Eli J. & Phyllis N. Segal Citizen Leadership Program
2015 Segal Fellow Witney Christie

Interview with Segal Fellow Witney Christie

Enjoy our June 2020 interview with 2015 Brandeis Segal Fellow Witney Christie, who is a teacher in the Cambridge, MA, Public Schools, working with both 3rd and 4th grade classes. Witney discussed her experiences in these times as a frontline worker, and as a citizen leader, with Segal Program Coordinator Kyle Richard.

Kyle Richard: What is your current title, where do you work, and what are the various parts of your job(s) that normally come with your role as a teacher?

Witney Christie: I am currently a third and fourth grade looping teacher at a Cambridge Public School. During a typical day, I teach all school subjects with a total of 21 students in my class. I start work early with the students on community building. I lead mini lessons where I teach students new skills through science, math, reading, writing, social studies. Through my lessons, it is my responsibility to expose them to different concepts and help them make real world connections through specific grade level standards. While working with them, I make sure that I am present by talking to them, engaging in their realities, and learning about their interests and passions. 

All of my lessons are centered around social-emotional learning. An important idea that my class explores daily is how do we interact with other people. Some questions we frequently discuss are: “How do we sit in a space and be frustrated at one another or learn how to deal with a conflict? How do I advocate for myself at this moment?” A student could be experiencing these emotions because someone might have taken something that is theirs, or there's not enough of something they want. I'm helping them to develop emotional intelligence by identifying their individual feelings and finding appropriate responses for when they're really upset. For many students, it is hard for them to get a grasp on my academic lessons if their social emotional needs are not first met. Due to this, I have to find creative ways to marry social emotional learning and academic rigor. There are a lot of different moving parts of being a teacher, especially an elementary teacher.

Kyle Richard: How has your role changed as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to stay at home, including your students?

Witney Christie: It's changed in a lot of ways. My district announced the school closure the Thursday night before the “last day of in school learning.” They informed us that we would be closed for about two weeks. As a result, I went into work on Friday to prepare and print academic work for that amount of time. As more information about the virus was being released, my district changed their teaching expectations the following Monday. Rather than utilizing the teaching materials I sent home that Friday, I had to develop an online remote learning approach. 

For the first few weeks, I provided independent online enrichment activities and daily whole class check-ins. In developing this impromptu structure, I was primarily concerned about my students physical and mental well-being. Like me, they had many questions, were scared, and felt like their world was being turned upside down. Due to this, I felt the pressure to give them a space where they can express themselves freely. During our class check-ins, the students openly shared their concerns. They talked about their living situations and the new challenges they were experiencing. For example, some of my students are only children and do not have siblings they can socialize with. They felt lonely. Other children felt frustrated because their larger family units were also working/learning from home and they did not have enough space to be productive. Even though we were not in our physical classroom, I had to find ways to support these social-emotional needs while also providing academic enrichment.

Now that the students are at home, that opens a whole different avenue of equity resource, an adult being present to assist with academics. I had to immediately think about “what are the ways in which I can engage with my students in a more frequent way?” So let’s get on a zoom chat or Google meets for our daily check-ins. I will put on some online activities with a video for sharing information because I have to be inclusive of the learners in front of me and not all of my students are reading on grade level. I prioritize the time that we see each other asking questions like, “How're you doing? What's going on at home for you? What are some challenges that you're experiencing?”

I also had to implement more systems. We had to start providing instruction remotely, which was really hard, because how do you teach new content to students at home when their WiFi is not that great and their computers are glitching? I'm not completely tech savvy with their computers, so I didn't even know all the functions, and I had to problem solve, even when I was confused. It didn't feel like we were prioritizing equity at that moment.It still doesn't feel like we're prioritizing equity at the moment, because we're now focusing on standards that need to be taught, as opposed to how our students are faring mentally around their family.

Kyle Richard: I also wanted, given recent events around police brutality and ongoing, systemic injustices against people of color in this country, to give space to how recent events have changed your daily life, professionally and/or personally.

Witney Christie: I can say it's hard for me as a black woman. It's hard to know that everything is going on and then still having to show up for students. I write daily messages to them and try to be positive in a moment where I don't want to feel positive. It’s difficult having to think about, “how can I talk to eight and nine year olds about some serious issues?” In the classroom, my students have been exposed to the fact that specifically, black bodies are more targeted for no other reason other than their race. Regardless, I do my best to make sure my time with my students center around their realities. I've been making more of an emphasis to better understand how they are doing by spending even more time on questions like, “How are you feeling right now with all of the events in the world going on?”

