October 18, 2018

Wellesley’s efforts to increase teacher diversity an uphill climb

Shannon Chaffers '18, Print Editor-in-Chief Emerita

English teacher Ms. Shima Khan believes the high school must do more to increase teacher diversity, as it helps students recognize the realities of the world outside Wellesley. “There are different people [in the world] and you have to know not just how to tolerate them but to make meaningful connections with them, to celebrate their individuality,” she said.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, more than eighty percent of America’s public school teachers are white. Couple that with the fact that 48 percent of students in America are non-white, and it becomes clear why many school districts across the country have placed their focus on increasing the racial diversity of their teaching staff—not only to provide students of color with representation in the classroom, but to expose white students to other perspectives in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse.

With a faculty that is only three percent black, two percent Hispanic, and one percent Asian, the high school has a big hill to climb to achieve their goal of forming a staff that reflects the diversity of its students, but Principal Jamie Chisum and the rest of the administration have been working to address the issue.

Chisum says the most promising of their efforts included a plan to set up a school of education in the suburbs of Boston in consortium with University of Massachusetts-Boston and Wellesley, Weston, Wayland, Norwood, Natick, and Needham’s public school systems. The plan was devised in 2015.

“The concept was simple,” Chisum said. “We would host the classes [in Wellesley], we would actually teach some of the classes, and then we would put student teachers in our schools [to student teach].”

Because UMass Boston is the most diverse campus in New England, Chisum hoped this program would give the high school an opportunity to hire more teachers of color.

Chisum explained that those who student-taught were given “a right to interview at any of our six schools, which would give them a real opportunity. And it would give us an opportunity to interview candidates of color that we trained ourselves, so we knew they were good.”

Though encouraging at the start, the consortium fell apart when UMass Boston lost funding for the project in the summer of 2016. While the high school continues to search for a similar program, they have struggled to find one with such direct results.

In the meantime, administrators and teachers attend diversity job fairs in hopes of finding candidates of color interested in working in Wellesley.

“The challenge [with the job fairs] is determining whether the candidates there want to come to Wellesley and whether we have a position for that candidate,” Chisum said.

But the chances of this happening are slim. “When we are able to find a candidate and a position, it’s exciting [but] so far it hasn’t yielded much,” Chisum said.

As of now, Chisum said that the most effective way of hiring teachers of color is reaching out to Wellesley ‍alumni who might be interested in coming back to teach.

“I like to plant seeds in the back of students’ heads to come back and help us be part of diversifying our staff,” Chisum said. “I’ve been an administrator in Wellesley for twelve years and there’s almost never been a time when I haven’t had a candidate in the pipeline. And right now, I have three [possible candidates].”

Despite these deliberate efforts to recruit teachers of color, Chisum says that any progress the high school has made with respect to teacher diversity is negligible.

“I feel like we’re treading water. I’d like to say that we’re building momentum, because the focus is sharper than it’s been in the past, but I can’t say that we’re vastly more diverse than we were ten or fifteen years ago,” he said.

Chisum points to two main reasons for this lack of progress, the first of which is a lack of candidates of color available for hire. “If we were in Atlanta or Washington D.C. where the African-American population is a lot higher, there would be a lot more people of color who you could have be a candidate and apply. The population numbers are just small here,” he said. Indeed, as of 2016, only about twelve percent of participants in Massachusetts’ educator preparation program were non-white.

This relative shortage of teachers of color in the greater Boston area, compounded by the white-majority demographics of Wellesley specifically make it especially challenging to recruit candidates, according to Chisum.

“I can understand why a teacher of color might not choose to apply here. When they see a mostly white student body and a mostly white teaching staff in a mostly white town, they just might feel more comfortable going somewhere else. And they might feel the pull, the cause, to go teach students of color if they have that opportunity,” he said.

This assertion was certainly true for English teacher Ms. Shima Khan, who is Muslim. Khan said that she came to Wellesley only because there was no English position available at Boston Public Schools (BPS). She had previously taught at a school in Houston made up primarily of students from low-income backgrounds, and was looking for a similar experience in Massachusetts.

When Khan was offered a position at Wellesley in 2013, she was concerned by the environment she would encounter made up of a predominantly white, affluent population. Her reservations proved correct, as she struggled to finding a place and a purpose when she began teaching at Wellesley.

“I had a really difficult first year. I was constantly looking in BPS because I felt like that was my calling; I felt like those schools need good teachers and I felt like these kids [in Wellesley] had everything. I couldn’t possibly teach them anything because they have tutors; they have all the resources and they don’t need me,” she said. “Part of the reason why I’m in teaching is because of the service aspect. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve helped one person. And I clearly wasn’t feeling that in my first year.”

