Radical Student Check-ins as a form of Radical Self-care

Dr. W.N. Thomas IV
8 min readDec 13, 2020

The difficult balancing act of work-life, home-life and school-life can sometimes cause foreigners to the Ivory Tower (like myself) to lose focus on the important role to play in expanding the craft of teaching and the strategies for navigating the political landscape of education. As I continue on my path to completing my doctoral studies in Educational Leadership, I am often reflective on the many experiences with my students during my teaching years; mainly whether I have had a positive impact on their ability to navigate the world in these challenging times. During the start of my data collection this summer, I received a message on Linked.In from a student who I taught when they were in the fifth grade. She was now a college student and was excited to reconnect with me after a very paradigm shifting eight years:

“Hey Professor Thomas! I’m not sure if you remember me but I’m Tiana from 5th grade at CAPCS. I searched the internet for hours looking for a way to contact you. You honestly had the biggest impact in my life, out of my 12 years of being in school. I will always be grateful to have learned from you!”

As an educator, I was immediately reminded of the “teaching mystique” of being a teacher which brings us so much motivation and optimism for future generations. My current administrative role in central office puts a certain degree of distance between those deep, impactful relationships that are developed on the campus level. I wrote back with a sense of renewed purpose as an educator and felt reaffirmed that my sometimes-extreme educational techniques did not traumatize all my students:

“So great to hear from you! I hope you have been well there in Columbus. Are you still swimming? I am honored to hear that I impacted your life knowing how hard I was on kids. I have been feeling guilty some days when I think of ways I could have been a better teacher so this means the world to me! How is your mother and grandmother? What about your little niece? Please give them my best. I hope you have been staying healthy and safe during this time. Please feel free to reach out for anything you might need! So glad you found me!!”

My experience interviewing Morehouse College alumni who were current and former teachers for my dissertation, forced me to be reflective on my own motivations as a teacher and now an educational leader. I was able get over 100 survey responses and interview brothers who I had deep personal relationships with as well as those who I was meeting for the first time. Regardless of the level of relational proximity, we were able to generate knowledge based on the activation of life milestones that connected to their experience as a teacher.

These interviews became very therapeutic for me, especially as I had to watch the acts of racial injustice that took place this year. I was proud that men from the institution of higher learning that developed me into the educator that I am, had produced countless stories of Black men who defied the odds, took the road less traveled and committed to the upliftment of underserved communities through the vehicle of teaching. Ironically, as I was concluding my data collection, I received another message from the student which reminded me of the impact teachers have on racial literacy and identity:

“The only way you could have been a better teacher was if you paid for everyone to go to college lol. Don’t be hard on yourself! You were the only teacher who taught me to love myself and to be confident in the skin that I’m in. You taught us to be pro Black before we could find out that the world was built against us…”

As I thought about a response, I couldn’t help but to think about some of the other students in her class that I was particularly proud of and how they have positioned themselves to be successful and grounded in culture and positive identity. One student from the class fulfilled an unwritten aspiration of many Morehouse alumni who were K-12 teachers: He was accepted into Morehouse and enrolled as a Chemical Engineering major! The dream of teaching a student and having an impact to where they make a decision that you feel can change the trajectory of their life opportunities as a Black man fuels my passion for giving young people a better educational experience than I had. I had been meaning to call him during the pandemic to see how this is impacting his experience at Morehouse but have not carved out the time to do so.

One student from the class fulfilled an unwritten aspiration of many Morehouse alumni who were K-12 teachers: He was accepted into Morehouse and enrolled as a Chemical Engineering major!

As a form of self-care and an active reminder of purpose, I have decided to conduct “Radical Student Check-ins” with former students who have taken the initiative to keep in contact with me along with other educators and their former students. I feel that the infinite energy that former students bring can propel even the most stressed doctoral student and others to push through the pandemic demands of 2020. I have started to internalize the very necessary critical analysis of scholars like Dr. Sharon Ravitch who have articulated various survival strategies through researched theories that can support educational leaders during this time when education is experiencing an accelerated evolution that is exposing inequities that have existed for generations.

What are Radical Student Check-ins?

Radical Student Check-ins is a relational inquiry form of “radical self-care” (Brown, 2007) which is one the many theories within Ravitch’s (2020) “Flux Pedagogy”. These check-ins act as a space for educators to reflect, reactivate and remember the impactful shared experiences with students. This semi-structured interview between the moderator, teacher and student, serve as a mechanism for self-motivation and affirmation for a life committed in developing life-long learners and independent thinkers.

Why do educators need “Radical Student Check-ins?

