GUILFORD — In recent interviews for the district’s diversity and equity initiative, Guilford teachers asked for a clear indication from the administration that they will be supported when they engage with controversial topics in the classroom.
Minority students interviewed for the initiative voiced concerns that teacher hesitation at times leaves them in a position of having to confront peers or teachers themselves.
These findings were outlined by Dr. Don Siler, a professor of education at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, in a recent report to the district’s curriculum committee.
Siler also recommended that the district hire additional minority teachers, including equity in the classroom as part of teacher evaluations, and for the district to reach out to families of Black and Latino students.
Guilford schools asked Siler to conduct a “curriculum audit,” in September 2020, working with the district’s English and Social Studies teachers in grades 5-12 to review and reflect on the curriculum and how they teach it.
Siler’s report found that the foundation of the curriculum was sound, but that interviews with teachers, instructors and self-identified minority students led him to make several recommendations for ways that the district could improve.
Siler said that most teachers in Guilford are “eager” to bring more diverse perspectives into the classroom, and are already bringing in a greater variety of material. He also said that students expressed a “consistent” love for the school district — an uncommon response, in his experience.
But Siler said that while Guilford teachers wanted to include more cultural diversity into the classroom, many were worried that they were “doing it wrong.” He said that they needed more assurance that the administration would support them if they tried to experiment with various ways of bringing diversity into the classroom.
“They want to know that it is okay to try things. They just want to know that they are not going to get in trouble,” said Siler.
Siler said that the hesitancy of the teachers to engage fully in discussions on difficult topics sometimes left the students feeling frustrated and as though the subject matter had been “sanitized” before it was taught to them.
“They don’t want to have a conversation about the Holocaust that stops at ‘something bad happened, and then America won the war,” said Siler. “They want to hear and see and know what happened in clear terms. And they want to be respected. That was clear.”
Board of Education Chair Kathleen Balestracci said that the district should not underestimate students’ ability to confront difficult issues.
“I’ve been concerned all along that we are not giving our students credit for their ability to engage in thoughtful discussion around sometimes challenging topics,” said Balestracci.
At times, Siler said, teacher hesitancy to address a controversial topic may also place more pressure on minority students. For example, if a teacher tries to take a neutral position on racial slurs, it can fall on the Black students to tell their peers not to say the offending word.
Siler also said that students expressed frustration at the administration’s perceived lack of response when other students use racial slurs. He said that while he understands the district’s need to keep student discipline private, it can appear as though there aren’t any consequences for student behavior.
Siler recommended that the district create a clear policy behind goals for diversity and equity, something that Superintendent Paul Freeman agreed would be important to have codified.
Freeman said the administration needed to talk more with teachers about how to move forward with the initiative.
“It also means going into the buildings and sitting with teachers … and asking the question ‘ What more do you need to feel more supported,’ rather than us deciding and just putting something in place,” said Freeman.
Freeman said that he would discuss the report’s recommendations further at one of the board’s future workshop meetings.
Board members also said they wanted to find ways to bring the report into discussion with the larger community.
“How do we as a community better understand that this isn’t about ‘we’re right and you’re wrong?’” asked board member Moira Rader.
Board member Richard Hersch said the board needed to address the importance of transparency, part of a larger debate that led up to the November election. He said the report could open up doors for board members to speak with the community at various venues.
“To me, this is the beginning of an opportunity for a community conversation,” said Hersch. “This, to me, is a beautiful baseline, a foundation on which to start, as opposed to people coming in on the second act.”