Image Source: Kalin Norman
Valencia D. Clay has recently gained national attention for her outspoken teaching style and bold activism in the classroom, but the 31-year-old Harlem native was putting in the necessary work long before that. Clay has taught in the Baltimore Public School system for the past ten years; when we hop on the phone in the middle of a bitterly cold East Coast Winter, one of the first things she tells me is that Baltimore Design School doesn't have heat, so she and her eighth grade students are out of school.
Clay says it plainly, as if it's just a fact rather than a situation that would likely send teachers and students in neighboring, more affluent counties into a panic. It's also a sharp reminder that the 1-minute Instagram videos she has become known for posting from her classroom don't fully capture the realities of the job; for Clay, a building without heat is just one of the costs of being an educator in a school system that is grossly underfunded — and quite often completely forgotten about.
The willful dismissal of Baltimore Public Schools (which consists largely of black and brown students) is not lost on Clay, or me. In Baltimore, the school buildings are among the oldest in the state, yet they often don't receive enough funding, and when they do, the funds are often misused or mismanaged. Clay uses her platform to bring attention to this, whether its launching a social media campaign to restore heat to schools, or taking her students on walking tours through their city to show them the brand new jails being built in lieu of education centers.
Clay posted the first video of her class in 2014, when the Explore page was still for celebrities and Vine was more than just a distant memory. "I think the first video I put up was of [the students] playing" Clay recalls. "They were playing with a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem called "An Ante-Bellum Sermon," and acting like they were in church. It was just hilarious." Eventually people started to take notice. "The first video that got a little bit of attention was when ISIS [was reported to have carried out a terror attack] in Paris in 2015. I was teaching a lesson on propaganda and social media, and I posted about how we shouldn't automatically assume things without doing our own research." Shortly after, another video garnered over 20,000 views — this one tackling the loaded and coded term "minority". What we see Clay doing in these videos is turning her classroom into a sacred space for young black and brown children to thrive, and push themselves past the limits that society has set for them.
In her videos, Clay is a force, commanding both the classroom and captive viewers at home.
In another lesson, she speaks to her students about the importance of being secure in oneself — using The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas as a springboard for the discussion. "What's yours is already yours," she says, taking a moment to pause before leading the class in a group affirmation. The students respond on cue: "What's mine is already mine." Clay then speaks specifically to the girls in the room, reminding them that no man should ever make them feel insecure, and driving the point home with a well-placed lyric from SZA's "The Weekend." The class laughs, and she does too.
What appears to be just another day in Ms. Clay's classroom is actually a manifestation of her intention from the very start. "I've always used literacy as the grounds of my teaching foundation. Always," she tells me. "I think that's the part people don't always understand; that anything I'm doing is derived directly from what I'm reading in the moment. If I'm reading Neil Postman, best believe my students are going to read the same books. When I'm reading bell hooks, they do too. When I read Marcus Garvey, so do they. They really go through it. It feels really good to give them what I'm getting."
Some of Clay's students are currently reading The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros — and it's imperative that they not only read, but think critically about the text and the world around them. And that isn't always easy to come by. Many of her students have experienced high levels of trauma in their lives, and haven't been told that it's okay to investigate and unpack the world around them — a challenge Clay tackles by using any and every text to help them learn more about themselves.
"You can read a cookbook, and they'll come up with words for the recipes they've never heard of, and that can become a discussion of, well, why don't you know what this vegetable is? 'My mom never bought it, or I've never seen it in my grocery store.' Or, 'We don't have a grocery store in my community.' Literally anything can be brought into a relevant place for our students. It's always a teachable moment."
Clay credits her ability to manage and cultivate growth in her students to both her grandmother — who raised her — and a tireless dedication to reading everything she can get her hands on. During our conversation, Clay recalls the early days of her pedagogy. "I grew up with a shaming mentality. And I would shame my students and embarrass them to get them to listen. And it worked. I had no problems." Her words catapult me back in time to my own teachers; those whose classrooms were well-behaved, the ones who didn't mess around. However, things changed when Clay began reading bell hooks, whose writings transformed the way she understood her practice, and subsequently, herself.
"She really explained my entire pedagogy when she talked about how we shame people to get their respect. And that's not respect — that's fear," Clay says. "I have watched my teaching style evolve because the love makes them work harder than the shaming. We really use [the shaming] as a defense mechanism, and we don't realize that it's actually your own self-hatred that they're going to go on and perpetuate."
