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Haywood NAACP hosts diversity training day for educators

A group of Haywood County educators participate in an activity during a recent staff development training offered by the Haywood NAACP Chapter. Jessi Stone photo A group of Haywood County educators participate in an activity during a recent staff development training offered by the Haywood NAACP Chapter. Jessi Stone photo

A new kind of professional development training session hosted by the Haywood County Chapter of the NAACP left local educators with a lot to think about as they return to their classrooms. 

More than 30 Haywood educators met at the Folkmoot Friendship Center on Friday, Nov. 22, to hear from a number of regional experts who presented workshops focused on cultural diversity, implicit bias, nonviolent communication and more. 

Developed by the NAACP chapter’s education committee, the training day offered teachers a deeper look into the issues they are dealing with in the classroom every day that have little to do with testing and curriculum and more to do with creating an open dialogue with students about difficult topics and fostering an inclusive school community. 

Russell Binkley, chair of the education committee, said the NAACP members had heard stories from several parents about issues within the school system and wanted to provide a resource for public school teachers. With help from a teacher education partners grant, the NAACP put together the program. 

“We value you and we know how hard this work is,” he told teachers.

Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte said he was happy that NAACP reached out to him about the new staff development opportunity. He sees it as a great opportunity to take a first step toward being a more united school community. 

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Fight for public education

Before teachers broke out into different sessions, the NAACP presented a keynote speaker, North Carolina’s NAACP President Dr. Rev. Anthony Spearman, to discuss the history of public education in the state. 

Spearman spoke about the importance of our own stories and how they may change over time as some aspects become more important and others fade over time as we change and grow. But changing certain facts about our history or leaving certain things out doesn’t make it any more or less true. 

“And if you go too far down that road, it will make you absolutely crazy. That’s what psychiatry is all about, isn’t it? Telling the story of your past and someone else until you get it right and come to terms with it and accept even its most bitter realities,” he said. “But neither history nor psychiatry is simply about accepting the past, but rather about confronting it and ultimately changing it. And the way you tell the story matters a great deal.”

The same is true for North Carolina’s sordid past when it comes to providing an equal and adequate public education for all students regardless of skin color or socio-economic status. By explaining the past as a series of decisions, mistakes and opportunities lost, Spearman said the future presents a chance to take responsibility for those mistakes and learn from those losses. 

“The fight for public education has always been just that — a fight — and it remains so in a time when conservatives opposed to public education persist in their historical attacks on public schools and public school teachers, and more often than not, what you’ll find fueling the fight is a thing called race,” he said. 

Spearman then rehashed the struggle black southerners have endured in their quest for public education and the right to vote, including North Carolina’s laws in the 1800s making 39 lashes the punishment for teaching slaves to read or write, literacy tests, the grandfather clause and the fact that universal public education was considered a “Negro idea” by white conservatives following emancipation. 

“The wealthy planter class before and after the Civil War believed firmly that to provide schooling to the children of the poor, black or white, violated the divinely ordained dominion of wealth and intelligence,” he said.

Even after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that found racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Spearman said the South evaded the law for another 17 years.

These injustices weren’t that long ago in the grand scheme of history, and the attitudes and repercussions of that suppressive history live on today as North Carolina struggles to keep up with the rest of the nation when it comes to public education. While research has shown that schools with a more diverse population and small class sizes perform better, Spearman said state conservative are still finding ways to segregate student populations through private school voucher programs and community charter schools. 

“The 20 cities with the most segregated public schools are the 20 most economically depressed cities in America,” he said. “Mixed schools along with reduced class size are the only thing that we know works. The school privatization movement continues with the removal of the cap on charter schools, which greatly advanced re-segregation and ever-expanding voter systems and so-called achievement districts and other means of getting public tax dollars into the hands of private corporations.”

Spearman said people must resist pitting diversity against parental responsibility or school excellence because diversity and school excellence go hand in hand. He encouraged people to come together to continue the fight for public education. 

“If we cherish our children, black, white, Asian and Latino, wealthy or otherwise, we cannot turn toward the segregation or move away from diversity and inclusion,” he concluded. 

 

Moving forward

Nolte thanked Spearman for providing a “very painful but accurate history.”

“That’s where we’ve been, that’s what we want to change,” he told teachers. “As a school system and as public school employees, we can’t really act politically, but we have to understand what has happened in our state when we are dealing with people of diversity. Our task now is to go into these sessions and figure out what we can do in our classrooms with our children — not only our children of color but our children with gender orientation issues, our children who look the same but some are wealthy and some are very poor and our growing Hispanic population and the struggles they have.”

Teachers then broke out into different groups to attend the workshops. Dr. Candy Noltensmeyer, a communications professor at Western Carolina University, led a workshop on “Unpacking Implicit Bias.” While explicit bias is hard to miss, implicit biases are the attitudes people hold toward others without conscious knowledge.

Noltensmeyer led the group of teachers through a privilege walk exercise in which all teachers started out in a straight line and answered questions about their upbringing that forced them to move back a step or move forward a step. Questions like “Do work holidays coincide with the religious holidays your family celebrates? Do you like the way your race or ethnic group is portrayed in the media? Did your family have more than 50 books in the house when you were growing up? 

By the end of the exercise, some teachers found themselves at the front of the group while others found themselves at the back of the line. 

“These are questions you might not think about within your family that gave you opportunities or disadvantages,” she said. “You may not consider some of these things privileges but you realize not everyone had the same access growing up.”

Alex Masciarelli, principal at Junaluska Elementary School, said the activity helped the teachers reflect on their own upbringing and realize their normal wasn’t the same as others. When he looked around at where his colleagues were standing at the end, he was surprised at the disparities. Yet, they had all overcome those challenges to become educators. 

“I was surprised some of my peers were raised in challenging situations, but to also look at what they’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “It gives you a little bit of hope — that people, and our students, can come from difficult situations and make them into something positive.” 

Another workshop on Culturally Responsive Teaching expounded on that concept by encouraging teachers not to focus on what a student is lacking, but to focus on what strengths they bring to the table. This “asset vs. deficit” thinking will help teachers not pigeonhole a student just because they’re poor or just because they are raised by a single mom. It seems simple, but sometimes it’s easy to use those deficits as an excuse for gaps in achievement and learning opportunities. 

“So maybe a student’s dad is not involved, but maybe he also has a very committed mother and aunt that are very involved so let’s focus on that as an asset,” Masciarelli said. “It’s about changing the way we look at situations sometimes and coming from the positive instead of the negative.”

Masciarelli said it was definitely one of those days that left teachers with a lot of things to think about and hopefully some new ideas of how to address the growing number of issues that young students today are dealing with at home and at school.

“We look at Haywood County and we think there’s isn’t much diversity because the county is 98 percent white, but we have a lot of socio-economic diversity that impacts our students,” he said. “Will I be able to take things into school tomorrow? Maybe not, but this kind of training helps shape our mindsets and helps us be better teachers in different situations.” 

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