Committed to movement: WCU professors push for diversity in education
Professors at Western Carolina University are tired of just talking about the importance of diversity within the teaching industry and are committed to turning all the talk into meaningful movement forward.
A group of female professors, directors and deans have come together at WCU to implement the Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) program, a national program that aims to increase the number of Black male educators within a region. The program originated at Clemson University and now it’s incorporated into every public institution in South Carolina. Since 2013, it has resulted in a 40 percent increase in the number of Black male teachers in South Carolina public elementary schools. Nine other states utilize the program, and WCU faculty is proud to be the first university in North Carolina to do so.
Kim Winter, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, said there is a nationwide effort to increase workplace diversity and also a statewide effort solidified in 2019 when Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order establishing a task force to develop a representative and inclusive vision for public education.
“I think there’s this sort of a honed-in specific focus on what we want to do here at Western Carolina and the impact that we want to make on the field of education, but also on our region in Western North Carolina,” Winter said. “But also, I think there’s a really great connection to big picture stuff that’s going on all around the country, specifically in our state.”
The task force released a report in January that outlines 10 specific recommendations and calls on legislators, K-12 school systems, educator preparation program directors, etc., to make some changes toward improving diversity.
“All of this stems from this idea that right now there are only two to three educators of color for every 10 students in the state. Those are disparate numbers — that’s easy to see — and we really want to make a difference in that,” Winter said. “We want there to be more teachers of color. We want students to be able to interact with people who may come from the same background as them, who may have the same race or ethnicity. We also want all of our children and our students here at the university to be able to become educated and live and learn in an environment that’s much more diverse than it is in some areas of the state.”
Charmion Rush, assistant professor of Inclusive and Special Education at WCU, said she realized more diversity programs were needed when she was the only person of color within her department and that there weren’t any people of color in the program that was supposed to be inclusive. As a member of WCU’s accreditation committee, Rush said she understands the importance of student and teacher diversity to the university.
“I was very interested about what programs we could implement because I know Western in general is big on inclusive excellence,” she said. “I know that the idea is there, but until now I hadn’t seen action behind it. I dug a little deeper to find out that we have a lot of projects that were already in the mix, but simply again, it hadn’t come to fruition.”
Call Me MISTER
Rush said she was particularly interested in the Call Me MISTER program that targets Black males, because it’s one group that is particularly isolated.
“Not many men of color consider this (education) a profession worth coming into for many reasons,” she said.
When asked why focus on a program specifically for Black males and not all people of color, Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford, an associate professor in the College of Education and Allied Professions Human Services, said Black men are not doing well compared to their peers across the education spectrum.
“If that is suspensions and expulsions, if it is achievement, if it is placement in special education, Black men tend to get the short end of the stick,” she said.
When you start to unpack some of those issues, she said, research shows that part of why this happens is because teachers with different cultural backgrounds can perceive the behaviors of young Black men as aberrant or abnormal.
“But if you have more Black men in those spaces who can look at and interpret those behaviors and see giftedness in a little chatty boy instead of problematic behavior, you would have different outcomes,” Hinnant-Crawford said.
While it is expected that a majority of students will be “minoritized” by 2024, Hinnant-Crawford said it is also expected 80 percent of teachers will still be white women. The effort to increase teachers of color — particularly Black men — can help change the culture of schooling to reflect the changing demographic of students.
So why are there so few teachers of color these days? Hinnant-Crawford said integration had a lot to do with the number of Black teachers in the South. She said teaching was once a profession held in high esteem, especially in the African-American communities. Before Brown v. Board of Education, Black principals were all called professors regardless of whether they had a Ph.D.
“But with integration came the wholesale dismissal of Black teachers and leaders and so those numbers that you had in the field of education never rebounded. Now what we’re trying to do is counteract what happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “To some degree that’s more difficult because growing up when you don’t see teachers who look like you, you don’t say, ‘Oh, well, that’s what I’m going to be.’”
She referred to the theory of self-efficacy coined by psychologist Albert Bandura in 1977, which posits that “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed.”
“There’s a meme going around on Facebook that asks people ‘When did you have your first Black male teacher?’ and people’s answers were either ‘It was in college, or I still haven’t.’ And so that is the reality for the children, not only in this region but throughout the state,” she said. “And so that’s why we have to be intentional with recruiting and showing folks that this is a viable pathway and a viable career choice.”
Winter said it’s equally important for white students to have teachers of color, and the younger they are when they are exposed to diversity in education the better the outcomes when they are older. Seeing people of color in positions of authority when students are young creates what is called a “legacy of competency.”
