Why I Stay: And What Independent Schools Can Do to Attract and Keep Other Teachers and Administrators of Color
DURING THE 1992 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL, CONVENTION, Ronald Reagan gave a kind of farewell speech to the nation in which he endorsed the re-election of George H.W. Bush over that of the governor from Arkansas who would become president later that year. In his address, Reagan rolled out the nostalgia of what America was and what it could be under a second Bush administration, which would keep the wheels churning from the previous 12 years of Republican leadership. There wasn’t a whole lot of self-reflection in Reagan’s speech, but a great deal of rhetoric about our bright future and who should take us to it.
Sitting upfront at the convention, rocking back and forth and listening intently to the former president, was an older African-American man, shown that evening on televisions throughout the nation and the world. Watching him, I thought, “When they talk about these few black folks who are a part of the rich ruling elite, which translates to ‘Republican’ in certain circles, then certainly they must mean old negroes like him.” My assumptions were kicking into high gear the more they showed the old man. He was one of the very few African-American people at that time who would have been (literally) captured on television, or anywhere else for that matter, espousing the beliefs of a party that supposedly represented the dominant culture, minus the agenda of supporting the working class, the poor, the immigrant, and, of course, people of color.
It turns out that man I saw on television at the 1992 Republican Convention was, to my surprise, Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. Of course, I didn’t learn that until much later, while in Mississippi doing a research project on my family and other black people who made the trip north to Chicago during the African-American migration of the early 20th century.
About five years ago, after reading Charles Evers’ book, Have No Fear, I had the opportunity to interview him and ask him why he was at that Republican convention and why he agreed to accept such a visible role, angering many other African Americans, after supporting Democrats most of his life, even campaigning for Bobby Kennedy when he ran for president in 1968.
Charles Evers said simply, “I became a Republican because there weren’t no black folks there. Wherever there’s that kind of money and power around and there ain’t no black folks, then somebody [African American] has got to step up so that we won’t be forgotten.”
Evers’ comments made me think of my own sojourn in independent schools — in essence, why I came and why I stay. But, first, I need to point out that I did not come seeking a career in independent schools; it came seeking me, like so many other teachers of color.
Back in the spring of 1990, I was a moderately successful television actor, trying to establish a film career in the wilds of Southern California. While the work on TV began to trickle in, I had mounting debt and an increasing feeling of unease from a business that saw my skin tone, body type, and youthful looks, but little else. At the time, I was 27, playing parts that were a full ten years younger. The African-American and Hispanic gangs began making their presence known in Hollywood both on and off camera. I was living just two blocks from Mann’s Chinese Theater, while the 23rd Street Gang, which was predominantly Latino, moved into the drug and skin trade. For decades, Hollywood was considered off-limits to the gangs, because they all needed a place to go on the weekends to cruise with their homeys and girls without fear of reprisals. The political landscape of the Rodney King incident, and its aftermath, changed all of that.
The moguls in Hollywood began to see a new trend to exploit and I was in the middle of it. One of my last major television jobs was on a series called Mancuso, FBI where I played a 17-year-old misguided gang member who witnesses the murder of an FBI agent. Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, my character turns on his gang brothers because they rough up his neighborhood do-gooder of a mother, played by the well-known gender-bender Shakespearean actress Fran Bennett. Tired of the roles that became increasingly more and more stereotypical with each audition, I took off for a year to teach at an all-girls independent school. The school’s old Los Angeles connection and supposed blue-blood lineage held an attraction for me. First of all, I could earn money without having to make Boys N the Hood III or any other gang endorsements hyped as entertainment, and I could hide out a bit, waiting patiently for my time to re-enter the showbusiness fray. I had been supporting myself as an actor between gigs by substitute teaching anyway, so the school idea was not all that farfetched as it may have seemed to me, or a prospective employer looking for an experienced teacher.
Even before the girls’ school, I began working as a sub in the private and independent-school world all over Los Angeles. LA takes a great deal of patience to navigate no matter what profession you’re in. Although I was subbing quite a bit, I had no desire to teach full-time, even though I made my living before coming to LA as a teacher on the set of The Cosby Show and at a school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for kids with SED (serious emotional disturbances). Yet, the draw became more and more intense because the schools, especially the independent variety, were looking for diversity then, as many of them are now; though many of the schools were not widely using that term “diversity” as an employment tool, at least not in the West.
At the girls’ school, I filled in for a young teacher whose dad was dying of cancer, and I felt as if I were getting the Faustian bargain from the very beginning. The English department chair called me into his office and said, “Hey, what would you think about working here for a year. We have a teacher taking a year off. We’d love for you to consider applying.” Granted, I was not an English major in college. Indeed, I majored in American History. Yet, subbing for the young teacher went rather well during my week of standing in, and I made a strong connection with the seventh-grade girls who were later to become my charges. The school had just hired an energetic young head who would also arrive in the fall.
