I also remember how I felt as I watched as a young black girl revealing to her classmates that she didn’t think she was pretty because she was always looked at as the “ugly black girl.” What moved me even more though, was the way her teacher took on the role of nurturer as she instructed each of her students one by one to give compliments to the young girl. Black girl, in case you needed to be reminded, you are worth your weight in gold.
The video capturing those moments went viral and reached the hearts of many, including Orange Is The New Black actress Danielle Brooks, who responded to the student with an emotional video, telling the story of her own struggles with self-worth.
The teacher in that video, Valencia Clay, is a prime example of the caliber of educators we need in our classrooms at this time.
The 30-year-old Baltimore City 8th grade teacher with three degrees is a woke aficionado known inside of the classroom and outside of the classroom for her use of hip hop lyrics in her lessons, as well as making rap beefs like Remy Ma’s “ShETHER” against Nicki Minaj’s “Make Love” a teachable moment. She puts a spin on hot topics relevant in magazines, the news, and TV shows. And she teaches this way because she knows that the key to tapping into the youth’s ability to learn is by first and foremost, piquing their interest.
But back in 2015, the young teacher was just like the rest of us, reeling from a different kind of impact. With the massively publicized police murders, the rise of Black Lives Matter movement, and the police death of Baltimore City’s own Freddie Gray, Valencia was hurting.
The whole city of Baltimore was hurting.
“Our kids knew Freddie Gray,” she said. “He was like their older brother.”
And that’s where her mission as an educator started to take shape. Valencia knew it was important for the students of Baltimore Freedom Academy to process what was happening. Shortly after, her school’s administration asked her to create a lesson plan that would help teachers communicate what was happening with students. They chose the right woman for the job.
She showed her class movies like Do The Right Thing and dove into topics of colorism, segregation, and the African diaspora. When her lesson plan called for the students to read a book on Brown vs. The Board of Education, Valencia went ahead and served up the full picture for them. “I taught everything before and after Brown vs. Board,” she recalled. “I didn’t get as much support from my administration when that book came out because the kids were talking about their own school.”
The death of Freddie Gray acted as a turning point for Valencia and it was evident in the way her students were able to work through the events surrounding them. They were more than woke, they were awake, and the administration had to take notice. But despite her mission being clearer than ever before, she wasn’t so willingly supported in her journey.
That feeling of a lack of support coupled with accusations of teaching too much “black stuff” from a student’s parents, Valencia admitted that she momentarily stumbled after that and pulled back from her mission and the message of her woke lesson plan. “That was me feeling insecure and feeling like I need to prove myself as a woman who is intellectually able to do anything,” she said. “I was losing myself, and I was losing my kids. I went back to my lessons the way I was doing them and the kids started growing again.”
“And that’s the first step when you wake up, is to feel. But we’re going to move beyond that, we’re going to move to acceptance.”
The solution for moving towards acceptance in Valencia’s classroom was to empower black students with the truth that the system would otherwise leave behind. But teaching black history in today’s classrooms hasn’t been easy. Locked into what she calls a “scripted curriculum,” Valencia had to navigate the requirements of standardized testing.
But she found creative ways to push the envelope.
As much as her administration has fought against her 8th grade teaching methods, Valencia says the proof is in the pudding. “The results come in many different nuances. Whether it’s the children not being suspended as many times, or whether it’s a poetry slam event that’s packed and every kid is standing on tables, spitting hot fire with big words that you didn’t even know they would know.”
Back in a 2016 interview with The Phil Taitt Show, Valencia went in-depth with how she learned that love was the true key to reaching her students in a meaningful way and becoming the teacher she was supposed to be:
“I don’t even know what I expected as a teacher. I knew that kids needed love. I knew that I was going to be in the hood. I started teaching in Baltimore – that’s what I did for seven years. So I knew what I was getting myself into, especially being from an urban area, being from a disenfranchised community, growing up without my mom and my dad. I knew what I was going to see. I knew what I’d gone through, but I didn’t know that love was the key until I started to find out on my own for myself. Once I was able to see that in myself, I was able to go back to my students and love them differently than I had ever loved them before.”
Today, Valencia stays focused on her purpose. Outside of the classroom, she has established The Flourishing Blossoms Society for Girls, a worldwide mentorship organization that supports the success of underrepresented girls. She’s also a teacher’s teacher, aiding educators on methods for teaching children of color core reading skills that will help them hold their own when it’s time to talk about how to build a revolution.
That is how you empower little black and brown boys and girls. And that is how you save lives and change the world.