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Joy Mohammed with a group of Western International High School students at TEDxDetroit at the Masonic Temple.

Joy Mohammed with a group of Western International High School students at TEDxDetroit at the Masonic Temple.

Joy Mohammed

‘Unapologetically myself’: How one Detroit counselor uses humor, social media, and Beyonce to support her students

It didn’t take long for Joy Mohammed’s students to realize that they literally didn’t have what it took to work on the high school yearbook.

At Western International High School, the yearbook is assembled by the roughly 40 students who enroll in an elective yearbook class. But this year, there was a prerequisite: students were told they needed a laptop they could take home, something Davis didn’t have.

“I said, ‘well, I’m just going to get the class switched,’” a senior, Terrance Davis, recalled.

Mohammed, a counselor at Western, says more than a dozen students streamed into her office on the first day of school, asking to be switched out of yearbook.

She was reluctant — these were kids she thought could benefit from yearbook — so she logged on to Facebook:

Within three weeks, she’d received six donated laptops, enough to allow most of her students to stay in the class, though some still dropped it. The Beyonce-quoting school counselor doesn’t let the school walls limit her work, often turning to her communities in Detroit and online for help preparing young adults for the rest of their lives. We spoke with her about social media, humor, and letting teachers tell their own stories.

How do you get to know your students?

For me, it really starts with the previous senior class, and making sure that I’m visible and active and purposeful in my moves, so that the junior class that I’ll get next year is excited about having me, and that they’ll know that I’m there.

Can you describe your work with students?

I professionally, academically, socially, and emotionally try to prepare them for their next step.

And what are your tools for doing that?

My most important tool is my sense of humor. I’m extremely funny. (Laughs.) And I’m unapologetically myself. It’s very important that if I say something that’s wrong to a student, I apologize. They see me, they see my children. They see my Beyonce tour tee shirts. Every single day I work, I am Joy Mohammed. They value seeing an adult who’s not perfect. Whose favorite color is glitter. Who speaks in Beyonce quotes.

Schools across the state are struggling with a shortage of school counselors. What does that mean for kids?

If there’s no counselor, that means that students have no one in school whose designated role is to be their academic and developmental advocate. That means that everything I do is to get that student to learn how to learn. Everything I do is to get them back in the classroom, and focus on their education, not just for the school year and for the day, but for their life. To make sure that they have the socio-emotional skills to navigate life.

Specifically around academic success, they don’t have someone to make sure that the school is conducive to academic development.

You’ve also put a lot of energy into highlighting teacher voices. You organized an event this weekend, Tale the Teacher, which will give teachers a chance to talk about their experiences at school. (Chalkbeat is co-sponsoring the event.)

I’m a big proponent of people speaking for their own narratives. I feel that there are a lot of people who say what teachers problems are. Why not give us a platform to speak to our own needs? Our own desires, our own tales, the things that we’ve learned.

I have five teachers from the metro area — from charters, public, private schools — who are going to get up and tell a story about their favorite day of work or their least favorite day of work. It’s going to be a memoir, a testimony about what it’s like to be them. I think it’s very important that we’re giving teachers the mic.

I noticed on social media that you got a bunch of laptops donated to your school. Will you share the backstory?

It all started on the first day of school, when I had about 15 students come to me to ask to be switched out of their yearbook class. To have 15 students come and demand to be removed, it was a little peculiar. After talking to them, I was told that their teacher told them that they had to have Wi-Fi and a laptop to take her class.

These were students who I wanted to keep engaged in their coursework, who could desperately use the outlet that meaningful electives like yearbook provide. I was very apprehensive about taking them out of these classes, because we have so few art classes as it is.

How can people donate a laptop to help your students stay in yearbook?

If you have an old, functioning laptop, they can reach out to me and I’ll take care of that. I do not believe that technology should be a barrier for student success in a K-12 learning environment.