Exploring the importance of a diverse faculty

Exploring+the+importance+of+a+diverse+faculty

Liliana Greyf and Hanna Hornfeld

“Are you hiring me just because I’m Black and male, or are you hiring me because I’m an asset to the institution?” Associate Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Ronald Taylor asked Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly in his interview for a job at the school. Kelly replied that he was hired for his qualifications, and Taylor took the job. 

The school’s primary focus in hiring faculty is to find the most qualified teachers, Upper Division (UD) Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. “We recognize that part of having a faculty that consists of the best teachers means having a faculty that reflects who our students are.” 

Over the past 10 years, the population of teachers of color in the Middle Division (MD) and UD has increased by 13 and 10 percentage points respectively. This year, 37% of MD teachers and 26% of UD teachers identify as people of color (POC). There is no ideal model or target percentage for a diverse teacher body — the school must continually strive to diversify its educators, Taylor said.

The Lower Division administration has been working to provide students and faculty with “mirrors” and “windows,” Head of LD Deena Neuwirth said. A “mirror” is a representation of something that reflects a child’s identity, and a “window” is a representation of something unfamiliar to a child. “When we provide both mirrors and windows to our students, we broaden their thinking while validating their individual experiences,” Neuwirth said.

The empowerment created by students’ and teachers’ shared identities — whether that be race, gender, sexuality, or any form of a marginalized experience — can have a profound effect on a student’s development, Director of ICIE Candice Powell-Caldwell wrote in an email. Recognizing the impact of creating “mirrors” for students is important particularly in the classroom. “That can make all the difference in the world, in terms of how that student sees themselves as a learner and as a whole human being.”

Currently, 42% of the student body identifies as students of color. To provide students with mirrors, the school has been working on hiring more faculty of color and providing current faculty members with spaces to learn and talk about racial experiences.

In her sixth-grade English class, Myra Singh (11) had her first — and only — South Asian teacher. That year, for a creative writing assignment, Singh wrote a piece about her family’s celebration of Diwali. “It was the only time I knew my teacher would understand the cultural references in my writing,” she said. “I felt comfortable writing that because that teacher looked like me.”

Singh’s comfort in this shared identity is not unique — many students of marginalized identities said having teachers who share their identifiers helps them feel supported in the classroom. A study conducted in 2018 by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers” showed that students who belonged to minority groups were more likely to be successful in their educational careers and their college enrollment if they were exposed to teachers who looked like them. 

Exposure to different views and opinions through a more diverse faculty can minimize the chances of having access to a single view of the world, UD World Languages teacher Niamh Duggan said. “The more varied and nuanced our representations of different social groups are, the more likely we are to avoid stereotyping each other and actually succeed in making meaningful connections.” 

Jhanae Ottey (11) feels closer to teachers who share her identifiers, often female teachers of color, she said. She remembers multiple occasions during which teachers of color gave her a knowing smile while telling stories about their childhoods, acknowledging that she understood their personal experiences. “They look to me with a ‘you-know-what-I’m-talking-about’ face,” she said. “And I do know what they are talking about.”

Singh has also found herself more comfortable around teachers who share an understanding of her culture and religion. She celebrates holidays that are not observed by the school calendar, and she is sometimes wary of asking for extensions or later testing dates from her teachers, since she knows that they are probably unaware of the holiday. “It isn’t always clear to me whether it’s acceptable to ask,” she said. “That probably wouldn’t be the case with an Indian teacher.”

Beyond the more obvious impacts of educators who share her identifiers, Tomoko Hida (11) said she is even empowered by their everyday actions. “I remember [this teacher] wearing these cool earrings to class that I admired,” Hida said. “If she hadn’t been Asian, I don’t think I would have been able to picture myself pulling off something like that in a similar fashionable way.”

UD science teacher Lisa Scott has noticed that the students with whom she has the most personal relationships tend to share her identifiers. “When you know you’re speaking to someone who has some sort of common understanding with you, it is just so much easier to be yourself,” she said. “Sometimes, being a POC in a predominantly white institution, you’re always on. You’re always thinking about how to look professional and friendly and engaged. That expends a lot of emotional energy. So I think having people who have a similar experience just allows you to turn off.”

