One teacher speaks out on Boston Public Schools’ lack of diversity

Emmanuel Fairley prepares a sign for his classroom at the Grew School in Hyde Park.
Emmanuel Fairley prepares a sign for his classroom at the Grew School in Hyde Park. –Photo by Guru Amar Khalsa

Emmanuel Fairley sat in an empty classroom and looked at a list of 20-something names that he’ll soon come to associate with faces, hopes and dreams. But in the hours before school started, looking at the list made him a little nervous. Fairley wants his students to be able to see themselves in him.

A new third-grade teacher at Grew Elementary School in Hyde Park, Fairley is one of about 4,400 teachers in the Boston Public School system. Unlike many of his fellow teachers, Fairley is black.

The Boston Public School system has come under fire in recent years for its lack of diversity. Decades ago, a U.S. District judge required that at least 25 percent of the district’s overall teaching force be comprised of black teachers, and 10 percent of teachers from other minority backgrounds, so the schools’ staff would better reflect the student population.

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Eighty-seven percent of students in the Boston public schools system are not white. The district meets the federal requirements for Hispanic and Asian teachers, but falls short of the black teacher requirement, according to state data first reported by The Boston Globe. Last year, 22.7 percent of teachers were black, which failed to meet the minimum requirement of 25 percent.

To further complicate matters, the district can’t keep racially diverse teachers on staff. Because most of them were hired after Garrity’s mandate, they’re retiring at a rate faster than they can be replaced. Last year, 73 percent more black teachers left Boston schools than could be replaced with external hires, according to the district. And the high levels of retirement are only expected to continue.

Fairley said he’s heard a lot of rumblings about the lack of diversity, but hasn’t witnessed it firsthand. That’s partly because he’s new to the district, and also because he’s coming from the Boston Teacher Residency, which is a one-year AmeriCorps program known for recruiting people from diverse backgrounds.

But, as Fairley is quick to point out, diversity is more than skin color. In his teacher residency program, he was in class with a woman who had three kids, as well as people from nearly every geographic area of the country.

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“Difference is not just, ‘I’m black and you’re white,’’’ he said. “It’s ‘I woke up this morning and didn’t have my coffee and don’t feel like having this conversation, but I know I have to.’ It’s minute differences in our days and in our lives.’’

Emmanuel Fairley colors in a sign for his classroom. —Photo by Guru Amar Khalsa

Even though he now finds himself in front of a classroom full of third graders, and though he spent two years as part of Orlando’s City Year, an education nonprofit founded in Boston, Fairley didn’t always want to be a teacher.

He joined City Year after college while he was figuring out what he wanted to do next. The classroom Fairley worked in when he was in Orlando didn’t remind him of the classrooms he attended growing up. He remembered his own teachers as passionate and energetic. But the teachers around him were tired. They seemed jaded.

He decided he would become a teacher to investigate why so many educators burned out quickly. Part of the problem, he said, is that teaching is misunderstood.

People often crack jokes when they find out he’s an elementary school teacher, calling him a “glorified babysitter.’’ He said it’s going to take a while for society to overcome this stereotype, and that recruiting more teachers isn’t a matter of a change in salary, but a change in attitude. The profession, he says with a laugh, needs more naive people like himself.

That’s why he has embraced the stereotype, saying multiple times while setting up his classroom that he only became a teacher so he could color all day. But there are signs of why he became a teacher scattered all over his classroom.

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As Fairley traces polka dots onto a handmade sign that spells out “Ubuntu,’’ a South African philosophy that roughly translates to “human kindness,’’ he nods toward other posters that his students will look at every day. On the door, he’s already hung up a sign that says, “we are all learners,’’ while another sign reminds students to “always share.’’

“Ubuntu: I’m a person through other people, my humanity is tied to yours,’’ he says after coloring a polka dot on the sign. “That has always resonated with me. That’s the reaction I want my students to have when they think about learning in the classroom. And they’re not just walking away with I can count, I can multiply, they also feel a sense of worth.’’

It’s Emmanuel Fairley’s first year as a teacher at the Grew school. —Photo by Guru Amar Khalsa

To Fairley, the best way to embrace diversity and difference is to talk openly about it. It’s a conversation that happens with students, parents, teachers and administrators and starts before school even begins.

As he scans the class list, he whispers the names of his students out loud. He then dials the first phone number. It starts ringing. He takes a deep breath.

“I’m nervous,’’ he says, moving the phone away from his mouth. There’s a click as the receiver is picked up.

“Hi, this is Mr. Fairley,’’ he says to the parent on the other end. “I’m going to be your daughter’s third grade teacher. I’m really excited for this year.’’

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