When Joy Mohammed said she wanted to be the LeBron James of school counseling, she didn’t mean she wanted a guaranteed spot in the hall of fame. She meant that she wanted to join a team that no one believed in — a team with all the odds stacked against it — and still win.
As Mohammed sees it, her teammates were students at Detroit’s Western International High School, where the counselor saw herself as a “covert operator against latent racism.” against racism. At Western, where 90 percent of students are black or Latino, Mohammed worked to make sure students saw their heritage reflected in their education, from the music at the homecoming dance to the English curriculum in the classroom.
Mohammed’s tales of life inside Detroit schools make up the last installment in a series of four videos recorded at “Tale the Teacher,” a storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat in October. Educators took the stage at the event to share what they’ve seen from the front of the classroom — or, in Mohammed’s case, from inside the counseling office at one of Detroit’s largest high schools. Chalkbeat has been posting their stories.
In a 20-minute tour through the high and lows of her time at Western, Mohammed says that her own experiences facing discrimination at school made it all too easy for her to recognize the ways the deck was stacked against her students.
So when their music wasn’t played at school dances, or they were faced with an English curriculum that downplayed the literary contributions of African-Americans, Mohammed says she tried to win over other teachers to the idea of change.
And when that approach didn’t go far enough, well, she tried something else.
It doesn’t spoil Mohammed’s performance — which you can watch in full below — to say that it provides the backstory to a social media campaign that brought nearly 10 donated laptops to her students at Western, and which was featured in a recent How I Teach.
Mohammed left Western soon after she recorded this story and now works in the admissions department at a local university. She is clear about the moral of her story.
“It is so very important that all educators are civil rights activists. Period,” she said. “It is something that is non-negotiable, it is something that we don’t have time to talk about. You must be a civil rights activist.”