When I ask her what she's currently reading, she doesn't name a book, but rather a theme. "Right now I'm reading all of these books about trauma," She tells me. "I just finished Everyday Emotional Intelligence, which is by the Harvard Book Review. Last night I was reading Creating Schools That Heal by Leslie Koplow." These books inform Clay's practice, but their teachings don't stop there. "I read so much so that when I teach people — whether it's on blog posts or in Instagram posts or in my classroom — I can make sure they have something to dive back into," she says, adding, "And not just on a shallow level. When I say 'dive,' I really want them to go deeper and think about why things are the way that they are."
Image Source: Kalin Norman
When she's not in the classroom or inspiring thousands of people with her videos, Clay shares her knowledge on her blog, Valencia's Garden, where she posts about everything from what she's reading at the moment to reflecting on her mother's struggle with addiction. She is also the co-founder of The Flourishing Blossoms Society for Girls Inc., a "long-term support network for young girls and women who want to actively participate in building their community." Their aim is to help young women build self-esteem and contribute to the world around them.
One of the most remarkable things about Clay is the amount of time she spends pouring into herself and examining how her own trauma and experiences have shaped the woman she is today. Her self-examination is a labor of love, and it's exceedingly clear that she's visited these parts of herself before. She's gotten to know them so well that she can share them with me as matter-of-factly as she did the heat being off in her school building.
When I ask who pours into her, it's a star-studded list. "Cardi B inspires me; Issa Rae inspires me; Michelle Obama inspires me; Ellen [DeGeneres] inspires me. Just people who are courageous in their fields," she tells ms. "Take someone like Ellen, who became a TV host during a time when being queer or gay was not as accepted as it is today. She dominated the field because she makes every single person who comes on her show feel loved. She does the work that I do in my classroom, but on TV. Clay then turns her admiration to Cardi B. "She makes you feel like, 'Shit! I can do anything. There's nothing I cannot do.'"
"I really want them to go deeper and think about why things are the way that they are."
Clay drops another name, too — one I'd never heard before, but will remember from this moment on. The story of Marva Collins, a fly schoolteacher who taught out of her home on the South Side of Chicago in the '70s, reminds Clay that she's on the right path. Collins was a full-time substitute teacher for 14 years, but after being disheartened by the the low levels of learning, she chose to take $5,000 out of her personal retirement fund to start her own school. Collins took the students who were deemed "unteachable," converted the second floor of her home, and ended up with the highest test scores in the state. She turned seemingly improbable circumstances into a space for growth and success — a story that sounds noticeably similar to Clay's. "I just love what she did," Clay says. "She got offered the position of secretary of education under Reagan and she turned it down. She said, 'Nope, I just want to teach,' and I'm like, — 'That is me.'"
Another impressive facet of Clay's teaching style is her ability to connect the social, political, and emotional dots in ways that empower her students.
She teaches them that as young black boys and girls, the world is watching them — and that that shouldn't scare them, but rather make them more self-aware and innovative. She keeps them mindful of the stereotypes and conditions that come with inhabiting a black body; the expectations that show up long before you enter a room. Clay tells me about the challenging first two months of a new school year, when boundaries are tested and standards are set. "My girls are very mean in the beginning, so this is my new thing: 'You know I'm a woman, and you're a young woman — and we're going to talk to each other like women. So let's start over.'" She announces this to her student in front of the entire class with everyone — particularly including the other young women, watching.
Clay is aware of the impact this exchange has when eyes are all on her. Rather than berating or embarrassing her student, she redirects the energy into something positive and empowering. Instead of making her feel small and shamed, she brings her to eye level and reminds her that she too can love and respect herself as much as Ms. Clay does.
On the subject of mentorship and influencing young teachers who want to do what she does, Clay tells me her "simple" advice: to read. "Read everything. All about everything. Read about whatever you're going to be teaching. Read about the children that you have. Read about the city that you work in. Read about your own personal history. There has to be more reading done by the educator. I think reading is such a big deal." Reading, she insists, is instrumental to growth and becoming an authority in your field — a project that never stops for Clay. "If you are not the expert, become the expert. And I think that's the thing: that you're always becoming the expert, even if you are the expert. I feel like I still have so much more to learn."
So what's next for Valencia Clay? She tells me that she wants to start an after-school program and summer camp staffed by her students. It's all part of a greater push to help them become even more passionate and inquisitive learners, fueled by a need to investigate the world around them. She also wants to open a school for children with special needs. For Clay, it's all about creating spaces where students are allowed to grow, change, and make mistakes without fear of retribution or labels — a place where they're able to get to know and love themselves with open, knowing eyes. Spaces where they learn how to close read Shakespeare without sacrificing their mother tongues. Spaces where they are always more than enough.