With the families, I'm a little bit more vulnerable and honest. This past week I wrote an email just saying, “This is hard. I don't know how to say what I’m feeling because it's hard. It's hard for me to want to focus on schoolwork when there's so much going on in our society.” I'm literally watching people on TV advocate for human rights, specifically for black people who have not been seen as equal humans for so long.  I want to be one of those individuals that are out there protesting right now, and for a lot of reasons I'm not, and so it's hard, and I've been honest and vocal about that with the families and share resources with them as much as possible.

Another thing that I did share with my families is that I am grateful to teach their children. I know that my students are upstanders. When they see a problem that is not right, they speak up. They immediately say, “That's not fair.” And, they try to problem solve. In the beginning of the year we learned about the Wampanoag People, an indigenous group in the Massachusetts area, and how European settlers came over to this land and colonized it. My students were able to articulate that that's not fair. They named that the European settlers are taking away rights of people who were here first, and they were doing it in an unkind way. During that same unit, I shared with them some of the challenges that the Wampanoag group are experiencing today, given what the President's administration was doing. Immediately, my students responded with “well, how can we help fix this?” I posed the question back at them and they recommended that we send letters to people so that they can support the Wampanoag People. As eight and nine year olds, my students were advocating for the Wampanoag People by writing petitions or letters. My students keep this type of energy when they see and learn about things that are unjust. 

Due to this, I told my families, “Thank you. Thank you for raising thoughtful children. Thank you for letting them see things and speak up about it as opposed to being complacent and being silent.” Silence is what allowed all of this injustice to continue over the years.

Kyle Richard: Is there anything you want to share about your citizen leadership journey as a Segal Fellow or the things that you learned as a Segal Fellow that you've been able to leverage in this time, either as a teacher or as an advocate?

Witney Christie I think, for me, the core of the Segal Program is being an advocate and being a changemaker. That's one of the reasons why I was so eager to join. Prior to my internship, I had my mind set on being in Education Policy because I knew that the Education system was flawed in a lot of ways, and I wanted to be a part of the solution in a systematic way. During my internship, I learned a significant amount of information because I was looking at America's Promise Alliance's (APA) partners and their recommendations on how to increase the graduation rate. Through this process, I learned that students are exposed to a significant amount of things that affect their ability to engage in the institution of education, like Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). I also learned that the most common recommendation among APA’s partners was that more students need caring adults who know them and will support them. My experience at APA informed me that I wasn't ready to be in Ed Policy. Rather, it reminded me that I needed to be with the students. I missed them and know that I genuinely care about them and am willing to be that adult. After that internship, I decided to be a teacher. 

I love teaching because it is such a political thing. It's a political career to engage with students. I often reflect on some of the things that I've learned during my internship and apply it into my practice today.

I remember sitting down at APA with so much data, as I was trying to figure out what are some of the recommendations of their partners, but at the same time recognize the barriers caused by ACEs. This paradigm resonated with me because it talked a lot about how the trauma that you experience at a young age affects your whole entire body, how you present yourself, and how you later engage with those around you. Due to racism and slavery, black folks in this society are forced to be exposed to a lot more trauma than other folks and that trauma presents itself in a lot of hard ways, especially in their youth. As a result. I prioritize developing a relationship with my students. I want to get to know them on deep levels, their families, to get some background on the challenges that they might be experiencing. I do this so that I can be responsive and supportive. This information is essential and ultimately shapes how I teach and interact with my students. At the end of the day, I want to help my students be the best people that they can be, even if I'm only teaching them for a year or two. 

Going back to the Segal program, it's a space where we want citizen leaders. It's a community where we want change makers. This mission is a part of me. I take some of the things that I know that the Segal program values out in the world as a citizen leader in my own way.

Kyle Richard: The last question I have is, for a lot of people, it might be tough to realize change or just to be motivated and stay positive. What is some wisdom that you would give people to support the work that teachers or change makers do?

Witney Christie: That's really hard because it's something that I'm struggling with right now. I guess the biggest thing that I would think about right now is relationships, checking in with folks. Seeing how they're doing. The other thing is that you have to be present with yourself. I know for me at least, it's been hard being inside for such a long period of time and not being able to interact with other folks. I do kind of jump the gun as a typical Brandeisian and get involved in a lot of things, so I had to learn that burnout is such a real thing, and I had to learn to ask people for help with stuff that I may not be ready to do at this moment. For example, for the next couple of days, I've decided to step back on some things because I need time to just sit and be present, especially with everything going on in our society. I also need distractions and be in tune with myself. Give yourself time to sit and be present and take in things around you and find moments of joy because that's hard right now.

Kyle Richard: I appreciate you taking this time to speak with me. Thank you for your time.