Man, oh man, was I green. I certainly had the people skills, but not much knowledge about what it took to teach. The only concern that the school had was if I could teach writing. They sent me to one of the Writing Projects at UCLA and gave me a good mentor, Joe Coulson, who remains one of my best friends to this day. Still, I was very new and not all that skilled at recognizing the social engineering that independent schools partake in to have folks of color — students and teachers — as members of their community. My only saving grace was that young teacher for whom I filled in and from whom I begged, borrowed, and stole lessons to get me through my first year.
During the initial interview for the job, I “performed” my sample lesson and had a talk with the outgoing headmaster who gave me his equivalent to the “Plastics” speech from The Graduate. He said something like, “They're not many folks like you in independent schools. You could really make a name for yourself in the independent-school world.”
At that time I thought, “Right. I have no intention of ever working for a school like this” — meaning all-girl, privileged, and white. If I were to agree to work at such a school, it would have to be for only a very short time.
Of course, I was wrong. I ended up working for two years at the school during some very difficult times: Rodney King and the LA Uprisings. As most teachers of color would probably tell you about their own reasons for sticking it out in an independent school, I stayed for the kids. Those young women of color had no role models and not much hope of seeing more than a couple of teachers of color during their time in middle or high school. And I’ve stayed in independent schools ever since because I’ve come to learn that they are tough places for kids of color to navigate without mentors. I’ve stayed in independent schools because I’ve come to learn that the mentors of color also need mentoring. I have also stayed in independent schools because, like Charles Evers, I’ve come to believe that the seats of power must not overlook their mission of educating all children to function in a world that may be quite different than their own world. I’ve stayed with independent schools because I know that one person can disabuse a whole lot of limited thinking, and stimulate careful consideration of previously unexamined behavior.
I must admit that white children, and others of European ancestry, also need the kind of exposure to positive images of African Americans to act as an antidote to the images they find on television, in the movies, and images foisted upon us by rap music. After all, if I wanted to solely educate children of color, I could have gone back to the kind of public school that nurtured me well during elementary, middle, and high schools, propelling my work far beyond the boundaries of my hometown of Harvey, Illinois. Indeed, the real education of all independent-school students begins by shattering the illusions predicated on old paradigms of white superiority, pulling children beyond the bucolic countryside, mossy berms, opaque hedges, or high fences that many of our schools find protection behind, pulling students and teachers into a world that has become increasingly more complex even before September of 2001.
I also stay in independent schools for reasons that reach beyond race. I stay to work with gifted and bright students of all stripes whose company I often enjoy and who sometimes find independent schools a bit much during their tenure, too. I stay because of the academic freedom independent-school teaching avails me in the classroom and beyond via professional development opportunities. I also stay because I harbor some secret wish to correct the disparities between public and private education, and even to address the inherent inadequacies of using test scores as an implicit measure of a person’s worth.
But primarily, I stay in independent schools for students of color like Jennifer Miller, who went against many of the trends established by her peers by going to Spelman, a historically African-American college for woman, to become a physician in the San Francisco Bay Area; and for Carla Andrews, who now works at Northfield Mount Hermon School as the associate director for faculty recruitment; and for Taj Wilson, who enrolled at Yale nearly 20 years to the day after I started college life there, having much more comfort and success as a student than I could have ever dreamed of.
I teach in independent schools primarily because of those students of color, many of whom toil in places that were not designed with them in mind, that do not always affirm who they are in the day-to-day, and that, at times, can negate their very existences.
In many ways, independent schools see students of color just like Hollywood sees its actors of color, like an ice cream parlor’s flavor of the day that can be replaced by more exotic tastes later on.
Don’t get me wrong, I can envision independent schools in the future being places that can learn to care for students of color as they sometimes care for its students in the dominant culture. To be sure, the issues are complex. At its core, the very idea of so-called elite and independent schools must be called into question. Every three to six years, schools examine many of these issues at accreditation time, and the song is always the same: address curriculum and hire more educators of color.