This kind of environment is rare, but it exists in Ajani Green-Watson’s (11) advisory group, she said. She is in UD English Department Chair Vernon Wilson’s advisory, which consists only of students who identify as Black. Green-Watson chose to switch into this advisory group after her freshman year. “It’s pretty obvious that there aren’t a lot of people like me teaching at this school, so he was one of the only teachers I felt really connected to.” 

Wilson had a large number of seniors in his advisory who graduated last year. Over the summer, UD Dean of Students Michael Dalo emailed him saying that there were multiple students who requested to switch into Wilson’s advisory, all of whom were students of color. 

Wilson credits this situation to his role as an advisor of BLEx, a Black students’ affinity group. Also, because former computer science teacher Danah Screen left the school, many of her advisees — several of whom were students of color — were looking to join a new group.

This is the first time Wilson has had an advisory in which every single student racially identifies in the same way, specifically as Black or African-American. “That offers great possibility into the kinds of support that students feel from one another in the room,” he said. “Their points of view and their ideas and sentiments are less likely to be dismissed, [and they] have a certain level of integrity that doesn’t need to be explained and elaborated.” 

Now that she is in this advisory, Green-Watson recognizes the comfort that the space provides. “In my last advisory, when we are talking about current issues, I always felt like I was speaking on behalf of my whole race, like I was always the token Black girl,” she said. “But in [Wilson’s] advisory, I’m just a kid voicing my opinion.”

Especially after the events of this summer, Watson is grateful to have a space in which she can speak freely with peers and a teacher who shares her identifiers, she said. “I was really dreading people asking my opinion, because this is actually something that affects me,” she said. “But in the homeroom, we all share that common experience.”

The school’s goal of creating a diverse environment is embedded in its hiring process, Head of UD Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. The school recruits faculty from multiple recruitment agencies, including Nemnet, an organization that specializes in the placement of faculty and administrators of color. In many cases, department chairs establish relationships with possible candidates that allow the chairs to contact the candidates when there are job openings at the school.

While working on two MD hiring committees over the summer, Taylor made sure to always look at a candidate’s qualifications before their identifiers to avoid tokenism, he said.

In orientations for new faculty members, Taylor makes it clear to incoming faculty members of color that they were not hired as tokens. “One of the first things that I lead with is, ‘You were hired here because of your skill set, you were hired here because you’re talented, and you were hired here not to be someone else’s teacher on how to stop their problematic behavior,’” he said.

Taylor is still working with the administration to improve the school’s hiring protocols. One of Taylor’s main goals is to work on the school’s partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, because those colleges produce more teachers of color, he said. 

Besides increasing diversity within faculty, the school also needs to work on retention, Powell-Caldwell wrote. “Far too often, schools hire faculty of color without putting in the requisite time and effort to ensure that those faculty members are consistently cared for, supported and affirmed,” she wrote. “The end result: the turnover rate of faculty of color in our schools remains high; burnout is real. Thus, the focus needs to be on recruiting, hiring and, most especially, retaining faculty of color in our schools.”

This year, Taylor has started working with Director of Human Resources Judy Lynch to look into the trends among faculty of color who choose to leave the school. Taylor hopes to identify whether faculty of color leave because of a problem with the school itself or for personal reasons, he said. 

After reading numerous studies, Taylor found four main actions schools should take to support faculty members. The first, which he feels the school has been successful with, is creating space for faculty with certain identifiers to see each other. The ICIE offers five faculty affinity spaces for faculty of color and for LGBTQ+ faculty members throughout the year. Many teachers were surprised to find faculty of color in sections of the school that they did not teach in, he said.

The school also has to acknowledge its systemic issues, such as being a predominantly white institution, in order to proactively plan ways to support its faculty, Taylor said. For example, beyond just creating spaces for POC, the school should periodically check in with new faculty of color to see how they are adjusting to this historically white space.

Accountability is also important, Taylor said. If schools do not take issues such as microaggressions seriously, they are sending a message that faculty of color are not valued.

