Public School Teacher Valencia D.Clay Uses Outspoken Activism to Help Students of Color Thrive

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Picture Supply: Kalin Norman

Valencia D. Clay has lately gained nationwide consideration for her outspoken educating fashion and daring activism within the classroom, however the 31-yr-previous Harlem native was placing within the mandatory work lengthy earlier than that. Clay has taught within the Baltimore Public Faculty system for the previous ten years; once we hop on the telephone in the midst of a bitterly chilly East Coast Winter, one of many first issues she tells me is that Baltimore Design Faculty does not have warmth, so she and her eighth grade college students are out of faculty.

Clay says it plainly, as if it is only a reality somewhat than a state of affairs that might probably ship academics and college students in neighboring, extra prosperous counties right into a panic. It is also a pointy reminder that the 1-minute Instagram movies she has turn into recognized for posting from her classroom do not absolutely seize the realities of the job; for Clay, a constructing with out warmth is simply one of many prices of being an educator in a faculty system that’s grossly underfunded — and very often utterly forgotten about.

The willful dismissal of Baltimore Public Faculties (which consists largely of black and brown college students) isn’t misplaced on Clay, or me. In Baltimore, the varsity buildings are among the many oldest within the state, but they typically do not obtain sufficient funding, and once they do, the funds are sometimes misused or mismanaged. Clay makes use of her platform to convey consideration to this, whether or not its launching a social media marketing campaign to revive warmth to colleges, or taking her college students on strolling excursions by means of their metropolis to point out them the model new jails being inbuilt lieu of schooling facilities.

Clay posted the primary video of her class in 2014, when the Discover web page was nonetheless for celebrities and Vine was greater than only a distant reminiscence. “I feel the primary video I put up was of [the students] enjoying” Clay recollects. “They have been enjoying with a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem referred to as “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” and appearing like they have been in church. It was simply hilarious.” Ultimately individuals began to take discover. “The primary video that obtained a bit of little bit of consideration was when ISIS [was reported to have carried out a terror attack] in Paris in 2015. I used to be educating a lesson on propaganda and social media, and I posted about how we should not mechanically assume issues with out doing our personal analysis.” Shortly after, one other video garnered over 20,000 views — this one tackling the loaded and coded time period “minority”. What we see Clay doing in these movies is popping her classroom right into a sacred area for younger black and brown youngsters to thrive, and push themselves previous the bounds that society has set for them.

In her movies, Clay is a pressure, commanding each the classroom and captive viewers at house.

In one other lesson, she speaks to her college students concerning the significance of being safe in oneself — utilizing The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas as a springboard for the dialogue. “What’s yours is already yours,” she says, taking a second to pause earlier than main the category in a gaggle affirmation. The scholars reply on cue: “What’s mine is already mine.” Clay then speaks particularly to the women within the room, reminding them that no man ought to ever make them really feel insecure, and driving the purpose residence with a properly-positioned lyric from SZA’s “The Weekend.” The category laughs, and she or he does too.

What seems to be simply one other day in Ms. Clay’s classroom is definitely a manifestation of her intention from the very begin. “I’ve all the time used literacy because the grounds of my educating basis. All the time,” she tells me. “I feel that is the half individuals do not all the time perceive; that something I am doing is derived immediately from what I am studying within the second. If I am studying Neil Postman, greatest consider my college students are going to learn the identical books. Once I’m studying bell hooks, they do too. Once I learn Marcus Garvey, so do they. They actually undergo it. It feels actually good to provide them what I am getting.”

A few of Clay’s college students are presently studying The Home On Mango Road by Sandra Cisneros — and it is crucial that they not solely learn, however assume critically concerning the textual content and the world round them. And that is not all the time straightforward to return by. Lots of her college students have skilled excessive ranges of trauma of their lives, and have not been informed that it is okay to research and unpack the world round them — a problem Clay tackles through the use of any and each textual content to assist them study extra about themselves.

“You’ll be able to learn a cookbook, they usually’ll provide you with phrases for the recipes they’ve by no means heard of, and that may develop into a dialogue of, properly, why do not you understand what this vegetable is? ‘My mother by no means purchased it, or I’ve by no means seen it in my grocery retailer.’ Or, ‘We do not have a grocery retailer in my group.’ Actually something might be introduced right into a related place for our college students. It is all the time a teachable second.”

Clay credit her capability to handle and domesticate progress in her college students to each her grandmother — who raised her — and a tireless dedication to studying all the things she will get her arms on. Throughout our dialog, Clay recollects the early days of her pedagogy. “I grew up with a shaming mentality. And I might disgrace my college students and embarrass them to get them to pay attention. And it labored. I had no issues.” Her phrases catapult me again in time to my very own academics; these whose lecture rooms have been properly-behaved, those who did not fiddle. Nevertheless, issues modified when Clay started studying bell hooks, whose writings reworked the best way she understood her apply, and subsequently, herself.

“She actually defined my complete pedagogy when she talked about how we disgrace individuals to get their respect. And that is not respect — that is worry,” Clay says. “I’ve watched my educating fashion evolve as a result of the love makes them work more durable than the shaming. We actually use [the shaming] as a protection mechanism, and we do not understand that it is truly your personal self-hatred that they are going to go on and perpetuate.”

