Seema Meloni, one of the NEF’s co-presidents, recently spoke with Christopher Dancy, 6th grade science teacher at High Rock School, about his experience completing Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program – professional development funded through an NEF grant. Here are some of the highlights from their conversation:
Q: For those unfamiliar with Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program, could you please briefly explain the goals of the program and why you felt so compelled to enroll in the courses?
A: This certificate program represents a proactive response in addressing some of the inequities and tensions around xenophobia, homophobia, and racism that have been identified within NPS. While there has been a strong administrative response to these problems, NPS needs staff who have DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) expertise grounded in best practices and not solely personal experience. While Cornell’s D&I program in itself is not a solution to these problems, the completion of this certificate program represents a great first step in gaining expertise in a field that is so necessary to the health of Needham Public Schools. I’m thrilled to have completed it and am proud to identify myself as a professional who is skilled in the pedagogy of the DEI space.
Q: How does DEI work best?
A: I am proud to have partnered with the NEF in order to further conversations regarding equity within the district. In the public schools, DEI work is implemented with the youngest of minds in moments of the day which are not publicized, visible, or recorded. DEI work happens in private and small group conversations, teachable moments, and as direct responses to student questions. DEI work is most successful when there is mutual trust, mutual respect, and engagement in the process. The true value of this grant is not based on quantitative outcomes, but instead its value is a lasting investment in the culture of the classroom and the larger school community. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Q: How can we address current events through a DEI lens?
A: What’s particularly interesting about the completion and implementation of this grant, is the timing. The first six months of 2020 have proven to be historically unprecedented. During this time the world has been gripped by pandemic, remote teaching and learning over Zoom has become a reality, while our fellow Americans protest as a response to racism and the murder of George Floyd.
Still, as teachers, we’ve continued to teach daily in this new remote paradigm.
Through a DEI lens, the themes of equity, access, healthcare, employment, family dynamics, as well as school-based support structures for our most fragile students (ELL, Needham students of color, LGBTIAQ+) have all been highlighted during this time in the most personal and profound of ways.
While I have always engaged headfirst into conversations associated with the DEI space, I left Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion program with a more honed set of skills, especially in the areas of engagement and inclusion. For some of my students, there was rage and fear as they grasped for understanding about the reasons why George Floyd was murdered. For others, there were questions about why neighbors, classmates, and the public were supporting BLM in the streets. For a few, we engaged in developmentally appropriate conversations regarding how their own opinions and beliefs were contrary to an inclusive culture.
Q: Now that you have completed this Certificate Program, what’s next?
A: As we look ahead towards the last half of 2020, our tasks ahead do not look any easier. A few of our considerations are: DESE’s recommendations for schools reopening in the fall, surging cases of COVID-19 across the country, continued BLM protests in response to police brutality, and what will prove to be a very divisive Presidential election. This year, more than ever, we will need DEI-trained teachers in order to develop culturally responsive classrooms. I am up to the challenge and am grateful for the opportunity to be a more effective partner in service of our students.