Finally, it is necessary to prevent “racial battle fatigue,” or the “unicorn effect,” Taylor said. Often, faculty of color take on additional roles as leaders of diversity committees, assemblies, or other groups and wind up doing a lot more work than their white counterparts. Seeing faculty of color as “magical” and expecting them to constantly generate work can lead to burnout and lower retention rates, Taylor said.

As experts in their respective divisions, division heads should be responsible for thinking about where exactly each division should improve to meet those four goals, Taylor said. He plans to bring these questions up to the administration soon.

The administration is also working with ICIE on initiatives to help current faculty members think about race, identity, and their impact in the classroom, Taylor said.

Last year, ICIE guided faculty through their monthly discussions of Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility,” a guide to anti-racism written for white people. “The more people diving into this work and taking ownership of it, the more deeply rooted and poignant it will be,” Neuwirth said. “ICIE helps us achieve that goal.”

Earlier this year, ICIE sent out a survey to faculty regarding the work they had done on “White Fragility” to find out what faculty members had not completely understood and built an Equity Chat curriculum based on the survey results. 

Equity Chats, which Taylor introduced this year, are optional monthly professional development meetings intended for faculty members to learn and be vulnerable. The first Equity Chat of the year took place on October 20 and focused on anti-racism in the classroom. Taylor gave a short lesson, after which two MD science teachers, Head of Nursery Division (ND) Marinés Arroyo, and ND Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Chair Samiyrah Kellman shared their personal experiences creating equitable classrooms.

This year, ICIE appointed DEI chairs to each of the school’s divisions. Each of the DEI chairs is also a teacher in their respective division, which allows them to more accurately gauge what every division is doing well and needs to be improved upon, and then share their ideas with ICIE, Taylor said. 

LD DEI Chair Gina D’Amico and Kellman both received training from the Seeking Educational Equality and Diversity (SEED) program several years ago and now serve as facilitators for the program. SEED is a national program that trains educators to lead seminars to help their peers learn how to build a more socially just world, according to their website. 

Kellman has facilitated the parent SEED program and D’Amico has facilitated the faculty SEED program. They have monthly meetings to engage in discussions about balancing “the scholarship of the self,” which involves one’s own lived experiences, and “the scholarship of the shelf,” which involves history, data, and systems, D’Amico said. This year, the SEED programs are run by MD World Languages Teacher Arni Alvarez and MD English teacher Renyelle Jimenez. 

To avoid overwhelming faculty members with events, Taylor holds weekly drop-ins in his office. During these periods, teachers who want to find ways to make their classrooms more equitable can stop by and work through their questions with Taylor, he said. “The same way we expect [students] to meet with teachers, I expect faculty members to meet with me.” 

UD English teacher Jennifer Huang is still figuring out what it means for her to be supportive of her Asian-American students, but she understands the importance of this kind of work, she said. Along with involving herself in the Asian affinity group and East Wind West Wind, a club that promotes discussions about Asian American culture, Huang now teaches a senior English elective about Asian-American literature.

Growing up, Huang did not have access to educators who looked like her. In fact, it wasn’t until graduate school that she had an Asian-American teacher.

Living in a predominantly white suburb in the Midwest, Huang never thought that her experience as a young Asian woman could — or should — be any different. “I was always trying to figure out where I fit in and how I fit in, or even if I fit in at all,” she said. “Fitting in was always racially coded in a way that wasn’t clear to me as a kid.” Huang is not sure if she would have felt this same way had she had access to educators that could have made her feel less alone.

Scott particularly remembers having one English teacher in high school who was also Black. “In Mr. Daves’ class, we only read ‘Black books,’” she said. “Students at school would talk badly about him because they thought that Black books were the only things he knew.”

Scott fell prey to this kind of thinking herself. Even so, she adored Mr. Dave’s class. “He was probably one of the most impactful teachers that I had because he really didn’t care what students thought of him — he was like, ‘White teachers, y’all get to choose what y’all want to read, I’m gonna choose what I read.’”