The Call Me MISTER program will begin this fall with a three- to five-member cohort of students. Eventually, Winter said they’d love to have 20 MISTER fellows at one time, but in the meantime it’s more important to ensure a small cohort that can receive personalized attention and guidance through the program.
“There are many reasons to keep that a little bit smaller in terms of the cohort. Part of that is the experiences we want them to have, the other people that we want to bring in to work with those MISTERS and to mentor them, but also one of the major goals of Call Me MISTER is for them to graduate with as little debt as possible,” she said.
Participants in the program will receive financial support for tuition and fees, a technology package, academic support system, a mentor program for leadership development and personal growth, career support and summer internships.
In return, participants are required to major in elementary, inclusive or middle grade education and satisfy all requirements for admission to the education program. They will reside in the living-learning community cohort for the duration of their undergrad program and will commit to teaching one year at an elementary or middle school for each year they receive program funding.
Funding the program
Supporting the new program will take additional funding, but it’s something WCU will make a priority through budgeting, sponsorships and fundraising.
“What folks have heard me say over and over again is that our commitment means we have to put our money where our mouth is — and that literally of course means that we need to devote resources, time, effort, money, but it also means that we need to take action,” Winter said. “And so that’s really what we’ve been trying to do.”
WCU will use some funding that’s already allocated toward recruiting teachers and will prioritize other allocations already in existence toward this effort. It will also take making proposals for new funding and aligning the university’s goals with the program’s strategic plan.
“If you look at those, we have very specific goals and initiatives tied to inclusive excellence and so that helps us justify use of the money and requesting new money,” Winter said.
She added that Chancellor Kelli Brown was a major proponent of the Call Me MISTER program, which was successful at the university in Georgia where she served before coming to WCU. She said she’s talked to Brown and other leaders about the importance of reviewing processes and policies at WCU that have created barriers to making headway in the past with diversification efforts.
Implementing the program will also draw interest from employers, civic groups and other institutions that have a vested interest in developing a more diverse workforce in the region.
“We’re also talking to corporate partners and others who have a vested interest in having males of color become leaders in our communities,” Winter said.
That effort will include working on raising scholarship funds for the MISTER cohorts, with the goal of being able to award each participant with $3,000 to $5,000 to assist with their education costs. Winter said she feels confident they’ll be able to do that once the fundraising campaign gets going.
Challenges to diversity
Working toward diversity in Western North Carolina can be even more challenging because a vast majority of the population is white. However, there are still ways to incorporate more diversity at every level in the education system, Hinnant-Crawford said.
“There may be some steps you can take even in a region that is predominantly white to get folks of color in the schools. For instance, I live in Waynesville and here in Haywood County, there is not a huge Black population, but there is one that’s here and you could tap into that population,” she said. “Even if they’re not necessarily teachers, you could start by tapping into that population to get volunteers within the classroom.”
Rush added that geography is definitely a challenge in Western North Carolina, and though it would be great to keep these Black teachers in the region, she’s more focused on the bigger picture.
“It would be ideal to keep them here in the region, but it’s not my intent to keep them in this area because this is not just a local problem. This is a national problem. And so I want to contribute to try to fix this problem in general,” she said.
Participants will be committed to teaching for a limited amount of time, but Winter said part of this program will also include working on retention strategies, because it will be important to make sure teachers of color feel welcomed and comfortable teaching in WNC.
“(Participants) will have intensive clinical experiences in all of the schools around Western North Carolina. And so even if someone says, well, I really want to go back to Charlotte or wherever, maybe they’ll have these experiences along the way that enriches them as human beings and as developing teachers and enriches all of our community and our schools in the process,” she said.
If participants want to stay in the region to teach, Rush said she doesn’t think they’ll have a problem finding a position. In talking to the school systems in the region, she said, they are all eager to have more teachers of color on staff. They’ve also partnered with Asheville City Schools to create a memorandum of understanding to offer MISTER participants jobs when they graduate.
“We have a partnership advisory council that includes representatives from many of the school systems in our region, and we were talking about these initiatives. There was incredible interest in hiring people who are diverse to teach, and there is a collective challenge in finding people of color, so I think if we have people who want jobs, they will snatch them up really quickly,” said Patricia Bricker, professor and associate dean for Academic Affairs.
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There appears to be an underlying tone in this article which gives the odorous presence of the latest Communist flavor of the month, Critical Race Theory.