Longtime educator Diedra Carlson (Image courtesy Diedra Carlson)
Diedra Carlson loves teaching children. And she’s a lifelong fan of the Montessori method of education, which gives children more control over what and how they learn.
“I was a Montessori kid and I wanted that for my children and I wanted that experience for Black and brown children in St. Paul, too. So that's where I spent the most of my work.”
Carlson became the first Black Montessori teacher in Saint Paul in 2003.
Despite her love of teaching, Carlson found herself increasingly frustrated by the battles she faced. In 2017 Carlson won Education Minnesota’s Human Rights Award for her work advocating for an equitable learning environment for students. She saw young Black boys repeatedly being sent to special education with what was labeled as Emotional Behavior Disorders (EBD).
“There's this huge chasm between the Black boys being marked for EBD, and what we could do. In the context of a classroom, it was more like, ‘he talks back,’ or ‘he is too busy in his seat’- the same things that little white boys could be doing, but we just have less of a tolerance for.”
Carlson says those decisions in classroom settings are what set up Black and brown children for failure.
“Because in any classroom, you're building a community. And if you start taking folks out of that community, it's kind of like leaving home and then trying to return back again, and things are different, right? And if you're doing that on a daily or even a weekly basis, it disjoints the fluidity of their education–for any child.”
In 2022, Carlson took a leave from teaching. She was exhausted, and the stress at work was affecting her health. She suspected other Black teachers were feeling the same way. She’s now pursuing her PhD in education, researching the decline of Black teachers in the public school system.
“In listening to teachers, listening to Black women in particular about their experiences in public schools, it was really affirming for me because, I struggled to believe that I was experiencing these things in isolation. I just absolutely refused to blame myself for the experiences that I was experiencing. It was a while trying to figure out if this was a phenomenon broadly or if this was within myself that I am seeing about the world–projecting on to my profession. I just had this inkling that it just wasn't me. And not only personally, I felt it was systemic and also in policy.”
Carlson says Black teachers are suffering from Racial Battle Fatigue, or RBF. She says RBF is the burnout that comes from having to shoulder not just the responsibilities of a teacher, but also carry the burden of social justice advocacy, as well.
“Racial Battle Fatigue kind of manifests in the body like PTSD, because you feel like you're always battling racial indignities, whether they call it microaggressions… It takes a toll.” Carlson continued.
In the United States, only 7% of teachers are Black. That wasn’t always the case. In the 1954 case Brown Vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional. What at first seemed like a racial equity win ultimately led to 10,000 Black teachers losing their jobs to less qualified white teachers as schools desegregated.
Carlson says her research has also helped her to identify and name certain behaviors - for instance, the “pet-to-threat” phenomenon.
“That phenomenon is white women taking on Black women, under their wing, and then once Black women start spreading their wings, there's a threat that starts to happen. So now you are a threat, you're not doing you know, the pet anymore. And that causes issues, because that white woman is not considered an ally, she becomes adversarial and that is dangerous.”
Carlson says while she wants to teach in the classroom again, she will only return if the district prioritizes alternative learning spaces - like the Montessori method - for the betterment of underserved communities. She says the Montessori model has historically been sought out by Black women educators to uplift Black and Brown students.
“My heart totally wants to. But the only way that's going to happen is if Montessori becomes a priority. It is an alternative to white supremacist propaganda in public education.”