Where Are The Teachers of Color in NYC Independent Schools?

Like all mothers, I want the best for my kid. I’m one of those parents that decided to sacrifice a lot to send my kid to private school in NYC. To be honest, it’s a serious struggle to do so. I grew up as a mixed kid in Long Island, as the only mixed family in sight, went to predominantly white Catholic school through 8th grade and then onto a public high school that was subconsciously segregated. As much as I wanted to raise my kid amongst nature and having the freedom of riding her bike in the streets with friends, I chose the city life. I never ever envisioned raising a city kid, but my husband is one and more than anything else, I wanted a diverse childhood experience for my daughter. One where she never felt strange being a mixed kid herself. Brooklyn has offered me just that…because I have curated my life to be the multicultural existence I’ve always wanted.

So as one can imagine, here I am purposely living a multicultural life but sending my kid to a predominantly white independent school. Once again, I found myself in conflict with trying to avoid my childhood experience of being one of the only ‘black’ kids in class, but wanting a specific educational experience for my child.  In my mind, education first and so off she goes, first to Montessori – which actually had a student body of predominantly kids of color. Why? Because the school Director was black —actually Afro-Latina. This was a feeder school for some of the brightest 4 year olds of color to get into the private NYC institutions.  The formula worked.

In kindergarten my daughter attended a progressive school, with a hippy vibe. This was my comfort zone. I went to Montessori. I was raised by my a hippy mom singing Peter, Paul and Mary on her acoustic guitar by the campfire.  This is why when I saw the Music Director was an older white gentleman who played the accordion and found joy teaching the kids John Denver’s hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it reminded me of a part of childhood and my brother and I had a good laugh sending our kids there. That music teacher wouldn’t last a second at the public school down the block in Brooklyn.

What I did notice was that there were no black teachers.  It just so happened that my daughter’s bestie in Kindergarten was the Assistant Director’s daughter and so one day I went to her house for a play date. I really liked this Mom.  We were instant friends. Somehow, I’m not sure how I felt so bold, but at her kitchen table I just straight up asked her why there were no black teachers at the school?  She was taken aback.  She started to ramble about how they just could not find black teachers that taught with their progressive philosophy.  At the time, the school found pride in hiring teachers from the prestigious Bank Street College of Education. The conversation ended quickly but left me thinking. Did she actually insinuate that there were no black or brown graduates from Bank Street that were good enough?  This thought lingered in my mind.

I am proud to say, that I believe my question at that kitchen table did spark change. The following year, I noticed a few teachers of color were hired. The next year a few more were teaching.  The following year the diversity of the school was growing as more kids of color were admitted to the school. Steps were taken to enrich the school with diversity and I am proud of the administration for that effort. It is a shame that it does take awareness and effort to diversify the student body and faculty of private institutions. This is not to say the school did not struggle with tackling issues of race within the student body, but in their own way, they are trying.  The intention is there, yet since the founding members of the school are not of color, there is a natural disconnect. That is just how it is.

I will never forget a talk from the inspirational Buddhist Dharma teacher Angel Kyodo Williams. On the issue of lack of diversity in Buddhist communities, she said that if you want diversity, inclusion and multicultural values to be the foundation of any organization or institution, the best way to achieve that is for the founding members to be of color and for those values to be embedded into the organization from the very beginning. It’s really difficult to get an institution with white founders to truly embody the values of people of color. It is just a different lived experience. This insight appeared to be so true.

Photo credit: Jamie Taylor

Fast forward to 7 years later and now I’m sending my child to a new independent school in NYC. I have persuasive skills because somehow I talked my husband, who has pride in his blue collar Brooklyn upbringing, into doing this bougie school move. The student body was surprisingly diverse, the school curriculum looked great, so it was my first choice and thankfully, after all the typical drama that goes into applying to independent schools in NYC, my daughter got accepted.  I was thrilled! On the first day of school when most of the teachers were invited onstage, I didn’t see one black or brown teacher. I notice these things. I was shocked because it was an international school and a diverse student body was important to the school. How did I miss this on the tours?  I did see a black music teacher on the tour, so I just assumed there were others.

I had a few other concerns so I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring this issue up at a morning parent gathering. I didn’t really know the administrators too well since we were new.  Why do I always have to cause trouble? Oh, because I’m my mother’s daughter. She is a highly celebrated international educator so this education stuff is my sweet spot. That morning I introduced myself to one  administrator and somehow, in a nice way, roundabout way, questioned why there were not many teachers of color at the school.  I definitely caught him off guard and he tried so many ways to explain and defend the reality.  In hindsight, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He is such a nice man, who really cares about the school and makes efforts to acknowledge MLK Day and Black History Month, so I know his heart is in the right place.  Sadly he shared with me that he knows it is a problem, but he just can’t find anyone. Why is that, I ask? He mentioned he goes to educational fairs to meet the best candidates and since they are always looking for the best, he chooses those top resumes and when the candidates show up, they are always white. What can he do? 

According to my mother, after 30 years as an educator, this is an old excuse. Is it true that the black and brown minorities just don’t have the top resumes?  Are there no teachers of color that teach progressive education and have graduated from Bank Street?

Another reason I heard was that there are assumptions that teachers of color don’t stay at private schools too long because there are not enough of them to feel comfortable, so they leave. Since retention is vital for the school, this potential issue is a problem.  After the conversation, the administrator mentioned how nicely I brought up this difficult topic. I did suggest hiring a Diversity Coordinator and we smiled and parted ways. Only time will tell if changes will be implemented. But the good news is that some parents formed a group to bring together parents of color in the school, and open dialogue on some issues we would like to discuss with administration. The first meeting was a very positive exchange of ideas, so I’m feeling hopeful. That same mom that spearheaded this POC group is getting one of the administrators to actively seek out diverse candidates for teaching positions next year.  All good stepping stones. It is such a shame us parents have to make a fuss, when in my mind it should be obvious…if you care about the diversity of the student body, you should care about the faculty. The school currently has a number of Asian teachers and a substantial Asian student body, so this appears to have a slightly better racial balance for the Asian population.  One of the Asian teachers who came to our POC meeting understood exactly what the parents’ concerns were and mentioned he would advocate for some of the groups requests. That was cool to hear.

My question is this… Why did I have to have these conversations at two different independent schools? Did no one else notice? Were others afraid to speak up and inquire? Is this the case in many schools? Why is it ok to just not bother hiring black and brown teachers of color?  From my understanding, this is the case in many public & private schools. From suburbs to cities, students would benefit from having a highly educated, diversified staff.

The kids of color can be enriched by seeing smart teachers that resemble themselves in positions of power. All children can have a different perspective on race & culture if they have teachers of color they can look up to & learn from. It disturbs me deeply that in America we live in a world where the color of your skin is forever front and center. But it is and so to bridge the divide conversations need to be had.  My friend’s son, who is black, told his mother a white kid in his class asked the teacher during Black History Month why he has to learn about stupid Black History Month and that he was just sick of it and walked out of class. The teacher said nothing. This was a lost opportunity for a teachable moment for the class. I bet if the teacher was black a) the kid may not have said anything, but b) the class would learn a lot about why those history lessons are important. 

When I thought about it, I realized that I only had one teacher of color in my entire educational experience until college…my high school typing teacher.  Today I desire a change for all kids who could be having that similar experience.  They miss out on so much without the black and brown voice.  Here is to hoping for positive change for smart, qualified teachers of color to apply and get hired by these independent institutions and public as well. May all the kids benefit from a new diverse group of positive role models heading up the classroom.

Which part of this topic means the most to you, and why? Leave a comment on the blog and let me know.

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