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The Need For Educational Affinity Spaces

Author: Farrell C. Thomas, Sr., Ed. S - Gray Court School, Laurens School District 55

 

Prior to the Covid pandemic, the life of an educator (teacher, principal, superintendent, etc.) was no walk in the park. There was a declining number of college students graduating with degrees in education, the pool of teacher applicants was becoming extinct, and teacher burnout for existing teachers increased because of high levels of stress. Then, a global pandemic completely turned the world of education upside down, and the gradual decline in education became an avalanche of epic portions and devastating consequences.


One-third of teachers are now likely to leave the profession, and those who stay weather growing workloads and express reduced levels of job satisfaction (Hanover Research, 2021). With the increased exodus of teachers leaving the profession, there are both low quality and quantity of individuals to replace them. We are also seeing a steady increase in principals and district superintendents walking away. A nationally representative survey conducted earlier this year by the RAND Corporation found that 85% of principals are experiencing job-related stress, compared with 73% of teachers and 35% of other working adults. The survey also found that 48% of principals are dealing with burnout, while 28% report symptoms of depression (Sullivan, 2022).

How or what can be done to help teachers and school and district level administrators mitigate these feelings of burnout and overwhelming struggle?

One way that teachers, principals and superintendents can assist other educators in this era of burn out and struggle is to create educational affinity spaces. Affinity spaces, in a traditional sense, are spaces in which people bond over a shared interest. A chess club, for example, is an affinity space (Biesemeyer, 2020).


In June of 2020, I was awarded my first principalship. We were set to embrace a school year of unknowns after being shut down since March of the same year and reopening for the fall of 2020. There was no playbook or script to follow what virtually, no pun intended, no one had ever seen in the modern era of education. In October of 2020, I was invited by a friend and fellow educational leader to meet a group of men. These men were all educational leaders who serve in the roles of assistant principal, principal, and director of an educational program geared towards prevention of high school dropouts with the intent to keep them “on-track”. We met to hang out and bond with one another because of the same space we all shared and the characterization we all shared as black male educational leaders. We were all trying to navigate through Covid yet lead schools or programs.

Faced with daily adversity, constant uncertainty, and a healthy dose of the unknown, our meeting, talking, and sharing gave us space to be ourselves and an opportunity to lay down our daily convictions.

It was beautiful, and, for me, it was refreshing and inspiring. I had a group of men who looked like me, worked in educational leadership, and had some of the same struggles. We all felt the isolation of the principalship and not having another person in our buildings who shared our same plight.


Initially, the group came together to celebrate a promotion and transition of one of the other leaders in the group. As time passed, the ills of society and the tragic and untimely death of George Floyd continued to bring us together and an alliance formed. We were Battle Buddies, brothers who were prepared to strengthen and protect one another as we maneuvered through the daily rigors of educational leadership. The friendship and kinship extended into more, and the the group of guys eventually formed a powerful collaboration called BOLD Leadership Network. We agree and believe that being “BOLD is A Choice” every day because the state of education demands “BOLD” leaders who are committed to helping create bold educational leaders in every community.


Stated before, affinity groups are meant to be safe spaces for educators or students who share an identity, such as a common race or heritage, to discuss mutual concerns and help each other navigate a K-12 education system where they are in the minority (Pendharkar, 2022). However, dealing with the current educational climate and the difficulties of being a teacher, an administrator or superintendent, it may be necessary to be a member of more than one affinity group. The men of BOLD Leadership Network connected because we could identify with each other as black men and black educational leaders. I am also a part of other educational affinity groups. For example, two summers ago I attended the national conference and became a member of NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals). This collaboration has allowed me to make connections and network with other principals across the country. Organizations like NAESP and NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) create spaces and opportunities for individuals to formulate natural affinity groups that deal with many facets of education. Yet, these groups are centralized enough so educators like me can find a specific group of people to connect and collaborate with. These connections render aid in helping me navigate and operate in the most difficult spaces and areas. Another example of a positive affinity group that I have had the privilege to be a part of and to learn from would be the South Carolina Association of Curriculum and Development (SCASCD) Emerging Leaders . This program brings together bright and creative leaders from across the state of South Carolina to share, grow, listen and learn from one another. The SCASCD Emerging Leaders program has given me another outlet or space where like-minded individuals come together to grow as educational leaders as provide support and ideas to one another.


Whether you are a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, or really anyone who plays a role within education, it can be a challenging profession. Educational affinity spaces and groups can put you in a place where you can then begin to minimize overwhelming issues and frustration. Affinity spaces give you an opportunity to share, relate and hear from others in your same career path. My Battle Buddies, the men of BOLD Leadership, provided me an opportunity to really be me and not “the pandemic principal dealing with a myriad of problems inside and outside the building” version of me. My informal affinity groups with NAESP and SCASCD have allowed me to learn and grow by asking, hearing and seeing other educational leaders think out loud and share ideas amongst one another. I encourage you to find or create an affinity space or group that will help you grow, allow you to vent and release, and provide you a safe place to be who you are. Education needs good people and we cannot afford to lose educators who are making a difference in the lives of children.



About the Author:

Farrell C. Thomas, Sr., Ed. S is the proud principal of Gray Court School located in Laurens School District 55. He is serving his third year as a principal and in his first year as principal of GCO. Mr. Thomas is a 2000 graduate of the University of South Carolina - Spartanburg with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. Mr. Thomas also received his master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University - Portland and an Educational Specialist degree (Ed.S) from Arkansas State University. With over 20 years of experience and service in education, Farrell Thomas is also a co-founder of BOLD Leadership Network and member of SCASCD Emerging Leaders as well as a member of NAESP’s Principal Magazine editorial advisory board. He has presented on hisareas of expertise of social media engagement as a means of branding and promotion, culture, climate and communication development, and practices instructional coaching and development within the state of South Carolina and across the country at various conferences.



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