Norfolk Academy faculty went right to work on their first day of orientation for the coming school year, discussing ways to best address difficult conversations about race that are going on across our nation.
Since the tragic and horrific death of George Floyd in late May, dialogue has been ongoing about ways to make schools - and our country as a whole - more inclusive. In early June, Headmaster Dennis Manning offered a statement in which he committed to an emphasis on teaching students “the ways they can make a difference as citizens, and their powerful ability to create a just society."
Over the course of the summer, Academy offered books and other reading materials to help families discuss with their children ways to combat racism and discrimination. More than 35 faculty members participated in a three-part online workshop, “Engaging in Diversity, Inclusion and Equity for Organizational Change." And our Pluralism Committee, which involves 27 teachers, issued an array of initiatives being explored and pursued as long-term endeavors as part of the school's current strategic plan.
On August 19, the first day of faculty meetings for 2020-21, teachers participated in a workshop led by Jonathan Zur, President and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, a nonprofit organization. Academy has a longstanding relationship with VCIC, which works with schools, businesses, and communities to achieve success through inclusion.
During the first part of the workshop, Mr. Zur offered overall themes and advice for any teacher who is engaging in difficult conversations. During the second part, faculty in our Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools gathered by division and worked with him through case studies - the types of conversations that might arise over the course of the coming year.
When students feel a sense of belonging, they're more likely to have a more enjoyable experience and find success, Mr. Zur noted, and the way to give students that sense of belonging is to build a foundation of trust.
Any teacher wanting to build that foundation needs to earn respect, Mr. Zur said. That means responding to a student's action or question with a sense of wonder rather than judgment, and recognizing that everyone comes from a different background. That approach opens the door for deeper conversation.
Even teachers who build trust are going to encounter difficult situations, Mr. Zur said. His advice was to go at these moments using four steps: Interrupt, Question, Educate, and Echo.
Interrupt means taking a break on a classroom discussion when sensing someone is uncomfortable. Don't ignore what caused the discomfort, but acknowledge and address. It's OK to not have all the answers in that moment. But ask questions to determine the cause of the discomfort. The responses could lead to an opportunity to educate through a historical lesson.
Taking that approach over and over can create an echo, a culture in which students feel comfortable speaking up. That's going to take time, Mr. Zur said.
Academy faculty offered several thoughts aimed at helping colleagues.
"What does showing respect look like?" Mr. Zur asked the faculty. Listening attentively, verbally acknowledging, and approaching every situation with humility were just some responses.
"What does showing respect sound like?" he inquired. The respected person feels no defensiveness, one teacher said. They feel an invitation to share, another added.
Building on the first workshop, teachers offered examples of productive ways they'd applied the Interrupt-Question-Educate-Echo method during the breakout sessions. An overall takeaway: Those types of conversations will be difficult and at times uncomfortable. But they're also crucial and will be beneficial. For students, our community, and ultimately our society.
On August 21, faculty continued these conversations when they gathered to discuss their summer reading. There is a decades-long school tradition that faculty are assigned a collective “summer read" that will drive professional development at fall faculty meetings. This year's selections were Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., and The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.
Gates's history explores the Civil War and the promise and paradox of Reconstruction, which was methodically dismantled, as the rights that blacks had gained were stripped away; he also explains how the years following Reconstruction affect Americans today. Whitehead's book, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, portrays a “network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War — and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward."
In small groups of less than 10, faculty discussed both what they learned from the books and how their learning could enhance classroom discussions.
It's crucial to continue these discussions once the school year opens, Headmaster Dennis Manning emphasized. He vowed continued development opportunities with the VCIC as “we open ourselves to challenging and courageous conversations."
To learn more about the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, please visit their website.
Please read Mr. Manning's Statement - Creating a Just Society.