The current context presents both opportunities as well as challenges as it relates to retaining quality educators who are motivated to remain in the profession. One core experience in education, for an educator, is the growth and development of students. While some educational leaders remain in the classroom, those who have chosen roles outside of being a teacher can sometimes get distracted by the political and economic impact of education and detour necessary professional reflection time on the experience of the student. Some students still keep in contact with their former teachers whether they are in college or active in their profession. In order to leverage these strong relationships, Radical Student Check-ins give these teacher-student relationships an opportunity to affirm the intentions and the benefits of the educational interaction. This affirmation and recognition acts as an instrument to remind both, of the expectations and confidence they had and have for one another.

Framework Design anchored in Ravitch’s Flux Pedagogy (2020)

How do you develop empathetic kindness toward self? The examination of social and political power and systems of dominance can be overwhelming for educators, but Dr. Sharon Ravitch from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education has identified key elements of Flux Pedagogy that are critical to consider when navigating the changing landscape of education. Activating past success with students can help position educators to rehumanize themselves through communal re-storying of their impact and purpose as an educator. Here is a summary of those key elements and how they support Radical Student Check-ins:

Trauma Context: The educator’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and the graphic coverage of racial injustice has been penetrating and personal. Radical Self-Care addresses both the inter-generational trauma that educators experienced prior to the pandemic as well as the added emotional anxieties that have formed as a result of this heighten awareness to race and health. These trauma’s weigh heavy on both the educators as well as the students who are attempting to learn as well as understand their identity in a “brave new world”.

Inquiry Entry Point: As initiators of radical self-care, as a result of the traumatic context, educators can and should situate themselves as learners to sharpen their craft and generate knowledge that will help build the self-motivation muscle that educators use to innovate and sustain in the school setting. Taking an inquiry stance toward not only oneself but also toward the students you have impacted, transcends the moment in history and becomes knowledge for refinement.

“Radical Student Check-ins” anchored in Ravitch’s Flux Pedagogy (2020)

Shared Student-centered Experience: These check-ins are designed to center inquiry around the pedagogical approaches taken to develop students as life-long learners and independent thinkers. Students should be at the center of any educator’s experience and reorienting to the core of why education genuinely exist is critical for educators to reflect on, particularly best practices that have resulted in student success and achievement. The narratives of how students were transformed by teachers through the educational curation of learning, feed the educator’s psyche with nourishment that builds self-esteem, confidence in one’s craft and patience within the rapid fire of changing educational expectations.

Reciprocal Radical Compassion: Understanding suffering within an equity-oriented lens is easier said than done. This form of compassion towards oneself as well as toward the former student builds a reciprocal transformation through the activation of verbalizing shared experiences.

Critical Collective Analysis: As part of this process of radical self-care, is a layer of critical questioning as it relates to the student’s experience and the circumstances that contributed to the context. For both the student and former teacher are expected to interrogate their shared experience in a way that shows radical compassion through an inquiry stance. This allows the shared visualization and articulation of milestones in the student’s and teacher’s experience that can act as a source of motivation and intellectual guidance for all the participants.

Revealing of Racial Literacy: Giving a space where educators and students can reflect on the racial context of their shared experience and how the climate has evolved is healthy in the process of radical self-care. Teachers do act, in some cases, as real-world role models for students on how to navigate race and identity within a professional and sometimes community setting. As educators process and determine the best ways to support future students with the new challenges of the day, they can also learn from those students who were able to turnkey lessons and then benefit from them.

Brave and Safe Space Navigation: While race can sometimes dominate the lens that students are processing the world, it is important that they have an opportunity to understand the interrelated relationship between identity and culture. This overlapping experience of culture and identity typically come in various degrees of safe and brave spaces. But how do students navigate these spaces that are now infiltrated with radically polarizing truths that dress themselves within a binary code of philosophy and fake news? The reconnecting of students with teachers who have profoundly influenced their perception of the world, can be a starting place for self-reflection and reciprocal radical self-care for former students and educators.

The value of a strong teacher-student relationship is priceless. This bond can last beyond the life of both the student and teacher as they create a fund of knowledge that others learn from, build and refine. The leveraging of today’s technological capabilities and relational dynamics positions all participants as learners of the relational literacy being produced in these check-ins. The exchange of this shared reflection becomes new knowledge that can be used as a tool for self-motivation and self “re-discovery” of one’s educational philosophy and purpose.

References:

Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change shaping worlds. AK Press.

Ravitch, S. (2020, April 20). FLUX Pedagogy: Transforming Teaching and Leading during Coronavirus | Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education. https://urbanedjournal.gse.upenn.edu/volume-17-spring-2020/flux-pedagogy-transforming-teaching-and-leading-during-coronavirus

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Dr. W.N. Thomas IV

Professorial Lecturer at American University in Washington, DC