I am a recovering middle school principal. This is the line I use as part of my self introduction in a room of educators/adults. Anyone who is connected to middle schools and middle schoolers understands the joke. However, recently, my first September in a school environment since 2016, my role is very different than that of the lead educator of a middle school. Aside from being a husband and father, it is the best role ever! Middle schoolers and their teachers are playful and inquisitive. They are ever growing – stretching, testing, laughing, crying, growing. I loved my 20+ years as a middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal, and I will forever be the eighth grade boy my wife calls me.
As my professional goals and path have evolved, I have been blessed, so far, to begin a new journey as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at The Shipley School, a predominantly white independent school in Bryn Mawr, PA, with about 35% students of color. The School, as many others, has gone through considerable growing pains with regards to the racial and social justice awakening of the past year-and-a-half. Additionally, the school has seen considerable growth in the LGBTQIA+ community within the School and amongst its alumni.
I am now the third person to fill this role and, coincidentally, all of my predecessors were Black men as well. With my office located in the Lower School, I am excited about opportunities to engage with our youngest learners on a regular basis. One never knows what their unfiltered comments and questions will be. I experienced this in my first visit to Ms. Claire Grillo’s Kindergarten class. After the teacher introduced me, I kneeled at one of the tables to talk to a group of five-year-old students.
That’s when it happened: One student looked at me with very sincere eyes and asked, “What do you do?” I paused. My surprise at the sincerity of the question may have been hidden by my mask. I looked at her and said, “(as the Director of DEI)… my job is to ensure that everyone, students and adults, feel like they belong here.” Though belonging is not a part of my official title, it is one of the more deeply implied expectations for this role.
My answer seemed to satisfy her, because she went on to tell me about being in the same classroom for Pre-K. As I reflected on her question, I became more unsatisfied with the answer I gave this little one. Later, I discussed this with my colleagues and we shared thoughts about making the work of the DEI department easily explainable, but purposeful. We need to be able to discuss the reasons for having such a department with our kindergarten students, as well as with our seniors in the Upper School and beyond.
It comes down to the essence of why diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital to our School’s mission. All too often we see schools and districts hiring Directors of DEI and setting a level of expectations that these people will single-handedly bring about transformative change. While some superheroes may be able to swoop in to save the day, it takes a multifaceted team of educators with a wide array of diverse backgrounds and lived experiences to facilitate that change. It requires the open minds and hearts of all members of the community to embrace the difficult conversations and the growing pains of change. I was once told that the only humans that want change are wet babies, but because we are charged with preparing our students—other people’s children—for a world of work and global interaction that will only become more multicultural and multiethnic as time passes. We must face that change head on.
Being a part of this community, which is willing to go beyond the lip service often given this work, is truly a blessing. The excellent launchpad of the DEI Strategic Plan states to the families and prospective families of our community that the practices, policies, and curricula of the past, a past that often excluded many of the identities that our students and colleagues bring to school each day, is no longer who we are or what we believe. Our understanding of the world has evolved, as well as our understanding of what our young ones need to have the Courage for the Deed; and Grace for the Doing.
We cannot undo the past, but we can decide how to move forward – together. So, my young five-year-old friend, what do I do? I work with all members of our community to ensure that they belong. Such that they have no fear of bringing their authentic selves to work and school each day and this translates into the people being their best social, academic, and pedagogical selves…everyday, for every child.