Teachers who reflect a student’s identifiers can be important role models. Trish Tran (10), who is Asian, went to a small, predominantly white and Irish-Catholic middle school, an experience that made them feel ostracized and stereotyped, they said. UD Visual Arts teacher Mirrie Choi, Tran’s sculpture teacher of two years, showed them that they could be an Asian woman in the arts. Similarly, Huang showed Tran that they can be Asian without an interest in STEM. “You can defy those stereotypes,” they said.

 While all teachers, no matter their sexual orientation, should be willing to speak to a queer student about the challenges they face, it is still crucial for students to have role models to relate to, UD English teacher Dr. Andrew Fippinger said. 

In his first year as a teacher at the school, Fippinger had a student who came to talk to him about personal issues, he said. She was queer and closeted, and she was dealing with issues of anxiety and fear. “Luckily, I was able to form a close bond with that student and I think help her out a lot, but I was also able to point her toward queer female faculty that she could talk to,” he said. “And that’s something that I couldn’t give her, no matter how wonderful or brilliant or empathetic I was.

Tran is openly using they/them pronouns in school for the first time this year, something they would not necessarily have had the confidence to do without non-binary role models, they said. “Because of [non-binary teachers], I feel comfortable enough in myself and in this community to experiment,” they said. “That really helped me out of my shell as a non-binary individual.”

While race plays an undeniably important factor in the relationships Hida chooses to cultivate with her teachers, it is not the only determinant, she said. Hida’s female identity has caused her to gravitate towards women in positions of power. “I am vulnerable with teachers only if I feel comfortable around them,” Hida said. “I don’t want to seem weak in front of someone who doesn’t have a lived experience similar to mine.” Hida thinks that if the female teachers she has opened up to in the past had not shared her identifiers, she would have been less quick to come to them for help.

During her sophomore year, Kate Bown (12) had four female teachers and only one male teacher. The next year, Bown had four male teachers and only one female teacher. “I felt that there was a sort of understanding that I shared with my teachers in 10th grade that didn’t exist the next year,” Bown said. “The sense of comfort that I had knowing that the people who led my classes had had similar life experiences in regards to gender was no longer present.” 

Although the gender distribution of faculty members at the UD is nearly even as of this year, with 53 men and 54 women, the ND and LD faculty is predominantly made up of women. The ND has six male and 28 female faculty members, and the LD has four male and 56 female faculty members.

Out of these four male teachers in the LD, three teach Physical Education (PE). Only one is in the classroom: First Grade assistant teacher Gideon Kahn. 

Kahn said more of his male students seek to form close connections with him. “Many seem excited by the prospect of having a male teacher,” he said. “Recently, a young male student told me I was his first ‘boy’ teacher and that it was ‘pretty cool.’” 

Whether or not young children in particular have access to mirrors can be influential at such a young age. Fourth Grade Language Arts teacher Nimrita Daswani has seen the impact that she, as a South Asian teacher, has had on South Asian students. She passed by a group of first graders having a mask break outdoors and noticed that one of the students was also South Asian. “I’ve never said hello to her, but she saw me, and I guess she saw a little bit of herself in me, and she gave me the cutest little one-fingered wave ever,” Daswani said. “That just warmed me up. It’s really a special experience for the children to see a part of who they are in their teacher.”

In her 15 years at the school, Daswani has seen the diversity of the LD student body increase significantly, she said. However, she would like to see more diversity among the faculty.

In the 2010-2011 school year, 10 percent of the LD faculty self-identified as POC. That percentage has since doubled to 20 percent. Despite this growth, Daswani still feels that students of color may have difficulty finding teachers who represent their racial identities. “I haven’t come across another Indian teacher in a long time,” she said. “I’m used to it, but there are a lot of Indian kids now, and African-American kids. I wish the teachers looked more like New York City, like them.”

A diverse teacher body does not just benefit the students of the institution — it is also important for teachers to have colleagues of various backgrounds, Wilson said. When a new teacher is hired, they bring their unique experiences and ideas to the table. For example, when UD English teacher and Dean of the Class of 2023 Chidi Asoluka first came to the school, none of the English teachers taught Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, “Purple Hibiscus”; after Asoluka introduced the book in his first year, other teachers added it to their syllabi. Now, almost half of ninth grade English classes read the novel.