“Behind every successful woman is a group chat hyping her up.”
How does one explain the most empowering professional development they have ever experienced? This is my attempt. Our Voice Academy (OVA) rooted me in a community of powerful change-makers in education, recognized and celebrated my identity, and amplified my voice and personal sense of empowerment.
Community & Conversation
We were placed into a Google Hangout chat weeks before OVA actually started and people got to know each other quick. People were sending videos, pictures, and links to blogs and resources. I felt like I did not have much to add so I hopped in and out of the chat to stay up to date, but that was all. What I didn’t know was how much these educators would change my life in late July. Upon meeting for dinner on our first night, many of the group had heard about my tough traveling journey that day and welcomed me with hugs and laughs. We sat at dinner together and shared our stories about family, friends, and education.
After dinner, we found a local karaoke spot. Now I am pretty shy with new people, but can you believe I did karaoke for the first time in my LIFE, on the first night I met my hype-team? I also had no choice because they played California Love and so I had to represent. Throughout our 4 days at OVA, we probably spent an average of 9-14 hours together a day. From Jennie’s keynote wisdom to Dee’s sharing of the heart, Sarah’s marketing hacks, and Monica’s graphic design wizardry – we kept on building together. After dinner each night, we would meet in the hotel lobby to snack, laugh, and practice our keynote throughlines until 1 am. Since OVA ended we have heard from someone in our Google Hangout at least once a day. To call us a community is an understatement, we created a family.
Identity & Belonging
Being a female teacher of color is not easy. I have not always felt like my voice was heard or appreciated. I started off teaching (as ChrisEmdin coins it) with “brown girl syndrome.” I was quiet, compliant, and did my job in my classroom. I attended all of the meetings, followed up on every email, and said “yes” when asked to do anything at my school. I worked hard to create engaging lessons and connect with my kids and created a classroom that looked like it would have earned a gold medal in the Pinterest Olympics. From an outsider looking in, it probably looked like I was loving life as a new teacher. And I mostly was. I loved teaching and I loved my students, but I did not love how I felt at school. I did not feel like it was always my place to share or my place to voice my opinions or experiences. So, I trusted in a few colleagues and kept working, teaching and trying. So now here I was approaching my 6th year of school, and my excitement about being accepted into OVA was rooted in my desire and eagerness to have a group of educators who I could authentically share with. I left OVA knowing a lot. First, I know I belong to something bigger. That as a female teacher of color, I have a sounding board of brilliant educators who have been there. I know that I have a group who will lift and amplify my voice. I know have a space to talk about inequity in education. I know I can celebrate my friends and follow their examples. I know I have influential leaders who I can look to and be guided by. I know I have a safe space to let my guard down and really challenge the status quo in education. I know I can share me.
Empowerment & Voice
I went straight to the Google Hangout chat my first week back at school when I had to overcome a challenging conversation with a coworker. Normally, I avoid confrontation at all costs. I would rather comply and be quiet and then take the issue home to stress about for another 48 hours. But, OVA changed the way I process tough conversations at school. I know that the stakes are too high for me to comply and let people just be people, or to let schools just keep doing the same thing. I have been empowered to use my voice. I am finally ready to use my voice as a vehicle to drive change. I am no longer afraid of the tough conversations. I am not afraid to push for what is best for kids. I am not shying away of my own experiences in the classroom and relationships with kids. I am not going to water down my successes, instead, I am going to share and invite others in. How is it possible that 4 days changed the way I communicate? Clearly, there was something in the cookies. Since being back from OVA for 28 days (but who’s counting?) and as I walk into my 7th week of school, I know how to use my voice to make a change. I know how to let go of my “brown girl syndrome” and speak up.
Our Voice Academy connected me with educators of color who have been doing the work. Educators of color who have been making an impact on their schools, districts, and states (and provinces, didn’t forget about you Jason!) for longer than I have been breathing. Did I gain my hype-team? Absolutely. But I also gained a network of beautiful human beings who check-in on the regular, show support on and offline, celebrate the victories, show compassion on the hard days, but most importantly – offer unconditional encouragement in this complex and often challenging field we work in.
P.S. Jennie, do you see my 3 points and a hopefully clear throughline? You taught us well!
Alicia Johal is a sixth-year science teacher, curriculum specialist and underwater robotics coordinator in Sweetwater Union High School District. She teaches 7th & 8th-grade science, biotechnology and marine biology. Alicia is an equity warrior who works to create opportunities on and off campus for her students to have access to and achievement in science. She has been recognized by state and federal programs for her work creating inclusive STEM programs and building community partnerships. She presents at local, state and national conferences on topics such as technology equity, student agency and engagement, and mastery-based teaching and learning. You can follow Alicia on Twitter @AliciaJohal.
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