Khan’s experience in her first year is exactly the experience that may have turned off candidates of color from accepting a job in Wellesley or caused them to quit. As Chisum said, “a massive part of [building diversity] is not just hiring teachers of color, but retaining them.”

But Khan did not quit. Even though she wasn’t sure there was any value in coming back, she didn’t want to give up that easily. That would prove to be a prudent decision, because even if she didn’t see it at first, Khan soon discovered that she was an integral part of the high school faculty.

“I realized that maybe these kids don’t need me as much [as those in Boston], but they definitely need me. They need to see me even if that’s all they’re getting from me. I might not be teaching them something that they don’t know about English or English literature, but the fact that they’re in a classroom with me does wonders because being in the presence of someone who looks different from them helps them realize that the world is not a reflection of who they are,” she said. “There are different people and you have to know not just how to tolerate them but to make meaningful connections with them, to celebrate their individuality.”

Khan emphasized why increasing teacher diversity is particularly important at a predominantly white school like Wellesley High School. Not only do kids learn how to interact with people who look different from them, but they form meaningful, impactful relationships that can truly affect their perspectives.

As Khan said, “The reason that I stay and continue, that I’ve stopped looking into BPS, is because I feel like these are the kids who are going to have an impact in the world and if I can teach them to use their privilege to help others, I think that is my buy-in. So whereas I can help the kids of color in a different school momentarily, I think that making these white kids realize that they owe it to others to do something with the benefits they’ve held onto for so long might have a larger impact.”

For Julia Himmelberger ’18, a student in Khan’s World Literature class, this philosophy has paid off.

“In my four years at the high school, Ms. Khan was only second teacher of color. Through our discussions in class and current events issues that she brings up, I’ve become cognizant of the things I take for granted as a white person,” she said. “I’ve learned more life lessons in this class than any class I’ve taken and I hope that there are more teachers of color [here] in the future so that students can learn more in the classroom than just the curriculum.”

METCO coordinator Mr. Grant Hightower, who is black, has had a similar experience discovering why teaching in Wellesley is so important. Though he works primarily with students of color in the METCO program, he has also had the opportunity to impact resident students.

“I look at what I do now as working in a school full of students of color with the bonus of being able to affect the perspective of the resident students… I feel like that’s my edge: being able to affect kids who are going to make it to positions of power and maybe look favorably on the human race rather than running to their comfort,” he said.  

Both Hightower and Khan also recognize the impact their presence has on students of color. Hightower says a lack of teacher diversity in a town like Wellesley “forces students of color to struggle on their own in a place that’s not necessarily conducive to them feeling comfortable.”

He added that teachers of color also give them a realistic image of who they can become. “Without teacher diversity, [students of color] don’t have an opportunity to see how people who look like them can mature. In the greater society you don’t usually get the perspective of the working black person. So I think that that imagery helps students understand the middle ground between being a child and being an adult,” he said.

In addition to providing minority students with a role model, Khan has seen how minority teachers can act as a support for students of color to confide in. These interactions, too, have inspired Khan to stay.

“I was feeling miserable, I was feeling isolated, but when I saw kids of color who would latch on, and would be like ‘Where have you been?’ I’d realize that I owe it to the kids to be here and take the hits,” she said.

One student who has benefited from Ms. Khan’s direction is Emaan Tariq ’18, who is another student in her World Literature class.

“Having Ms. Khan as my teacher has definitely helped me find a place in school and helped me more fully understand my identity. She has always been someone to give me guidance and support and she has been someone I can talk to about how to balance my American identity with my Pakistani Muslim identity as well,” she said.

These stories show the immense impact increasing teacher diversity can have on everyone at the high school.

So what more can the high school do to increase teacher diversity? The efforts that the administration has taken thus far prove that it has become a priority, but by Chisum’s admission, it hasn’t been nearly enough. Of course, there’s no easy solution to this problem, but both Khan and Hightower point to one selling point that could draw candidates of color to Wellesley: the immense, long-lasting and far-reaching impact teachers of color can have on not only students of color but also white students.  

Mr. Hightower makes a great pitch: “These are the children of people who are large in society. So if you have the opportunity to change the way they’ve been brought up, get them exposed to different kinds of people, and send them out into the world with a different point of reference, then imagine how many lives you can affect through them. So by turning your back on this sort of job or working with this sort of population, you’re walking away from an opportunity to have a larger influence than you would by just affecting one demographic.”        

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