it’s very, very easy for them all to find it. 

Alexis, it has been such a pleasure. I’m so grateful for you for coming on and having this conversation. I learned a ton during it. and I know that everybody is going to be really excited to connect with you. So, just thank you so much for coming on and sharing your wisdom. 

ALEXIS SHEPARD: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you, Daphne, and providing a space for me to share. 

A huge thank you for Alexis for coming on to speak to this community and sharing her wisdom. You can connect with her on her Instagram @theafroeducator. And if you enjoyed this episode, I suggest you go back and listen to some of my past episodes on burnouttherapyself-care, and sustainable teaching practices. I’ll see you on the very next episode of the Teacher Career Coach podcast. 

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