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Dena Simmons: How students of color confront impostor syndrome

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As a black woman from a tough part of the Bronx who grew up to attain all the markers of academic prestige, Dena Simmons knows that for students of color, success in school sometimes comes at the cost of living authentically. Now an educator herself, Simmons discusses how we might create a classroom that makes all students feel proud of who they are. "Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one's own skin," she says.

- Educator
Dena Simmons believes that creating a safe environment for children is an essential component of education. Full bio

So, my journey began
in the Bronx, New York,
00:13
in a one-bedroom apartment,
00:18
with my two sisters and immigrant mother.
00:19
I loved our neighborhood.
00:23
It was lively.
00:27
There was all this merengue blasting,
00:28
neighbors socializing on building stoops
00:31
and animated conversations
over domino playing.
00:33
It was home,
00:38
and it was sweet.
00:40
But it wasn't simple.
00:43
In fact, everyone at school
knew the block where we lived,
00:45
because it was where people came
to buy weed and other drugs.
00:49
And with drug-dealing comes conflict,
00:53
so we often went to sleep
to the sound of gunshots.
00:56
I spent much of my childhood worried,
01:01
worried about our safety.
01:05
And so did our mother.
01:08
She worried that the violence we witnessed
would overtake our lives;
01:11
that our poverty meant
01:16
that the neighbors with whom
we lived and shared space
01:18
would harm us.
01:20
Our entire life was in the Bronx,
01:22
but my mother's anxiety
spurred her into action,
01:26
and soon we were driving
so fast to Connecticut --
01:29
(Laughter)
01:34
to boarding school campuses,
with full scholarships in tow.
01:35
Man, don't underestimate
the power of a mother
01:39
determined to keep her children safe.
01:45
(Cheers)
01:49
(Applause)
01:50
At boarding school,
01:55
for the first time,
01:58
I was able to sleep without worry.
02:01
I could leave my dorm room unlocked,
02:05
walk barefoot in the grass,
02:07
and look up to see
a night sky full of stars.
02:10
Happy novelties.
02:16
But there were other novelties as well.
02:19
Very quickly, I felt like I didn't belong.
02:22
I learned that I didn't speak
the right way,
02:26
and to demonstrate
the proper ways of speaking,
02:29
my teachers gave me
frequent lessons, in public,
02:33
on the appropriate way
to enunciate certain words.
02:37
A teacher once instructed me
in the hallway:
02:43
"Aaaaaas-king."
02:47
She said this loudly.
02:51
"Dena, it's not 'axing,'
like you're running around with an axe.
02:54
That's silly."
02:59
Now at this point, you can imagine
the snickers of my classmates,
03:02
but she continued:
03:08
"Think about breaking the word
into 'ass' and 'king,'
03:11
and then put the two together
to say it correctly --
03:16
'Asking.'"
03:20
There were some other moments
that reminded me that I didn't belong.
03:23
Once, I walked into
a classmate's dorm room,
03:28
and I watched her watch
her valuables around me.
03:32
Like, why would she do that?
I thought to myself.
03:36
And then there was the time
03:40
when another classmate
walked into my dorm room,
03:42
and yelled, "Ew!" as I was applying
hair grease to my scalp.
03:46
There is emotional damage done
when young people can't be themselves,
03:53
when they are forced to edit who they are
in order to be acceptable.
03:58
It's a kind of violence.
04:04
Ultimately, I'm a quintessential
success story.
04:08
I attended boarding school
and college in New England,
04:13
studied abroad in Chile
04:17
and returned to the Bronx
to be a middle school teacher.
04:19
I received a Truman Scholarship,
04:23
a Fulbright and a Soros Fellowship.
04:25
And I could list more.
04:28
(Laughter)
04:30
But I won't.
04:32
(Laughter)
04:33
I earned my doctorate
at Columbia University.
04:35
(Cheers)
04:39
(Applause)
04:40
And then I landed a job at Yale.
04:42
(Applause)
04:45
I am proud of everything
that I've been able to accomplish
04:47
on my journey thus far.
04:52
I have eternal imposter syndrome.
04:56
Either I've been invited
because I'm a token,
05:01
which really isn't about me,
05:04
but rather, about a box
someone needed to check off.
05:06
Or, I am exceptional,
05:10
which means I've had to leave
the people I love behind.
05:13
It's the price that I and so many others
pay for learning while black.
05:19
(Applause)
05:27
I police myself all the time.
05:34
Are my pants too tight?
05:40
Should I wear my hair up or in a fro?
05:42
Should I speak up for myself,
05:46
or will the power of my words
be reduced to: "She's angry?"
05:49
Why did I have to leave the Bronx
05:56
to gain access to a better education?
05:58
And why, in the process
of getting that better education,
06:03
did I have to endure the trauma
of erasing what made me, me --
06:07
a black girl from the Bronx,
raised by an Antiguan mother?
06:15
So when I think about our current
education reform initiatives,
06:21
I can't help asking:
06:27
What are our students of color
learning about themselves?
06:30
Three -- three decades of research reveal
06:35
that students of color
are suspended and expelled
06:39
at a rate three times greater
than white students,
06:42
and are punished in harsher ways
for the same infractions.
06:46
They also learn this through the absence
of their lives and narratives
06:53
in the curricula.
06:56
The Cooperative Children's Book Center
did a review of nearly 4,000 books
06:59
and found that only three percent
were about African-Americans.
07:04
And they further learn this
07:10
through the lack of teachers
that look like them.
07:12
An analysis of data
07:17
from the National Center
for Education Statistics
07:19
found that 45 percent of our nation's
pre-K to high school students
07:22
were people of color,
07:27
while only 17 percent of our teachers are.
07:30
Our youth of color pay a profound price
07:36
when their schooling
sends them the message
07:39
that they must be controlled,
07:41
that they must leave
their identities at home
07:44
in order to be successful.
07:46
Every child deserves an education
07:51
that guarantees the safety to learn
07:54
in the comfort of one's own skin.
07:57
(Applause)
08:03
It is possible to create emotionally
and physically safe classrooms
08:11
where students also thrive academically.
08:16
I know, because I did it in my classroom
08:20
when I returned to teach in the Bronx.
08:23
So what did that look like?
08:27
I centered my instruction
08:31
on the lives, histories
and identities of my students.
08:33
And I did all of this
because I wanted my students to know
08:38
that everyone around them
was supporting them
08:41
to be their best self.
08:45
So while I could not control
the instability of their homes,
08:49
the uncertainty of their next meal,
08:54
or the loud neighbors
that kept them from sleep,
08:57
I provided them with a loving classroom
09:00
that made them feel proud of who they are,
09:04
that made them know that they mattered.
09:07
You know,
09:11
every time I hear
or say the word "asking,"
09:14
I am in high school again.
09:22
I am thinking about "ass" and "king"
09:26
and putting the two together
so that I speak in a way
09:32
where someone in power
will want to listen.
09:36
There is a better way,
09:42
one that doesn't force kids of color
into a double bind;
09:44
a way for them to preserve their ties
09:48
to their families, homes and communities;
09:51
a way that teaches them
to trust their instincts
09:54
and to have faith
in their own creative genius.
10:00
Thank you.
10:07
(Applause)
10:08