Once I ask her what she’s at present studying, she does not identify a e-book, however moderately a theme. “Proper now I am studying all of those books about trauma,” She tells me. “I simply completed On a regular basis Emotional Intelligence, which is by the Harvard Ebook Evaluate. Final night time I used to be studying Creating Faculties That Heal by Leslie Koplow.” These books inform Clay’s apply, however their teachings do not cease there. “I learn a lot in order that once I train individuals — whether or not it is on weblog posts or in Instagram posts or in my classroom — I can make certain they’ve one thing to dive again into,” she says, including, “And never simply on a shallow degree. Once I say ‘dive,’ I actually need them to go deeper and take into consideration why issues are the best way that they’re.”

Picture Supply: Kalin Norman

When she’s not within the classroom or inspiring hundreds of individuals together with her movies, Clay shares her information on her weblog, Valencia’s Backyard, the place she posts about every little thing from what she’s studying in the mean time to reflecting on her mom’s wrestle with habit. She can also be the co-founding father of The Flourishing Blossoms Society for Women Inc., a “lengthy-time period help community for younger women and girls who need to actively take part in constructing their group.” Their purpose is to assist younger ladies construct vanity and contribute to the world round them.

One of the exceptional issues about Clay is the period of time she spends pouring into herself and analyzing how her personal trauma and experiences have formed the lady she is immediately. Her self-examination is a labor of affection, and it is exceedingly clear that she’s visited these elements of herself earlier than. She’s gotten to know them so properly that she will share them with me as matter-of-factly as she did the warmth being off in her faculty constructing.

Once I ask who pours into her, it is a star-studded record. “Cardi B evokes me; Issa Rae evokes me; Michelle Obama evokes me; Ellen [DeGeneres] evokes me. Simply people who find themselves brave of their fields,” she tells ms. “Take somebody like Ellen, who turned a TV host throughout a time when being queer or homosexual was not as accepted as it’s right now. She dominated the sector as a result of she makes each single one that comes on her present really feel liked. She does the work that I do in my classroom, however on TV. Clay then turns her admiration to Cardi B. “She makes you are feeling like, ‘Shit! I can do something. There’s nothing I can’t do.'”

“I actually need them to go deeper and take into consideration why issues are the best way that they’re.”

Clay drops one other identify, too — one I might by no means heard earlier than, however will keep in mind from this second on. The story of Marva Collins, a fly schoolteacher who taught out of her house on the South Aspect of Chicago within the ’70s, reminds Clay that she’s on the suitable path. Collins was a full-time substitute instructor for 14 years, however after being disheartened by the the low ranges of studying, she selected to take $5,000 out of her private retirement fund to start out her personal faculty. Collins took the scholars who have been deemed “unteachable,” transformed the second flooring of her house, and ended up with the very best check scores within the state. She turned seemingly unbelievable circumstances into an area for progress and success — a narrative that sounds noticeably just like Clay’s. “I simply love what she did,” Clay says. “She obtained provided the place of secretary of schooling underneath Reagan and she or he turned it down. She stated, ‘Nope, I simply need to train,’ and I am like, — ‘That’s me.'”

One other spectacular side of Clay’s educating type is her potential to attach the social, political, and emotional dots in ways in which empower her college students.

She teaches them that as younger black girls and boys, the world is watching them — and that that should not scare them, however relatively make them extra self-conscious and revolutionary. She retains them aware of the stereotypes and circumstances that include inhabiting a black physique; the expectations that present up lengthy earlier than you enter a room. Clay tells me concerning the difficult first two months of a brand new faculty yr, when boundaries are examined and requirements are set. “My women are very imply at first, so that is my new factor: ‘You realize I am a lady, and you are a younger lady — and we will speak to one another like ladies. So let’s begin over.'” She proclaims this to her scholar in entrance of the complete class with everybody — notably together with the opposite younger ladies, watching.

Clay is conscious of the impression this change has when eyes are all on her. Fairly than berating or embarrassing her scholar, she redirects the power into one thing constructive and empowering. As an alternative of creating her really feel small and shamed, she brings her to eye degree and reminds her that she can also love and respect herself as a lot as Ms. Clay does.

With reference to mentorship and influencing younger academics who need to do what she does, Clay tells me her “easy” recommendation: to learn. “Learn all the things. All about every thing. Examine no matter you are going to be educating. Learn concerning the youngsters that you’ve. Learn concerning the metropolis that you simply work in. Examine your personal private historical past. There needs to be extra studying carried out by the educator. I feel studying is such an enormous deal.” Studying, she insists, is instrumental to progress and turning into an authority in your subject — a undertaking that by no means stops for Clay. “In case you are not the professional, turn into the skilled. And I feel that is the factor: that you simply’re all the time turning into the professional, even should you are the skilled. I really feel like I nonetheless have a lot extra to study.”

So what’s subsequent for Valencia Clay? She tells me that she needs to start out an after-faculty program and summer time camp staffed by her college students. It is all a part of a higher push to assist them develop into much more passionate and inquisitive learners, fueled by a necessity to research the world round them. She additionally needs to open a faculty for youngsters with particular wants. For Clay, it is all about creating areas the place college students are allowed to develop, change, and make errors with out worry of retribution or labels — a spot the place they’re capable of get to know and love themselves with open, figuring out eyes. Areas the place they discover ways to shut learn Shakespeare with out sacrificing their mom tongues. Areas the place they’re all the time greater than sufficient.

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