Discovering Motivational Awareness with African Epistemology

Dr. W.N. Thomas IV
6 min readApr 18, 2023


The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism (Jones, 2021) have pushed many school systems to reevaluate how they are centering the social and emotional needs of their students. Whether it’s processing the trauma of police brutality or the anxiety of quarantine culture, students are experiencing a heightened sense of emotional complexity when it comes to making sense of the world. However, what is missed many times is the social and emotional weight that educators have had to absorb as they navigate the historic inequities that are coming to surface as a result of the health pandemic and the weaponization of social media.

How school leaders support educators during this decade will significantly impact the culture of teacher retention strategies anchored in culturally responsive management, monitoring and motivation (check out my blog from 2020 called “The 3Ms for Educational Leaders during the Pandemic”). I had the pleasure in March to participate in a local charter school’s initiative to support their educators in this way, particularly the Black men in their organization. During this convening of Black men in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to see a variety of local stakeholders and leaders come together to support this important group of educators, who are often times narrowed into disciplinary, special education or non-academic roles in their school. This event included remarks from DC’s superintendent of education, workshops with corporate equity officers, and a motivational keynote by renowned Black scholar Dr. Ivory Toldson. My particular session focused on how Black men can revalue African philosophical knowledge found in West African Adinkra symbols to help navigate their motivational awareness.

What is “motivational awareness”?

I define motivational awareness as the ability to identify specific psychological needs that both impact your motivation and define your purpose in a designated social space. These needs include competence, relatedness and autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2017). This means knowing how these factors engage you in a way that impacts your body language, attitude and responsiveness to the environment. Motivational awareness is particularly important for educators as their multilayered experience with students, colleagues, leaders and families can cause many to feel a sense of burnout which eventually leads to them leaving the profession. This exodus, particularly with quality classroom teachers, leaves our students with incoherent and inconsistent images of dedicated educators who feel invested in their success. The intentionality of critically examining self-motivation mirrors the archeology of self (Sealey-Ruiz, 2022) approach, which can be used as a way for educators to understand who they are within a school context.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is anchored in a framework that focuses on five major domains for social and emotional learning (social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-management and self-awareness). Although this framework is primarily used in service of students, I feel the self-awareness domain is critical for educators particularly within the context of their self-motivation. Your ability to access self-knowledge (which is an understanding of your character, abilities and motives) plays an impactful role in the application of motivational awareness strategies. Western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were convinced that understanding your feelings, discovering your strengths as well as weaknesses was an action of self-knowledge. They proposed 4 stages of self-knowledge that included imagination, belief, intuition and understanding.

Valuing African Philosophy of Knowledge

While I recognize that the education system in the United States is designed to value and glorify western philosophical notions of teaching and learning, I feel this moment in history calls for a (re)centering of African epistemology (African conception of the nature of knowledge) as a valuable source to gain self-knowledge and to promote community empowerment. Oftentimes, the African theory of knowledge is relegated to only specialized Afrocentric schools and not considered to be as valuable in traditional public or charter schools settings.

One Black scholar who spent his life researching this process of “re-Africanization” to show how it can maximize the educational potential and possibilities of both students and teachers was Dr. Asa Hilliard. DeReef Jamison, in his article “Asa Hilliard: Conceptualizing and Constructing an African-centered Pedagogy” explores Hilliard’s stance on education and how “an Africana intellectual heritage encompassing the African diaspora can be utilized as a resource to explore strategies and solutions to some of the educational dilemmas African people encounter” (Jamison, 2019, p. 6). Hilliard reminds us that a component of the cultural surrendering of African Americans in this country comes when they choose not to study African/African American culture (see Hilliard’s The Maroon Within Us: Selected Essays on African American Community Socialization).

When developing these adult social and emotional skills focused on self-awareness, educators should consider revisiting the stories, proverbs and symbols of West African oral traditions. W. Bruce Willis’ (1998) book The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra, offers a wealth of hidden knowledge that has the potential to reorient educators to understand how these sacred stories connect with their motivation to be a teacher. The Adinkra symbols have multilayered meanings that are understood at different levels of interpretation based on deep philosophical messages it conveys about social values and behaviors.

I will begin a series of articles highlighting these symbols as authentic and valid funds of knowledge to springboard critical reflection, planning and implementation for culturally responsive research, instruction and leadership. The first symbol that will be discussed will be Sankofa (sang-ko-fah).

Sankofa — Rediscover your social-cultural moments

Sankofa is a “symbol of the wisdom of learning from the past to build for the future” (p. 188). Willis explained that the literal translation into English is “go back to fetch it.” The ancient West African symbol represents the spiritual mindset and cultural awakening of African people following their political independence from European control, according to Willis (p. 189). More importantly, the symbol represents a culturally relevant concept that pushes against any inclination to use a colonizing lens to make sense of an educator’s memories. Sankofa expands the way educators understand and critique their narrative reflections, which can be the sources of various funds of self-motivation. It positions the person to look at the narratives through a racial and cultural lens that interrogates systems, contexts, perspectives, and spaces that have been ignored or forgotten.

“Sankofian” Critical Inquiry through the Well of Wisdom

The key driver for the “Active Inquiry Framework” is the section referred to in the below figure as the “Sankofian Well of Wisdom”. This section refers to the variety of subjective funds of knowledge that the educator can utilize when making sense of their motivational awareness within different contextual settings. The Well of wisdom represents the three different inquiry stances that a person can take during the process of understanding their perspective amongst the Sankofian paradigms of the past (narrative inquiry — historical context of your experience) , present (relational inquiry — real-time sense-making of your experience), and future (intersectional inquiry — considerations of power dynamics and identity positionality).

Based on “Sankofian Methodology” (Thomas IV, 2021)


Jamison, D. F. (2019). Asa Hilliard: Conceptualizing and Constructing an African-Centered Pedagogy. Journal of Black Studies.

Jones, J. M. (2021). The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism: Navigating our path forward. School Psychology, 36(5), 427–431.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.

Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2022). An Archaeology of Self for Our Times: Another Talk to Teachers. English Journal, High School Edition; Urbana, 111(5), 21618895.

Thomas IV, William Nathaniel. (2021). Narratives of black male teachers in K-12 public schools: Contextualizing Teacher Retention and Teaching Trajectories with Morehouse College Alumni (Order №28543577). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2572578625). Retrieved from

Willis, B. W. (1998, January 1). The Adinkra dictionary: A visual primer on the language of Adinkra. Pyramid Complex.



Dr. W.N. Thomas IV

Professorial Lecturer at American University in Washington, DC