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About the speaker:

Dena Simmons - Educator
Dena Simmons believes that creating a safe environment for children is an essential component of education.

Why you should listen

Dena Simmons, Ed.D., is a lifelong activist, educator and student of life. A native of the Bronx, New York, Simmons grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with her two sisters and immigrant mother. There, she learned and lived the violence of injustice and inequity and decided to dedicate her life to educating and empowering others. As the Director of Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, she supports schools throughout the nation and world to use the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society.

Prior to her work at the Center, Simmons served as an educator, teacher educator, diversity facilitator and curriculum developer. She is a leading voice on teacher education and has spoken across the country about social justice pedagogy, diversity, education reform, emotional intelligence and bullying in K-12 school settings, including the United Nations and two TEDx talks. She writes and has written for numerous outlets including Teaching ToleranceBright on MediumFeminist Teacher and Feministing. Simmons has been profiled in the Huffington Post, the AOL/PBS project, "MAKERS: Women Who Make America," and a Beacon Press Book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.

Simmons is a recipient of a Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a J. William Fulbright Fellowship, an Education Pioneers Fellowship, a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship, a Phillips Exeter Academy Dissertation Fellowship and an Arthur Vining Davis Aspen Fellowship among others. She is a graduate of Middlebury College and Pace University. She received her doctorate degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Simmons's research interests include teacher preparedness to address bullying in the K-12 school setting as well as the intersection of social and emotional learning and culturally responsive pedagogy -- all in an effort to ensure and foster justice and safe spaces for all.

More profile about the speaker
Dena Simmons | Speaker | TED.com