Hiring a person of color, in many schools, can often take on the flavor-of-the-day scenario that exists for students of color, as well. In an era in which American institutions talk about the importance of diversity, many schools are anxious to hire African Americans and other teachers of color. But for some of these schools, it’s more about surface perception than deep pedagogical change. Yes, there are a number of schools and many white educators who possess true vision and foresight, who carry with them a history of equity and diversity, but the pitiful fact remains that working at some independent schools that offer the gloss of change, with their checkered histories of exclusion and out-and-out bigotry, usually means maintaining the status quo. Something exists in the very system, taking on a life of its own, like those old odd restrictive covenants in certain neighborhoods throughout all parts of the United States that just can’t be expunged with Wite-Out or token hires. Look at the controversy last year at Yale, with its history of slaveholding sympathies, naming its residential colleges after some prominent slave (up)holders — and this at a school with a fairly diverse student body and faculty!
Independent schools need to examine the degree to which, and the ways in which, they promote the privilege of the dominant culture. Mission and philosophy statements need to be examined every few years to unearth the embedded assumptions underneath. Via workshops and training, schools have addressed some issues that look at the very existence of white privilege and what it means to be truly equitable and fair. Schools must do this work that involves fairness, where everyone gets what they need, rather than trying to assuage the haves all of the time. Looking at privilege and outdated assumptions, along with good hiring, can enhance the fabric of school culture and get at some of the systemic changes that need to occur now.
For both academic and moral reasons, independent schools can and should hire as many folks of color at all levels — not just teachers, but heads, principals, development directors, admissions folks, and coaches — to reflect the racial make-up of the United States, if not the local community. The problem is that most independent schools want to hire folks of color who have a background in those schools. Great! However, schools are competing with other institutions, not just other independent schools, but corporations, law firms, and the like, all who want to do the same — in a teacher shortage!
Most of those independent-school hiring committees know that wooing talented people from public schools who have not had any experience in independent schools is a difficult proposition. Plain and simple, good teachers of color hired out of public schools, often leave independent schools shortly after they arrive. It may be about the lack of money, compared to their public-school counterparts, or the unspoken rules and traditions that exist within most independent schools, but people who have spent any significant time within public-school systems find the independent-school world frustrating and, at times, racist.
Teachers of color hired out of public schools generally don’t like the informality, the liberal rhetoric, or the damage that some (not all) independent schools seem to do to kids of color. Take a look at Lisa Delpit’s book Other People’s Children and you’ll have some idea of the schism between Euro-centered independent schools and the students from without their core constituencies that they try to serve, as well as the divide between the schools and the teachers of color.
Changing the culture of schools intentionally — instead of maintaining the status quo, or worse, letting just a few in who understand the well-intentioned machinations of independent schools — is the only thing to do to stop the revolving door of teachers of color, to ameliorate the educational experiences of a mass of disaffected students of color, and to assuage the (sometimes) hostile parents of color, who generally begin their journey with great hope seasoned with a healthy dollop of skepticism. An administrator of color I know well emphatically says that it is the curriculum that needs to change. I respectfully disagree. It’s true that a student’s experience must be reflected in the material and pedagogical approach of the institution. But that isn’t where we start. The face of the place needs to change with great thought and care. If we people independent schools differently, the hoped-for changes — including curriculum changes — will come.
Let those new people be a part of redefining and refining a school’s culture, so that they can, as consultant Enid Lee suggests, take off their racist wallpaper in place of something that all people can accept and create. Otherwise, schools remain divisive places where only the people who talk, look, or act the same survive and thrive. Also, empower teachers of color to be change agents at schools (i.e., run assemblies, sit on hiring committees, impact whole-school curricular decisions, work with kids and colleagues when their fears kick in), and schools will not only retain the best of their precious histories, but they will also evolve into educational communities where all people will want to gather. What Dr. Martin Luther King gave to the American people — which is what all change agents give to their adopted homes — was a sense of history wrapped up in symbols of what we all could be.
Likewise, teachers of color in independent schools, if nurtured along and thrust into positions as alchemists, rather than magicians’ apprentices, could radically alter the vitality of those schools and their community while proffering a new vision of education — a vision that sees the part and the whole, a vision that supports conflict and collegiality, and a vision that places students and teachers, rather than money and buildings, in the center of the process.
Finally, independent schools must examine themselves closely, with a critical eye towards change and why change matters, so that all people can benefit.
Like Charles Evers at the 1992 Republican National Convention, people of color certainly must be in evidence throughout independent schools to make the power structure see us in our different guises while we speak the truth to that power. However, the real gut-wrenching, soul-searching work must be done by those in the position of authority, and throughout the independent-school community in general, who accept the proposition that in order for cultures to change, climates must change. Rarely do white folks get together to talk about what it is to be white with candor and without guilt. It is even rarer that white people talk about being white openly and how that impacts others. My challenge to schools that want to change their cultures is to do that self-reflection and know that only good things can come of it in the end.
(Note: The following piece was first published in Independent School Magazine in 2003.)